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Crack open a bottle of bubbly and pour yourself a generous glass, because you’re about to learn everything you ever need to know about champagne.
To be called champagne, the sparkling wine has to be made in the northwestern Champagne region of France. This law was set out in the Treaty of Madrid in 1891. The European union now protects this exclusivity, and any sparkling wine not from Champagne must have a different name. The only exception is American producers who were calling their bubbly ‘champagne’ before 2006. The northern location of Champagne helps give the grapes the correct acidity, and the porous, chalky soil in the area helps with drainage.
Wines have been made in the Champagne region of France since the fifth century, and the Romans planted vineyards there. The oldest recorded sparkling wine was made in 1531 by monks in Carcassonne, and methods for perfecting it were practised ever since. The Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon is often mistakenly credited with discovering the drink. He didn’t, although he did improve the production and quality of champagne produced. His famous line ‘Come quickly, I am drinking the stars’, while beautiful, can be attributed to an advert from a 19th century. It’s still a great line, though. Dom Pérignon helped the reduce the problems associated with making sparkling wine, notably the lack of control vineyards used to have over fermentation. Before the method was perfected, bottles would often spontaneously explode and shatter from the force of the carbon dioxide within, with one explosion causing a chain reaction throughout the entire cellar.
Traditionally, champagne is made using a method called ‘champenoise’. Grapes are harvested pressed and and undergo a primary fermentation, like all wine. The resulting liquid is blended and bottled with yeast and sugar and then bottled to undergo a secondary fermentation, which gives the drink its bubbles. The yeast does its work on the new sugar then dies, becoming ‘lees’. The bottles are stored horizontally so the wine can ‘age on lees’ for around 15 months. After this, the bottle is turned upside down so the lees settle in the bottle. It’s opened to remove the yeast and add some sugar, known as ‘dosage’ to control the sweetness of the drink, and slip a cork inside.
Ultra Brut/Extra Brut/Brut Zero/Brut Nature/Brut Sauvage: No added sugar
Brut: Nearly dry, contains no more than 1.5% sugar.
Extra Dry/Extra Sec: Slightly sweeter, can contain up to 2% sugar.
Dry/Sec: Can contain up to 4% sugar
Demi-Sec: Can contain up to 8% sugar.
Doux: Sweet, can contain up to 10% sugar
As a general rule, grapes must be the white Chardonnay or the dark-skinned ‘red wine grapes’ Pinot noir or Pinot Meunier. Most champagnes use a combination of the two. Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot blanc and Pinot gris grapes are also allowed, although they are not nearly as widely used.
A champagne cork can exit the bottle at up to 60mph, so don’t hover your face over it when opening a bottle.
Champagne isn’t fussy in terms of storage, but the bottle will last for longer if stored in a cool, dry place rather than on a sunny windowsill with temperature fluctuations. It ages well, and can be stored for up to 10 years before the carbonation starts to fade. It should always be served thoroughly chilled, with an ideal drinking temperature of seven to nine degrees. Commonly, bottles are chilled in a bucket with ice and water before opening. Serving the champagne cold helps to reduce the pressure inside the bottle, making the cork less likely to shoot off and shatter a window. If you want to save a half-drunk bottle of champagne for later, the best way to do so is to acquire a cork specially designed to keep the fizz in sparkling wine, such as this one. The well-known trick of slipping the handle of a spoon inside the bottle and balancing the spoon bowl on the opening doesn’t really work; you’d be better to just finish the bottle rather than risk your bubbly turning into flat, pale wine.
You should use glasses designed specifically for serving sparkling wine, as they will enhance the experience and taste of the drink. The three options are coupe, flute and tulip. The coupe, which according to legend is modelled after the shape of Marie Antoinette’s breast, is pretty but the wide, saucer-like design means the drink loses its carbonation faster. A flute is the traditional choice; it has a rough bead of glass in the bottom which attracts bubbles and forces them to rise continuously through the drink. Its narrow design may mean that more complex flavours and aromas don’t have space to breathe, however. A tulip glass is narrow like a flute, but widens slightly near the top before bending inwards slightly, like the shape of a tulip flower. It’s not as distinguished or traditional as the other two options, but the shape conducts the bubbles well and the extra space in the glass allows the aromatics to develop a little more.
Remove the foil covering the wire-twisted hood. Keeping a finger or thumb covering the cork, untwist the wire and pull it off. Hold the bottle away from you at a 45 degree angle and holding the cork, twist the bottle in one direction. The cork should ease out slowly with a sigh. There’s a saying ‘the ear’s gain is the palate’s loss’ – if the cork shoots off, you’re wasting bubbles that could be in your glass. If you’re feeling like you want to show off, you can sabre the cork off instead. This mildly dangerous procedure involves using a sharp knife to create a nick or crack in the bottle. As the pressure inside is so high, this cracks the top of the bottle cleanly off, causing it to shoot off in a highly impressive manner.
Tilt the glass at an angle and pour the liquid down the side of the bottle. This means the bubbles don’t fizz up at much and the drink stays more carbonated. Pour a little into everyone’s glasses, allowing it the froth up, then go back around and top up the glasses again. This prevents the drink from spilling over and making everyone have sticky fingers.
Sip any way you like – just don’t drink too fast or you’ll get bubble up your nose. It’s known that carbonated drinks get you drunk faster, but not why. It’s possible that those delicious, tickly bubbles propel the alcohol to your intestines faster, so it’s absorbed more quickly. So be careful, as you might find yourself staggering around faster than you usually would.
Champagne is a surprisingly versatile drink, and can easily be matched with food. While classic pairing include strawberries, oysters and cheese, you can take matching even further. Try drinking champagne with smoked salmon, foie gras, mushrooms, salami and shellfish. Any rich dish containing butter or honey also pairs very well, as the acidity of the champagne cuts through the richness of the dish. Champagne with a fried chicken sandwich, anyone?
So, who’s thirsty?