Champagne. The first thing that comes to mind when I hear the word is, “It’s French!” True Champagne is only made of grapes from the Champagne region of France. Anything else is simply sparkling wine. And that’s the second thing, I think of. The bubbles and the sparkle…which is exactly what Monk Dom Pérignon was attempting to eliminate from the wine in the 1660s. At that time, they considered the bubbles a nuisance. Sparkling wine meant bad wine. Oh my! This is what happens when the men are in charge. Fortunately for us, a few years later, the Widow Clicquot (Veuve Clicquot) became involved in winemaking, the bubbles became a luxury, and champagne became the wine of women and royalty.
I recently read the book entitled The Widow Clicquot – The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It, by Tilar J. Mazzeo. Unfortunately, there was not a lot of information in the book about The Widow. Apparently not much was recorded about a woman who lived in the early 1800s, even if she did rule a champagne empire that placed her net worth at more than $10 billion dollars in today’s economy. Yes, Billion! However, I enjoyed the story for its historical value. She entertained Napoléon and Joséphine Bonaparte and she was also a wise business woman. Anticipating that the trade embargo with Russia would end soon, and with great risk, she arranged to smuggle champagne there so that the Russians could celebrate the embargo’s end with the only wine available – her Veuve Clicquot wines. Wise widow!
In the 1860s, the Veuve Clicquot said, “The world is in perpetual motion, and we must invent the things of tomorrow. One must go before others, be determined and exacting, and let your intelligence direct your life. Act with audacity.” That quote works as well today as it did 150 years ago. Amazing woman.
Following is a list of things that I either learned from the book or were things that I already knew about champagne but thought I would like to share with you.
1. Vintage – using grapes from a single harvest. Non-vintage – using grapes blended from multiple harvests.
2. While France was making Champagne by accident and trying to rid their wine of bubbles, at the same time in England, it is believed that the British were adding sugar to the wines that they received from France to make it bubbly.
3. Winemaking has always been an involved process. Five percent of wine sold today is ruined by TCA, a fungus eating the cork. According to Wikipaedia, a “corky” wine has a characteristic odor, described as the smell of “a moldy newspaper, wet dog, damp cloth, or damp basement.”
4. Tall, slender champagne flutes are preferred for champagne because they allow the drink to release smaller, slow-rising, prettier bubbles. The older the champagne is, the smaller the bubbles. Therefore, small bubbles are associated with high-quality champagne.
5. One theory maintains that the art of sabrage – opening champagne bottles with a sword or saber – was invented because of the Widow Clicquot. In order to protect her vineyards, she gave Napoleon’s officers bottles of champagne when they come to town. Being on horseback, they held the bottle and the reigns in one hand and with the other, they sliced off the top of the champagne bottle with their swords. Click here to see a 2-minute video of how to use a saber to open a champagne bottle.
6. La champagne is the region. Le champagne is the beverage.
7. On the bottle of champagne, the tiny wire cage is called a muselet, which covers the tiny metal cap known as a capsulet, which tops the cork or bouchon. The annulus is the glass lip just below the muselet. Wine labels are called étiquettes.
And that is everything that I know about champagne, other than the fact that I love the bubbles and the sparkle and the flavor.
I am determined to try the sabrage to open a champagne bottle in the near future. When I do, I promise you (je te promets) that I will post a video. I just need to find a saber…
Happy Champagne! Happy Sabrage! À votre santé!