One is spoilt for restaurants in London. Highend Michelin-starred, white-tableclothed establishments abound. The weather becomes warmer. We dream of those balmy days and longer evenings with friends. The picture might include floral frocks, a bowl of salad, a platter of salmon and, of course, a bottle of champagne. It is, for those gatherings, the dot above the i, the finishing stroke of a pastel watercolour. It must be champagne.
Wine experts, one of which I am not, will offer many worthy explanations of why Champagne is so popular and so festive. Consider this very banal observation: perhaps our openness to Champagne as a special beverage stems from childhood fascination with bubbles. Carbonated drinks, at least when I was a kid, were less common than now. A fizzy drink was a treat although they were artificially coloured, artificially carbonated, and unacceptably sweetened by today’s standard. But take away the bubbles from that cola and even the most enthusiastic child would turn up a chubby nose. It was about the bubbles. Champagne doesn’t use the excitement of fizz to obscure dull wine but rather uses sparkle to polish already fine wine.
So we grow up and there they are again, those bubbles, and now they are creating magic in delicious wine. There is that same anticipation we had when presented with a bottle of pop but now our more-discerning taste buds appreciate the light-amber (or sometimes pink) vehicle for that effervescence. We can recognise character, complexity and freshness of Champagne. We might not be sure exactly what it is but it makes a delightful impression.
Champagne is a sparkling wine and can only truly be given that name if it is made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France and produced by secondary fermentation actually in the bottle. It’s this fermentation that creates the characteristic carbonation.
Wines from the region have been enjoyed since the Roman era. It was they who planted the first vineyards. Christianity became the religion of choice and churches became major land owners. The monks produced wine for use in services. It’s thought by many that Dom Pérignon invented sparkling wine but, in fact, the oldest recorded sparkling wine is Blanquette de Limoux. This is a much-overlooked wine which is favoured by those living in south-west France, although hardly known at all outside that country. It’s said to have been invented by Benedictine monks in the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, near Carcassonne, in 1531. Wine was bottled before the initial fermentation was completed.
In the 1600s the English scientist and physician Christopher Merret noted that the addition of sugar to a finished wine created a second fermentation. Merret spoke at the Royal Society in London, and presented what we now call méthode champenoise, in 1662. English glass-makers developed a technique to produce bottles that could withstand great internal pressures during that secondary fermentation. In 1844 Adolphe Jaquesson invented the muselet. When opening a bottle of champagne one removes the iconic foil that encases the top of the bottle. The wired structure revealed is the ‘muselet’. One loosens this by unwinding the wire, then turns the cork while maintaining pressure to restrain the cork from a too-energetic popping.
The 19th century saw an explosive growth in Champagne production, going from a regional production of 300,000 bottles a year in 1800 to 20 million bottles in 1850. Those bottles were poured into distinctive glasses. The classic coupe has become a thing of the past but it had a rather racy start, or so legend would have us believe. It’s rumoured to have been designed in the form of Marie Antoinette’s left breast. She must have been a woman of slight figure. These days Champagne is usually served in a long-stemmed tall narrow glass known as a flute.
Champagne is always served cold, and ideally between 7 and 9 °C (45 to 48 °F). Bottles can be chilled in a Champagne bucket filled with ice and water. These buckets are larger than those commonly used for regular wine to allow for the larger bottles and more ice and water. This cooling reduces the Champagne’s gas and ensures that it can be opened without spraying. For more theatre a Champagne bottle is sometimes opened with a sabre. This technique is called sabrage, a term used for breaking the head of the bottle …by accident or on purpose.
Champagne is special, it looks special, it tastes special and it even feels special. That tingle on the tongue tempts the palate into believing that something remarkable is in store. Another sip and the expectant drinker will be assured that this is going to be memorable. A bottle of fiz isn’t cheap but it is an indispensable part of any classy gathering and it’s included on every wine list of distinction. Champagne has a reputation which she proudly guards.
Visit here for some exceptional Champagne
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018