Many attribute the “discovery” of champagne to Benedictine Monk Dom Pierre Perignon. The legend goes that he served as cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers near the town of Epernay, within Champagne, France, responsible for overseeing the abbey’s wine production, aging, and storage. He was tasked with ridding the abbey’s sparkling wine of bubbles, a common problem winemakers of the time experienced due to refermentation—when bottled wine cooled before all of the sugar had been converted into alcohol, fermentation halted, then, when bottles warmed up again in the summer, dormant yeasts became active, producing carbon dioxide and effervescence. When he couldn’t rid the wine of bubbles, he tasted it, and on August 4, 1693, reportedly exclaimed to his fellow monks, “Come quickly! I am drinking the stars!”
However, many in England believe a Gloucester doctor, Christopher Merret, recorded a recipe for a Champagne-style drink some 20 years before Perignon. In 1662, Merret presented the Royal Society with an eight-page paper detailing experiments of English cider makers, who had begun adding sugars to wine to create a bubbly, dry drink—similar to modern-day Champagne. Merret noted how “our wine-coopers of recent times add vast quantities of sugar and molasses to wines to make them drink brisk and sparkling.”
Here’s where we come to the difference between sparkling wine and champagne. Sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it comes from the region of Champagne, France. The French have maintained their legal right to call their wines champagne for over a century. The Treaty of Madrid, signed in 1891, established this rule, and the Treaty of Versailles reaffirmed it. The European Union helps protect this exclusivity now, although certain American producers can still generically use “champagne” on their labels if they were using the term before early 2006. Further, champagne can only be made using Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. So, all champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is champagne.
Whether it’s true or not that Perignon invented, or first discovered wine, he made a significant contribution to the development of champagne when he discovered the technique that allows vintners to produce a successful white wine from red grapes.
Today champagne undergoes two fermentations. After the first traditional fermentation and bottling, yeast and rock sugar is added to the bottle and the champagne, then sealed, is left to age for at least 1.5 years. Once the bottle reaches maturity, a process known as remuage occurs. The bottles are gradually turned until they are almost upside-down, allowing the yeast to settle at the neck of the bottle. After a quick freeze, the cap and frozen residue is removed and the bottle is quickly re-corked to maintain its carbon dioxide. Once the bottles hit the market, they’re ready—thanks to Perignon—to open with a bang.
Sources include www.historychannel.com/au, The Daily Mail, www.historyrevealed.com, and http://www.legrandcourtage.com.