The Myths of Champagne
Did Monk Dom Perignon really discover it? How many brunches serve the real thing?
Debunk the myths and learn the true facts about French champagne.
For centuries, the great moments in life have been punctuated with champagne—French champagne. That sounds a little redundant, like Swiss Rolex, Italian Prada, or American Cadillac, but in this case the qualifier is necessary. The vast majority of American consumers are under the impression champagne needs to be from France to be legally called champagne, but that is just the biggest of many myths about the world’s most famous wine. In fact, the majority of wine labeled “champagne” sold and consumed in this country is also made in this country.
Even in its birthplace, Champagne-Ardennes, myths abound, and the long-held notion that Monk Dom Perignon was the father of champagne have gone the way of Christopher Columbus “discovering” the New World. Other monks were producing sparkling wines more than a century earlier, and years before his arrival in the hilltop hamlet of Hautvillers, an English scientist detailed the methode champenoise, or way of making champagne. But Dom Perignon did live here, and while in all likelihood never uttered his famous quote to fellow monks, “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” he was a bubbly enthusiast and tinkerer who made several important contributions to its current quality. These include perfecting the blending of still wines before secondary fermentation and the introduction of the cork.
Before we delve too far into the myths, let tackle the important truths about champagne, at least the French version:
- Grapes for making sparkling wines grow better in Champagne than elsewhere, thanks to the regions unique terroir. It is the world’s northernmost prestigious vineyard region, wetter and colder than others, with 200 days of rain annually.
- It is the most expensive vineyard real estate on earth, over million Euros an acre. Less than two percent of the region can be planted with vines. They grow more potatoes than grapes.
- Farmers need to pass courses to grow grapes here. All grapes must be picked by hand.
- 100 percent of grapes used in champagne must be grown in designated vineyards within the Champagne-Ardennes region.
- Almost all champagne uses just three grape combinations. Pinot Noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay.
- Grapes are first fermented into traditional still wines. But it is the next step that really defines champagne. Still wines are put into bottles with some yeast and sugar, then placed in cellars to age. As the yeast eats sugar it converts it to carbon dioxide, which forms bubbles. Called secondary fermentation, this must occur in the individual bottles.
- By French law, non-vintage champagne must be aged at least 15 months and vintage at least three years (but most producers roughly double these minimums).
- After aging, the necks of the bottles are flash frozen, turning sediment into a solid icy plug. Bottles are opened and pressure ejects the plug, leaving only wine behind. Bottles are then recorked and ready for sale. This final step is called “disgorgement.”
Are American consumers confused by cheap domestic “champagne” that’s not from Champagne? “Absolutely,” said Wine Spectator’s Napjus. “If you gave a hundred people on the street a bottle, at least 95 would think it is champagne. They have no idea. You can make sparkling wine by injecting it with gas like soda, and that is definitely done here. When you think about these bubbles and the bubbles in champagne, it’s completely different and it tastes completely different.”
Just about every high-quality manufacturer of sparkling wine in this country calls its product “sparkling wine,” and while French champagne starts around forty dollars a bottle, these good domestic sparklers start in the twenties. Domestic “champagne,” on the other hand, starts around eight bucks and rarely breaks out of the teens. Its starting price is coincidentally about the same as the wholesale price wineries in Champagne pay their neighbor growers for the grapes needed to make one entry level bottle. That $7-$10 just covers the actual grapes, before building a winery, buying equipment, hiring staff or crushing, fermenting, bottling, corking, labeling, aging, storing, marketing, or shipping. The ridiculous notion that you can get a finished bottle of champagne for the cost of good grapes alone is the biggest myth of all.