Thursday, December 6, 2012

What is Champagne?

With all the holidays upon us, sparkling wine is flying off the store shelves as fast as it can be stocked. The champagne days are here again.

While most of us bring out the bubbly only during the holidays and other happy occasions such as birthdays, Bon Voyage parties and job promotions, some even open a bottle during more questionable events such as engagement announcements and weddings. 

Still others, like my rich employers, will pop a cork at the drop of a hat - reunions with old friends, reunions with new friends, a champagne luncheon,  even after a hard day of shopping. Any time in their estimattion is the proper time for champagne. Here are some wonderful quotes on the subject, supplied to us by Miss Helen.

Madame Lily Bollinger:  "I only drink champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not in a hurry, and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch the stuff, unless I'm thirsty."

Bette Davis"There comes a time in every woman's life when the only thing that helps is a glass of champagne."

Miss Helen's response to Miss Davis"I would amend that to say a bottle of champagne!"

So what is champagne anyhow? The short answer is that it's just a wine or a blend of up to three wines that requires a secondary fermentation in each individual bottle. It's the on-going fermentation within the bottle that creates all the bubbles (some 50,000,000 per bottle) which in turn creates the dazzling sparkle in a champagne glass. And it's the enormous pressure (90 PSI in the bottle compared to 32 PSI in a car tire) that makes the cork pop out with such force.

The invention required special bottles of course (the thanks going to British glass makers in the mid 1600's) that can withstand the pressure, and special wired-down corks that wouldn't pop out during the final fermentation process.

The generic name for wines produced in this way is Sparkling Wine. The label Champagne however is both reserved and legally protected by international treaties (the Treaty of Madrid in 1891 and reaffirmed after World War I by the Treaty of Versailles) and should be applied only to sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region of France.  

Thus wines produced anywhere else in the very same way (Cava in Spain and Spumante in Italy, for example) cannot be labeled champagne. In America it's usually labeled Sparkling Wine by most vineyards. But in speech it's perfectly ok to refer to all these sparkling wines as champagne, even the inexpensive varieties in the supermarket. We all do that, right?

By the way, many sparkling wines are rather sweet due to a small amount of sugar added to increase the fermentation within the bottle. But in the last century a dryer and more popular version without the extra sugar became available, referred to as Brut on the label. So if sweet champagne gives you a headache and hangover, you'd be better off with brut.
While really great champagnes can range from $2,000 to $20,000 per bottle, for large parties my employers usually stick to more modestly priced Bollingers and Krugs in the $500-$750 per-bottle range.

However, for regular people we can find a decent Krug in the fifty to seventy-five dollar range. Moet and Chandon even has a respectable non-vintage brut sold in supermarkets in the twenty dollar range. (In college we used to drink cheap Andre in the five or six dollar range - and boy, talk about a headache!)

While there's a popular myth that Dom Perignon (a French Benedictine monk in the sixteenth century) invented champagne, it's simply not so. What he did was tinker with the blends and ultimate taste, making him a master wine maker in the field of sparkling wines. But the process of making champagne was developed long before he arrived on the scene.

Well, this has been way too long, but it's that time of year again when champagne is called for. Hope you enjoy it, and thanks for stopping by this evening.



  1. I have always wondered about the bubbles Mr Williams and you make things so easy to understand. The next time I have a glass of champagne in my hand I will think of you and all the knowledge you give us. Feliz Navidad, and Happy New Year to you. Roberto and friends in Argentina.

    1. Thanks for saying that, Roberto! And Happy Holidays to you, too, and your friends in Argentina!


  2. Does Boxed Franzia count as Champagne? It is a sweet taste, and sparkles inside of the box. Does that count as Champagne?

    1. You know what, Luv 2 Be, just pour it into a champagne glass and enjoy it!

      (Do you "pour" wine out of a box, or is there some kind of spiget or nozzle? Just curious. I am most certainly not a wine snob!)