Champagne is the king of wine and the wine of kings. That’s meant quite literally: Wine from the region was used to usher in French kings for 600 years, making it a drink of prestige and celebration. But the Champagne that we know today — fiercely bubbling and smelling of brioche — was once considered flawed wine.
Until the 1600s, the wine coming out of this northeastern region was still and red. “And I don’t mean a saturated red — it was more like a semi-red because it was so far north,” Lisa Airey, French wine scholar, certified wine educator, and education director of the Wine Scholar Guild, says. Champagne (located between 49 and 49.5 degrees north latitude) lies just a hair south of the latitude at which it becomes too cold for grapes to ripen. Yet the region tried to compete with the structured reds of sunnier Bourgogne to the south.
“Even up until 1850, 66 percent of production was red and still,” Airey says. “So we are looking at sparkling Champagne originating in the 1600s — kind of by accident — and being considered a faulted product.”
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Without an understanding of yeast — Louis Pasteur confirmed its primary function in alcoholic fermentation in 1857 — cellars were a dangerous place to be. Pressure building in the bottles caused them to explode often, sending shards of glass and alcohol flying. People lost fingers, eyes, and even died tending the cellars. Cellar workers repurposed fencing masks into protective gear to keep them safe from the inevitable explosions. In other words, 17th-century cellar workers and winemakers did not want bubbles in their wine.
It was the English who helped Champagne embrace its spark. In the 17th century, Champagne was regularly shipped to England in old barrels to be bottled later. When the barrels left cold Champagne, the yeast was dormant. By the time the shipment arrived in warmer England, it would start waking up. It just so happened that the English had stronger glass that could withstand the pressure of the carbonation.
This was by coincidence at first: An admiral in the Royal Navy, Sir Robert Mansell, persuaded the King to reserve timber for the building of ships and forbid glassblowers from using it in their furnaces. This prompted a shift to coal-fired furnaces that led to stronger, darker glass that ended the terrible problem of exploding bottles.
Still, without a proper understanding of what was causing the wine to sparkle, much of the yeast was fermenting dry before winter, resulting in completely still wines come spring. At this point, the English market was angling to figure out how to prise de mousse, the French term for “seizing of the foam” used to describe secondary fermentation. Detailed in Tom Stevenson’s 2012 World of Fine Wine article, “On Merret: The Original English Method,” was that the carbonated wine tasted sweeter than the still wine. Without knowing that yeast required more sugar to create CO2, English winemakers intuitively added sugar to their wine. And they got what they wanted: a little extra sparkle.