The champagne-making process was discovered centuries ago by accident, after an unusual weather pattern occurred in the province of Champagne, France. The end of the region’s warm-weather grape harvest was followed quickly by cooler weather, which slowed or stopped the fermentation of some wines. When the warm weather returned in spring, the dormant yeast was reinvigorated and induced a second fermentation that created bubbles. Dom Pierre Perignon, a seventeenth-century Benedictine monk, experimented with methods that regulated the second fermentation: storing the wine in thicker bottles, tying the corks tightly with string, and storing the bottles upside down.
In the years since Dom Perignon’s time, the process has been refined, and criteria have been established to ensure consistency. In most cases, champagne blends three types of wine from three strains of grapes, usually the yield from different vineyards and sometimes different years. Champagne makers usually blend wine made from black grapes, such as pinot noir and pinot meunier, with wine made with white grapes, such as chardonnay. Each grape grows in a different region, which is further subdivided into its constituent vineyards. Vineyards are known for the quality of their soil, a characteristic that deeply influences the quality of the grapes. Only wines produced in Champagne can legally be called champagne; wines produced elsewhere using the same method are called sparkling wines.
When shopping for champagne, there are several things to keep in mind. Nonvintage blends utilize the juice from numerous harvests and don’t identify a vintage year on their labels, while vintage blends use the yield of a single year’s harvest. Rose champagne adds the fermented skins of pinot noir grapes to tint the wine a light pink; cuvées de prestige, the finest champagnes, employ only the best grapes from the top vineyards. Within these categories, champagnes are further grouped according to sweetness, with demi-sec and doux being the sweetest and brut and extra-brut being the driest. The sweetness is imparted by a “dosage” of sugared wine just before the final corking, ranging in proportion from no sugar, or less than 1 percent, to more than 5 percent.
When serving champagne or sparkling wine, there are some guidelines to follow to ensure it will taste its best. It should be chilled to about 50°F in the refrigerator (never the freezer) or, just before serving, in a bucket of ice water. When opening the bottle, keep the cork pointed away from people or objects; undo the wire cage encasing the cork, and hold the cork firmly in one hand with the bottle in the other. Slowly turn the bottle until the cork starts to free up, bending it as it comes out of the neck.
717 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10022