Champagne, I had always heard, was invented by monks who made a mistake and “ruined” a batch of wine. But this year as I prepared to drink my way into the New Year, I decided to find out if that was actually how my favorite drink came into being.
It turns out the monks didn’t really invent it – it sort of invented itself and they, in fact, were trying to prevent it from doing so.
Most of the fizzy wine referred to as “champagne” is not actually Champagne because to be official, it has to be made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France. Wine grapes were cultivated in the area at least by A.D. 72, but twenty years later, the Romans outlawed winemaking in the region in order to reduce competition for the wines they produced closer to the capital. The French love wine as much as they hate being told what to do, so they continued to produce wine in secret until the ban was lifted. For hundreds of years the traditional Champagne wine was amber or pink, and it was not fizzy, at least not intentionally.
As the climate cooled during the Middle Ages, challenges mounted for the wine makers in the Champagne region. The growing season became too short for the grapes to fully ripen and develop the rich flavor of grapes produced in neighboring Burgundy. To make matters worse, the onset of winter often stopped the fermentation process too early. When the weather warmed in the spring, the yeast would awaken and begin to ferment again, producing carbon dioxide that put enormous pressure on the bottles, often making them explode. The bottles that didn’t explode were frequently found to be full of bubbles, which was considered a tremendous fault. (more…)