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Champagne - if not at Christmas, when else?

'Tis the time of year again when we think about treating ourselves and our loved ones and enjoy a glass of Champagne. It is something that, for most of us, is reserved for special occasions, is much revered and many know very little about. We hold it in high regard and as such treat it as a luxury good. It is used for all manner of celebrations and has become synonymous with certain occasions.Champagne Imagine the launch of a new ship without a bottle being smashed against its bow, or how Formula One podiums would be fairly dull without the  customary spraying of a very large bottle of bubbles, and Christmas and New Year without some good old fizz? Well, it just wouldn't be the same, now would it? The next few posts then are focusing on Champagne and sparkling wine as we go on a journey to discover the history behind the famous fizz, how it's made, what some of the jargon means and alternatives from around the world.  

History of Champagne

Champagne is named after the area from which it comes which in Latin is 'campus'  or 'campania' meaning field. Situated in north-east France fossils suggest that wild vines flourished in the area over a million years ago but the most documented period of viticulture occurred thanks to the Roman invasion of France. As Christianity spread the most prized vines became property of the increasing numbers of monasteries and the 'God's wine' was used for ceremonies, sacraments, coronations and at the royal table for the consecration of treaties. Throughout history the wines of Champagne were still, not sparkling, and the Champenois were able to produce wines with myriad hues due to using Pinot Noir grapes. They learned that leaving the skin in contact with the juice for different periods of time produces wines of differing colour, from cherry pink and 'oiel de perdrix' - eye of the partridge, to honey coloured and grey 'vin gris'. The Champenois were determined to set themselves apart from their neighbours in Burgundy and the sparkle in their wine actually occurred, at first, purely by accident. Most 'vin gris' was drunk when it was young and crisp but wine shipped to England would often go through a second fermentation en-route, creating the sparkle in the wine. It was received with great intrigue and curiosity and steps were made to capture this phenomenon in a controlled fashion.The birthplace of Champagne The first successful, deliberate methods of capturing the sparkle or ‘mousse’ in the bottle were due to the combined efforts of the monastic orders of Pierry and Epernay. Under the inspired direction of their respective cellarmasters, Frère Jean Oudart (1654 – 1742) and Dom Pérignon (1639 – 1715), the abbeys of Saint-Pierre aux Monts de Châlons and Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers became the birthplace of naturally sparkling wine in its purest and most perfect form. The two abbeys were barely two miles apart and it is likely that these two contemporaries consulted each other. The techniques that these two parties developed are much the same as the methods used today, blending grape varieties to achieve a wine that is greater than the sum of its parts, using cork to seal the bottles, and of course, the legendary second fermentation that produces the much lauded sparkle. In the next post this will be explained in full and we'll consider the intense attention to detail that produces one of the most famous wines in the world.

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