French Wines: Champagne and Sparkling

Evidence of vines in the Champagne region and the reputation for the quality wines produced there exists since Roman times. Pliny mentions the excellent wines of Ay in his book written in the first century. In northern Europe, their wines were better known than those of Burgundy prior to the 1800s. The coronation of Clovis as the King of France put Reims and the wines of the region on the map, and later coronations after the Middle Ages just added to the validity of Champagne as the wine of Kings.

Champagne's name comes from the word for fields in French. One of the reasons Champagne's sparkling wines are different is because of the unique soil. It is a specific kind of chalk made from sedimentary shellfish shells; this gives the Champagnes their mineral complexity and texture. In some spots, the chalk is 200 meters deep, and the farther the vine's roots go into this chalk, the more minerals they carry to the vines. Another difference is that the average vineyard temperature is 66 degrees in the summer: this yields wines of a potential alcohol of 10 degrees. This is not usually enough alcohol to make a wine stable enough to ship or age, but creating the bubbles adds an additional 2% alcohol to the wine. The twelve percent alcohol and the inherent high acidity contribute to the longevity of the Champagnes. It is a situation where the Champenoise created a sparkling wine that was actually better than the original still wine.

During the Middle Ages, the monks made serious contributions to the vineyard practices and wine making. During the 1700's the one of the monks of the region, Dom Perignon improved many vineyard and winery practices. He had the foresight to blend wines from different vineyards to make a cuvee that tastes better than some of the individual sites. Many believe that he is responsible for the bubbles, but they are basically the result of the fermentation slowing down for the winter and then re-starting in the spring. The wine, when dispensed out of the barrel, had a sparkling character to it that appealed to many. Champagne in bottles with corks did not happen until the early 1800s, as the glass bottle was first put to commercial use in the late 1700s in London, and the manufacture of glass that could withstand the pressure were not viable until the mid-1800s.