Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Bubbly Biography - The Story of Sparkling Wine - Part 1: France and Spain

Gather around, kiddies, for I have a story to tell. 'Tis a twisted tale of lies and deceit and betrayal! And by that I mean bubbles. Just bubbles. This is the history of sparkling wine. Part One: France and Spain is about the emergence of intentional carbonation, the creation of methode champenoise, and the people who made it happen. Part Two: Italy and The New World is about the charmat method, partial fermentation, and the people who spread sparkling wine to new places. Part Three: Sekt and the Future is about what lies ahead.

In the beginning some light bubbles just popped up, pun intended, here and there. It wasn't meant to occur and the winemakers of the ancient world didn't know why it happened. The Greeks and Romans just blamed it on the gods or spirits or the phases of the moon.

Mauzac grapes
MAUZAC GRAPES
But the real journey begins in the cellars of a little commune called Limoux in the southwest of France. This place is further west, further inland and at a higher altitude than the rest of its Languedoc peers, giving it less of a Mediterranean influence and more of a Continental one. Cooler nights and colder winters would be very important to the direction their wine would go, and it would continue to as sparkling wine spread all over the globe.

The Roman historian Titus Livius Patavinus recorded that Limoux was trading wine even way back when the Romans occupied the region. And why not? They had the perfect means of receiving and transferring goods in the ancient world: The River Aude runs right through the center of town.

Limoux was big on white wine, their grape of choice being the Mauzac varietal. As demand increased for their wine it was time to up their game. And they did.

Saint-Hilaire
MODERN DAY
LABEL FOR

SAINT-HILAIRE
Just south of Limoux happened to be a shit-ton of cork. The entire cork forest of Catalonia, in fact. In 1530 the Abbey of St-Hilaire took advantage of this by deciding it would put its completed wine from that year inside individual glass bottles, stopped by the local cork. Then in the spring of 1531... SURPRISE! FULL-ON BUBBLE UP IN YO FACE!

It was the first sparkling wine and the Limouxins loved it. They named it Vin de Blanquette or the small white. A hundred years later things would be much different up north in the French region of Champagne. The same thing was happening to the barrels of white wine that had been stored in caves over the winter. But they didn't like it. They wanted it to stop.

What was happening in both Limoux and Champagne was a second fermentation for two different reasons. In Limoux, their Mauzac grape was so late budding and late ripening that harvest took place in late autumn. Fermentation was slow in the winter conditions so when the wine was bottled, sugar and live yeast still remained. It just wasn't finished yet! Champagne, being much further north, was naturally much chillier anyways. The caves they used to store their barrels were safer and warmer than outside but still friggin cold. Too cold for yeast to work their magic. Fermentation had stopped completely and then started again in the spring. When they started bottling their wine earlier instead of letting it sit in barrels all winter, it would carbonate in the bottle just like in Limoux. 

The yeasts that create fermentation don't just turn sugar into alcohol; they also produce carbon dioxide. So you end up with CO2 trapped with nowhere to go until you pop the top. Carbonation!

Christopher Merrett
CHRIS MERRETT AND
HIS NECK DOILY
The first known acknowledgment of intentionally adding sugar and yeast into bottles and creating a sparkling wine was by Englishman Christopher Merrett in 1662. He was a physician and a scientist by trade with interest and businesses in metallurgy and glass making. So why was he writing a paper to the Royal Society about wine? The English enjoyed the sparkling wine that was being imported and were even turning the still wines into sparklers on purpose! But, as they were experiencing in Limoux and Champagne, the glass at the time wasn't really all that sturdy and would break easily under the pressure. Merrett owned coal factories and was proposing that he could produce bottles that were up to the task. The bottles he would make after writing that letter made it possible for sparklers to keep moving forward, and for Champagne to eventually take the lead.

At first, and for a very long time, the winemakers of Champagne hated their naturally occurring carbonation situation and saw it as an unwanted flaw. They wanted their wines to be more like what was coming out of Burgundy. In 1718, as an attempt to make it stop, the region adopted rules set by their homeboy and Benedictine monk Dom Perignon: 1) Fine wine can only be made from Pinot Noir, as red wine is less likely to referment 2) Vines must be pruned so they do not grow higher than three feet tall 3) Harvest must be done in cool, damp conditions and before 10 o'clock in the morning 4) Harvest picking must be done very carefully to avoid bruising of the grape or breaking of the skin 5) Rotten or super-large grapes must be tossed.

Dom Perignon
"SON OF A BITCH!"
- DOM PERIGNON
This Dom Perignon guy had died three years earlier in 1715 and was born in Champagne in 1639. His father owned several vineyards so he was raised around viticulture and winemaking. Dom was a Benedictine choir boy, went to a Jesuit college, and entered the Benedictine Order at 17. For the greater part of his life he was the cellarer of the Abbey of Hautvillers and a highly influential presence. He knew a lot about viticulture, winemaking and wine but didn't really like the bubble problem all that much and worked his ass off to make it a thing of the past.

That's right: a super-expensive champagne is named after a guy that tried to make it not exist. It wasn't something that ran his life, he wasn't obsessed with it, but that was one of the things he sought to do and was asked to do by his monastery. He preferred to make wine that was red and still. His most famous quote, "Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!", was a marketing fabrication from the 19th century. You see, Dom didn't drink. It's unlikely that he never tasted wine in his entire life, he probably did at some point during his first 17 years, but he didn't consume a drop in his final 59 as a monk.

Even though he had tried to put an end to the carbonation, Dom Perignon's rules would play a big role on Champagne's enormous success. Because of him only the best grapes and the highest quality of the pressings were used for the wine. He also put policies in place that would cause less breakage with those that did happen to carbonate, such as using those English bottles. Plus there was this: he had mastered making white wine out of red grapes. This had been done before, such as the ancient Roman Falernian from the Aglianico grape, and it was known that it could be done. But it was a giant pain in the goat-ass, not worth the time and effort, until Dom and his team came to town. Those Pinot Noir grapes Dom was so loyal to are now pretty damn important to the category of sparkling wine.

Some say that Limoux inspired the Champenois to embrace their unwanted flaw and some say it was the bottles from England... but either way, from then on out it would be Champagne that inspired the world. In the late 18th century they got away from the natural second fermentation and invented their own process of creating it in the bottle. It's kind of a big deal.

Riddling rack
RIDDLING RACK
It's called methode champenoise in Champagne and methode traditional or the traditional method everywhere else.

1) A base wine high in acid and low in alcohol is fermented to completion from super-babied and carefully handled grapes. There are seven grape varieties allowed to be used in champagne but the ones of significance are the red grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and the white grape Chardonnay. The reds don't see contact with their skin after pressing so the resulting wine is white. Pinot Noir supplies complexity, Pinot Meunier supplies weight, and they both provide berry flavors. Chardonnay is more likely to be damaged by frost but it's more important for aging than the other two. In young champagne it brings apple and tart citrus, and with age it transforms into almond and butterscotch.

2) The next step is assemblage. The winemaker blends their base wines to get the desired results, such as the classic house style or the new targeted character. The vast majority are blends of different varietals and vintages but there are exceptions. Blanc de Blanc is 100% Chardonnay and Blanc de Noir is all or mostly Pinot Noir with Pinot Meunier. It's got to be a pretty special year to not blend vintages, though. Prestigious high-end champagnes, such as Dom Perignon, ONLY do vintage champagne. They would rather take the loss and not release their wine if they feel it doesn't meet their standards.

3) The wine is bottled with a mixture of yeast and sugar called liqueur de tirage and enclosed with a cap like the ones on beer and soda bottles. This starts a second fermentation and traps CO2, making the wine all bubbly. Andre Francois is credited in the 1830's with figuring out the formula for how much sugar and yeast should be added to get the desired amount of carbonation. Once fermentation is done, the yeasts kick the bucket and it's time to let it sit on the lees (dead yeast) for flavor. The fancy, scientific word for the dead-yeast-corpse-stank-up process is autolysis and gives the wine a toasty, biscuity character.

Madame Vueve Clicquot
MADAME CLICQUOT LIKES
THE BOOKS BETTER THAN
THE TELEVISION SERIES
4) The lees is now stuck to the sides and bottom of the bottle so it goes through a slow and meticulous process called riddling or remuage to wrangle it to one place. Bottles are put on a riddling rack (AKA pupitres) at a slight angle (neck down) and every so often are shaken a bit, twisted 1/8th of a turn, and put back at a slightly steeper angle. Eventually all of the sediment has gravitated to the neck of the bottle.

Riddling was conceived by an employee of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot in 1816. Madame Clicquot had inherited her husbands many businesses after his death, when she herself was only 27 years old, and thus became the first woman to run a Champagne house. Veuve Clicquot (Widow Clicquot) is still one of the premier houses of Champagne. Back in her day and until recently, each bottle would have to be riddled by hand and it would take one remueur eight weeks to riddle five-thousand bottles. Today it's mostly done with machines called gyropalattes and it takes them just one week to riddle the same amount.

5) Madam Cliquot's hired hand came up with riddling so the process of degorgement or disgorging would be more effective. This is where you get the lees sediment out. Before the advent of riddling, the wine would still be hazy after degorgement because much of the lees would remain. It would also lose pressure and thus lose bubbles. Now, with all of the lees migrated down to the neck of an upside down bottle, it's all resting in one target area. To disgorge it, the bottle neck is dipped into a freezing solution and then the cap is cracked off, ejecting the frozen sediment out and into the air... presumably into the eye of young, unsuspecting winemaking apprentices everywhere. The result is a crystal clear, sparkling wine that retains its six atmospheres of pressure.

6) While the bottle is still open it has to be topped off to replace what was lost from the bottle during degorgement, so this is where you add a dosage of wine and sugar called liqueur d'Expedition. The amount of sugar depends on the level of sweetness desired. Originally these wines were pretty sweet so as they evolved to become drier than the last driest level, that new driest level would be named. This is why there are levels like Brut that are drier than Extra-Dry. The level called Natural means that no sugar was added at all during dosage and it's as dry as sparkling wine gets.

4-6) Sometimes the last three steps are skipped and instead they use transversage or the transfer method. This means that after the wine goes through the second fermentation in the bottle, it's all dumped out into an enormous tank with its wine buddies from the other bottles. It's filtered in the tank (rather than being riddled and receiving individual disgorging), given its sugar dosage, and then it's bottled again. This is used for champagne and other traditional method wines when bottling smaller or larger bottles other than the usual 750 ml. It's also used for many, many, many other sparkling wines. It's less time consuming and thus less expensive. Does it say "Fermented in the bottle" on the label? The the is the keyword there, because it wasn't fermented in the same bottle it's in now.

7) Finally, the bottles are corked and then left to sit for a few months to allow the dosage to spread out and get all cozy in there. The muselet, AKA the cork cage that you have to untwist, was invented by Adolphe Jaqueson in 1844. I cannot find any other information on this mysterious man. Before his invention, wooden plugs wrapped with cloth or covered in wax were used to stop the bottle and withstand the pressure.

You're supposed to open a bottle of champagne with a soft hiss, but when you go for a toast... screw that! Let it pop! The tradition of the toast goes back to the middle ages but it wasn't until the 19th century that it was done with champagne. Because it was really just men that drank champagne, they wanted to gain the female market as well. So they changed the shape of the bottling to be more elegant and started putting pictures of weddings and christenings on the labels. This not only got the ladies drinking their wine, but it was suddenly being used to toast at those events. It has evolved to be the toast of choice for anything worth celebrating.

Sparkling wine map of Europe
THERE'S A WHOLE WORLD OF CARBONATION OUT THERE!
In the 1860's a Spanish gentleman named Josep Raventos ambitiously traveled around Europe and was making his way back through France. He was the head of his family winery named Codorniu and he was looking to sell his wines. At the time, France was going through wine hell and needed to find other sources to fill their cups. Phylloxera, a louse that has an appetite for the roots of vitis vinifera, had just begun to strike and nobody knew what it was and how to cure it.

Champagne, not yet a victim of phylloxera, was one of his stops and what he saw and tasted made him think of the possibility of recreating it back home. Sure, sparkling wine was being made in Spain but not in this way and not of this quality. After his tour of France he returned to San Sadurni de Noya, a town located in the Penedès region of Catalonia (remember the cork forest south of Limoux?). In 1872, using borrowed champagne winemaking equipment, he released his first methode champenoise sparkling wine and it was a success.

Raventos named it Champán. He gathered fellow friendly winemakers and they began to shape the category together, meeting every Sunday night to discuss and share ideas. It didn't take long for them to decide that a different name was needed for their new specialty wine if they were going to differentiate themselves from champagne. It would be called Cava, Spanish for cave and cellar.

Old wine press at Codorniu
AN OLD WINE PRESS
AT CODORNIU
Phylloxera wouldn't hit Champagne until 1890 but it found its way to Penedès in 1887. Many grape varieties that couldn't handle it, especially reds, were simply uprooted and replaced by native ones that could, especially whites. The Raventos family chose three of those hardier white grape varieties for the future generations of their sparkler, and from that day forth they would be the varieties that make Spanish Cava: Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada.

Much like many places that traditionally produce blends, such as Bordeaux, it's always good that the different varieties naturally just bud and ripen at different times. This way if anything should happen at any stage, heatwaves or floods or frost or whatever, you can use less or none of the variety affected and more of the others. Macabeo's primary purpose is that it's late budding so it will do just fine against a spring frost, unlike Xarel-lo and Parellada. It's nuetral in flavor so it projects the flavors from the traditional method well and normally takes up about half of the blend. Most of the other flavor characteristics of Cava, and what really separates it from its counterpart in Champagne, come from the vocal aromatics and earthy flavors of the Xerel-lo grape. Parrelada is acidic and crispy, which are both pretty important for sparkling wine. Chardonnay is also being used now as well as the red grapes Garnacha, Monastrell, Pinot Noir and Trepat.

After Josep's death his son Miguel would take over operations, although I cannot find an exact year (or a broader timespan) of when this happened. In 1889 Freixenet's Pedro Ferrer dug what was going on at Codorniu so he started making his own Cava using the same method and grapes. The category started to spread from Penedès to the rest of Catalonia, and to other places in Spain.

GERMAN AIRMEN DRINKING 
CHAMPAGNE (WWI, 1917)
It's time to head back to France for a bit of a downer. The region of Champagne, because of where it's positioned, has always been a magnet for military clashes and this was especially so in both World Wars.

World War I broke out in 1914 and soon after that the city of Reims, Champagne's most important city, found itself being shelled by the artillery of the invading Germans. The cellars and tunnels where the wines were riddled and stored became a place of refuge. Some vineyards and wineries were abandoned but most of them kept trucking along. They still made their wine and when it was time to harvest they'd go out and get it done regardless of how heavy the bombings were that day. Resilient, no?

There were plenty of famous battles in Champagne during World War I, both sides going on the offensive, but the German's never fully took the region. They did get their share of raiding done and Champagne was a complete mess physically and emotionally by the end of the war. However, the wines that were made during those years (1914-1918) were reportedly pretty kick-ass. Again... resilient.

Things were different in World War II. The region got off much easier in the battle and bombing aspect, but the entire country of France would be occupied by the Germans in 1940. Each wine region was given a weinfuhrer that oversaw production and made sure the Germans were well supplied so they wouldn't resort to looting. Weinfuhrer's usually had a history in the German wine industry, understanding of French wineries and a great knowledge of wine overall. The man that was granted Champagne was Otto Klaebisch and it was a relief to the locals that they had a Frenchman as their weinfuhrer instead of a German. Klaebisch was born and raised in Cognac and had family ties to Matteüs-Müller.

COUNT DE VOGUE:
MORE OF A MAN THAN
YOU'LL EVER BE
The man that the Champenoise appointed to negotiate with the weinfuhrer was Robert-Jean de Vogue. Count de Vogue was born in Ardèche in 1896 to one of the oldest families of French aristocracy. He was a man of science, studying the topic until he enlisted in the military at the age of 20. After he was awarded a War Cross metal he went over to artillery instead of ending his military career. At the time of the Nazi occupation he was the president of the Champagne house Moët and Chandon.

Weinfuhrer Klaebisch would turn out to be a complete dick, wearing his uniform everywhere and harassing the locals. But he and de Vogue got along for the most part, having their differences here and there. That was until de Vogue and Moët were caught backing the resistance by the Gustapo in 1943. Originally de Vogue was sentenced to die but, after the region went on strike in outrage, he was publicly stripped of the death penalty and secretly given the letters NN. That just meant he was to be worked to death instead. At one point he contracted gangrene in his pinky. So what did he do? He fucking cut the entire digit off himself with a piece of glass.

The Nazi's abandoned Champagne in 1944, leaving broken glass bottles lining the streets that lead back to Germany, and the Allies came in. de Vogue was found by an Englishman that coincidentally had worked at Moët. He was on the side of the road, too weak to walk and pretty much almost dead. When he finally made it back to his beloved Moët and Chandon it was in ruins, much like every other Champagne house. The Germans had plundered everything. Eventually he would be a witness at Klaebisch's trial and he would actually state that he didn't believe Klaebisch would do the crimes that he did if he wasn't forced to. Robert-Jean de Vogue died at the age of 80 in 1976.

United Vacations

The majority of American wine consumers call sparkling wine in general "champagne" but the truth is, just like Cava and Bordeaux, to be called "champagne" it has to be from the region and follow their laws. It's been that way since 1891, first by the Madrid system and then re-upped by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The latter created the French protection system of AOC after the first World War left Champagne a friggin mess. That didn't stop other places from using the name so the most aggressive manhunt for name protection ever went on seemingly forever.

During the 1950's a wine called Spanish Champagne was being distributed in the United Kingdom. This didn't sit too well with the Comité Champagne so they took it to the courts. At first it was decided that they didn't have a leg to stand on because the label specified that the wine was Spanish. That probably just pissed them off even more, and rightfully so. They wouldn't give up and finally won in 1960. They also took on Japan in 1972, Spain again in 1973,  French "Champagne" cigarettes 1984, German Perrier mineral water in 1987, Swiss "Schaumpagner Paris-Night" in 1990, French "Champagne de Yves Saint Laurent" perfume in 1993, British "Elderflower Champagne" in 1994, and a Swedish yogurt with the motto "Arla: the yogurt with the taste of Champagne" in 2002. All of those were victories.

It wasn't until 2006 that the United States, when pressed by the European Union, banned the use of the name on their wine with the stipulation that some wineries were grandfathered in. Since then most of those allowed to keep the name chose to give it up out of respect... and, most importantly, so they could be sold in the EU market. Those that still use the name will usually say something like American Champagne or California Champagne but even those are starting to fade away.

A 1923 Perrier-Jouet Ad
A 1923 PERRIER-JOUET AD
Champagne is still the king of sparkling wine, despite the entry level being much more expensive than the other sparkling options. They're still on top because of their terroir, their history, and mostly because they've always been marketing geniuses. An image change for female appeal led to the champagne toast and almost every story you've ever heard about Dom Perignon was made up for marketing purposes. Now the region dumps a crap load of money into marketing and it's always about class, luxury and tradition.

My personal favorite champagne is Perrier Jouet Grand Brut. It's a $50 bottle but it's just well balanced, super smooth and can stand up to other champagne's twice its cost.

Limoux's Vin de Blanquette is now known as Blanquette de Limoux. The process of how they make it is called Blanquette methode ancestrale. They bottle it before it's completely fermented, just like the original, and the yeasts aren't disgorged from the bottle, just like the original, so it's hazy with sediment. When made in this manner anywhere else outside of Limoux then it's called methode ancestrale or methode rurale, but those are quite rare and they're allowed to be disgorged. Limoux makes a ton of methode traditional wine as well.

Sparkling wine has been made in almost every winemaking region of France for a very long time and some the best of them are Cremant's. Cremant was originally a term used for less bubbly, less pressurized wine from Champagne but when the EU banned everybody else except Champagne from using the term methode champenoise in 1994, the other French regions snatched the name up for their fully bubbly, fully pressurized sparklers. They all have their own rules for viticulture practices, the grapes used, and the production involved. There's Cremant d'Alsace (Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris), the rare Cremant de Bordeaux, Cremant de Bourgogne / Burgundy (Aligote, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir), Cremant de Die (Muscat Blanc), Cremant du Jura (must be half Chardonnay), Cremant de Limoux (Mauzac), Cremant de Loir (Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Melon de Bourgogne), and Cremant de Luxembourg (Auxerrois, Elbling, Muller Thurgau, Pinot Blanc).

Cava now has its own version of the traditional method, with different laws about harvest yields and lees aging and etc. For the longest time Cava didn't even have a region that it was confined to until the European Union wanted one in the 90's. Almost all Cava is made in Catalonia and an overwhelming majority of that is from Penedès, with tiny pockets of other permitted regions scattered elsewhere in Spain. The town of San Sadurni de Noya is still the heartbeat of Cava.

Both Codorniu and Freixenet are absolute beasts in the wine business right now, owning wineries and vineyards all over the world. They hate each other's guts. Bruins vs Canadiens hatred. Red Sox vs Yankees. Stark vs Lannister.

Jaume Serra Cristalino
JAUME SERRA CRISTALINO CAVA
Today, Cava's price is insanely low for the quality and, in my opinion, it's the best deal on sparkling wine that you can find.

Juame Serra Cristalino can be bought for $6 to $8 and it's friggin outstanding. That's my go-to wine when I'm in the mood for some carbonation. Freixenet's flagship line is about $10 and you'd be paying $25 for the same quality from champagne. Because of the low cost and great quality, Cava is also the choice of restaurants and bars to use in their mimosa's. There's been pressure by some wineries to create a different name for the higher-end, more pricey Cava. It's hasn't gotten very far. Yet.

That's it for the first installment of the story! Part 2: Italy and the New World and Part 3: Sekt and the Future are ready to read if you are!

- Joey Casco, CSW
  TheWineStalker.net

Thank you to @ZinThePhoenix on Twitter for suggesting this topic!


Part 1: France and Spain
Part 2: Italy and the New World
Part 3: Sekt and the Future

References:
Exploring Wine: Completely Revised 3rd Edition
The Oxford Companion To Wine, 3rd Edition
The World Atlas of Wine
Certified Specialist of Wine Study Guide
The Wine Bible
Wikipedia

How The Nazi's Plundered Champagne & Moet
Champagne during WW2: From Vines to Victory

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