This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by J Vineyards & Winery, makers of award-winning sparkling wine. J is so excited about sparkling wine, they have a dedicated J bubble room. Even the chandelier has amazing glass bottles and that’s impressive. But just wait until you taste sparkling wine with chef-curated cuisine. To reserve your tasting adventure in Healdsburg, Calif., visit JWine.com. Or to order J Sparkling Wine and other wine from this podcast, follow the link in the episode description to TheBarrelRoom.com.
On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers explores the history of sparkling wine. While the details of sparkling wine’s history are murky, there is some sense of evolution in the production of Champagne, Cava, Franciacorta and more across several centuries. Tune in to learn more in this final part of the “Wine 101” sparkling wine series.
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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers and if “GORP” means good ‘ole raisin and peanuts, what happens when you put M&Ms in the mix? GORPMM?
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. Here in this episode, we will talk about the history of sparkling wine. What? That’s crazy. It’s just crazy. Sparkling wine history is just…
OK, wine lovers. Let’s get weird. Well, actually, what I’m trying to say is, let’s talk about sparkling wine and the history of it. Just saying “the history of sparkling wine,” just saying that out loud, gives me a little bit of agita. Unless we have documentation about things, everything else is just kind of hearsay. And out of the murkiness of history, myths arise. Am I right?
One of the murkiest histories in wine is sparkling wine, because there are a lot of tales or stories that involve sparkling wine, whether it’s down in the little town of Limoux or whether it’s up in the northern part of France, in the region of Champagne, where there is a famous monk named Dom Pérignon who did some things. The legend says he was blind. The legend says he created Champagne. The legend says that he was yelling when he invented it, “Come with me. I’m drinking the stars.” A lot of this is wrapped up in myth and fiction. When we tell the Champagne story — we’ll definitely get into that — he had some real-life stuff that we’ll get into. But before Champagne, as we’ve talked about in these past episodes, sparkling wine has been around for quite some time. So I did some digging, and I found some pretty cool things that I think tie into the history of sparkling wine. So this is going to be my approach to the history of sparkling wine. Well, let’s get into it. This is Keith’s history of sparkling wine — fun!
Throughout these episodes, I’ve mentioned that a lot of sparkling wine activity was really around the 19th century. But I also mentioned that there is documentation of sparkling wine being made all the way back to probably the 15th or 16th century. And if that’s the case, the glass that is able to contain sparkling wine doesn’t really come around until after that. So how is it that sparkling wine was around before the glass was created to actually house the sparkling wine? Well, this is the thing. When we’ve talked about Champagne versus other sparkling wines across Europe — France and then also Europe, excluding Franciacorta because that was in the 1950s — one thing that’s constant throughout all the sparkling wines that are not Champagne, Cava, or Franciacorta and probably some others, is the atmosphere of pressure. A full sparkling wine — Champagne, Franciacorta, Cava — is usually about four to six atmospheres of pressure. Every other sparkling wine outside of Champagne, we talked about the Crémants of France in the last episode, those are often going to be between two and three atmospheres of pressure. So it’s not a lot of pressure compared to Champagne and other sparkling wines. That shows me that there was wine being bubbled by nature for quite some time. And because the atmospheric pressure wasn’t that intense, people were able to sip bubbly wine.
But before Champagne happened, which became a very intense focus on this particular style of winemaking, the majority of wines being made in France that were bubbly were called musso and then eventually Crémant. It’s because of that low atmospheric pressure. There’s an episode that I have about sparkling wine, but just give a little recap here. What would happen back in the day is they would still make wine, and then — because of lack of modern technology and understanding — they would put these winds down into a cool cellar. Winter would come and then spring would happen and that cellar would warm up to a certain temperature. I mean, it wouldn’t warm up completely, but enough so that the yeast inside the bottles would wake up again, continue to eat the sugar, create carbon dioxide, create bubbles, create pressure. Boom goes the bottles. But actually, boom doesn’t go to all the bottles. Because if you’re making wine in this way, just kind of letting the fermentation happen, there’s a chance that the atmosphere is not going to be as intense. You’re going to save the bottles that have not blown up, and then you’re going to concentrate on those and what went right.
I think that’s how sparkling wine evolved over time until the Champagne thing happened. What I mean about that is just that there is a ton of innovation that happened in Champagne due to the realization that sparkling wine was their future. So there’s been sparkling wine for a long time all over the world. It’s nature, so it’s ancient. Yet it was harnessed by humans who eventually turned it into something different. But none of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the glass bottles that the bubbly wine goes into. The atmospheric pressure of a tire is inside a glass bottle. And back in the day, the French did not have glass strong enough to hold these bottles.
It was the English that made Champagne and bubbly really happen. Yeah, that’s crazy. Bear with me. The Indian subcontinent, which basically is Bangladesh, India, and Bhutan, has been producing sugar since antiquity. At some point, cultivation of the sugar cane plant spreads through the Khyber Pass and what is now modern-day Afghanistan. Somewhere around the 5th century C.E., the people of the Indian subcontinent figured out how to transform this cane sugar cane juice into a crystallized form. This makes it much easier to transport and much easier to store. So now, trade routes are opening up with this product. In the local language, the Devanagari language, this product is called khanda. And this is the source of the word “candy.” Indian sailors started introducing it into their trade routes.
Then in the 12th century, crusaders brought back what they called sweet salt. It was sugar. People were getting really excited about this because for a long time; honey was their only sweetener. So here comes this new thing, and it wasn’t cheap and there wasn’t a lot of it, but people started to really dig it. And then in Venice — which I believe was run by the Savoy family at the time — they bought a couple villages in Lebanon and started producing sugar cane. And this became the first distribution center for the sugar thing in Europe. But when things really popped off is when Europe takes hold of the island of Madeira and the Canary Islands. We’ve talked about those in the past. They set up sugar cane production facilities there. And this is in the 15th century. Because of its proximity to England, Europe — and England specifically — go absolutely nuts over this thing called sugar. OK. Put a pin in that for a second.
In 17th-century England, there was a man by the name of Robert Mansell, and he owned a bunch of glass factories in London in the surrounding area. There’s a really famous one in Newcastle that he owned. What was usually done as wood fire to make glass, his factories used sea coal. And in doing so, it made better, stronger glass. Fast forward a little further into that century, around the 1630s, you have a guy by the name of Sir Kenelm Digby. And he’s known as, well, the guy who develops what will be the modern wine bottle. It was really weird and globular in shape. But then again, it would evolve. But what he did is he ended up using wind along with coal to make it even hotter. And then he switched the proportions. Again, a lot of this is in my glass bottle episode and even the wine glass episode. But he had a higher ratio of sand to potash and lime than ever was before. And those are the three elements that help make glass. The result was green or brown instead of a clear glass. I believe right there is the moment in history where sparkling wine was made possible in the impossible, as in a product you can make and sell and distribute. I should say, eventually distribute.
This is a really cool fact I learned from Tim McKirdy, host of the “Cocktail College” podcast. When he was on a press trip in Champagne, they said that glass was for the wealthy and not a lot of it was being made. So people would buy glass bottles in England, and they would sometimes stamp their family symbol onto the glass and they would use that glass over and over again. Meaning they would send the glass off to Champagne to be bottled and then brought back, empty it out by drinking it, and then send it back again. That’s how it used to be. And that’s crazy. Also, they didn’t have the wire cages yet that we’re used to with sparkling wine. For a long time, it was just leather and hemp string to tie it up so it didn’t pop off. And our guy Digby, he doesn’t get recognized for what he invented until 1662. It’s a long time, but 1662 is actually the next important date in my little history of sparkling wine because of a dude named Christopher Merret.
Remember when I said people were going kind of crazy over sugar because it was brand new? Before that, people would just use honey to sweeten things or even just chew on sugar cane to release the juice into their gums? People were going crazy with it. And again, a bunch of rich people were going crazy with it because rich people were the only ones that could provide themselves with sugar and glass and all the other stuff. But there’s a guy named Christopher Merret — I think it was maybe Sir Christopher Merret; I’m not really sure. But this guy, he was a jack- of-all-trades kind of guy. A lot of these guys back in the day, they had a bunch of money. They tried all different kinds of things. One of the things this guy did is he was playing with sugar and wine. In 1662, he presented a paper to the Royal Society, which was the Society of Sciences in England at the time, a paper called “Some Observations Concerning the Ordering of Wines.” I don’t understand why it was called that, but the important part of this paper was an observation he had where adding quantities of sugar or even molasses would make a wine sparkle. And this observation was possible because of the strength of the glass that, at this point, was available, especially to rich dudes like Christopher Merret.
So for me, that’s kind of the beginning of what we know today as going to a wine shop, buying a bottle of bubbly, popping it, hearing the pop, seeing the fizz, all those atmospheres of pressure. That’s really where it all began. Because the modern Champagne era doesn’t happen until well into the 19th century. So a lot of work was done from that moment, going all the way to Champagne. This is so cool because I don’t know if you guys know, but England makes sparkling wine. It did for a very, very long time. Then they kind of stopped for a while. Not really, but it ramped up as climate change happened. And in the southern part of England, about two hours south of London, there are vineyards. And one of those wineries is called Ridgeview. Back in 2005, when they were just kind of getting their press up and telling people what’s happening, there was an interview with the winemaker at the time. And it’s very cool and I think this is a good idea still, I don’t know why we haven’t talked about it since, but he hoped that sparkling wine from England would have a name to itself. He wanted to call it Merret after Christopher Merret, who wrote the paper. I think that’s just so cool. It’s like me, Keith Beavers in 2022, trying to make American sparkling wines have a name called American Sparklers. DM me, I’m trying to figure it out.
But Champagne takes it from there and they go through years and years of innovation. The legend is that Veuve Clicquot invented the pupitre, or the riddling rack, which is a slab of water with some holes cut into it on diagonal so the wines can go in there for riddling. Again, this is all in the sparkling wine episode. But the story goes that the famous widow of a winemaker at Veuve Clicquot took a table and knocked the legs off and put it up slanted and drilled holes in it.
That’s the famous story. I’m not really sure if that’s true. There is documentation, though, that monks originally put bottles upside down in sand and then would riddle them every day. It’s a whole thing, but they basically came up with that. This is where Dom Pérignon comes into play. The abbey in which he was part of was a big center of activity for Champagne as it was figuring itself out. And one of the things that he did do is figure out the best practices of pressing the grapes. It’s a really big deal in Champagne, pressing grapes. There are a lot of rules in place. And part of that is the work that was done in the abbey. A lot of the limitations and restrictions and rules that are in Champagne are not in other sparkling regions of the world. Yet, these rules and restrictions have created standards which the rest of the world will often use. And then, of course, that’s the traditional method. That was the Champenoise method. Then in the early part of the 20th century, Eugène Charmat came up with the tank method, which is a way of making sparkling wine in a tank with pressure. This is how Prosecco is made. Again, listen to my sparkling wine episode. You kind of get the details on that. But that’s where we are now and it’s just fun. It’s so interesting that we got all this way and figured out all this stuff. Oh, by the way, Prosecco is about five atmospheres of pressure, so the tank method can still produce the atmospheres on that tire level.
I find it interesting that the term pét-nat is very popular these days, and that pét-nat is all over the place. Pét-nat is sort of the way sparkling wine was made before Champagne. So it’s amazing how it’s all come full circle, huh? If you want one of the OG pét-nats, go get a Blanquette de Limoux. We talked about it in the last episode. Or check out some of the musso from Vouvray. Oh, and also, I’m still wondering about musso de Bourgogne. Because if there is sparkling red wine from Burgundy, I can’t stop thinking about it from the last episode. Please let me know if you know. But that’s it. That’s my jam.
How did I do? That’s how I see the history of sparkling wine. Because if you get murky with stuff and all these stories we could’ve talked for 45 minutes about, this is my way of thinking: sugar. Sugar becomes a thing. But before we could talk about sugar, we had to get strong glass being made. All that is a fun way of saying, OK, there was a lot of activity going on. And all these different factors came in to make sparkling wine what it is today. Then Champagne is like, “Hold my flute.” Yeah, flutes weren’t around at the time. OK, that’s another episode. This concludes our fun little series on sparkling wine. I’m sure I’m going to revisit it again. But get ready, wine lovers. The next six episodes we are diving deep, deep into France. Get ready for Muscadet. It’s coming next week. Talk to you soon.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.