Popping the History of Champagne, the Drink for Kings

By Katrin Figge on 05:40 pm Apr 21, 2013
Arnaud Mirey, the brand ambassador for Moet Hennessy, tests a glass of Champagne. Mirey was in Jakarta for a history and production workshop of Champagne. (Photo courtesy of Moet Hennessy)

Arnaud Mirey, the brand ambassador for Moet Hennessy, tests a glass of Champagne. Mirey was in Jakarta for a history and production workshop of Champagne. (Photo courtesy of Moet Hennessy)

When there is cause for celebration, there is a cause for Champagne. Having been introduced to the world as the preferred drink of French kings, Champagne is associated with luxury and grand festivities.

Last week, Arnaud Mirey, brand ambassador of Moet Hennessy in the Asia Pacific region, was in Jakarta to hold workshops about the production and history of the prestigious sparkling wine, and also shared some lesser-known facts about the bubbly.

“While Champagne is a sparkling wine, not all sparkling wines are Champagne,” Mirey said. “To be called ‘Champagne,’ the sparkling wines have to come from the Champagne wine region in France.”

Sparkling wine can be bought at relatively affordable prices, but a bottle of Champagne can cost a little fortune.

“Champagne is so expensive because there is a high demand for a short supply,” Mirey explained.

One way to tell if you have really bought an original bottle of Champagne from France is by simply looking at the label: The name “Champagne” is protected and can only be used for the products that actually hail from the region.

The Champagne region itself is located in the northeast of France, spanning 35,000 hectares. Within this region, the quality of the vineyards producing Champagne also varies. Out of the 230 vineyards, only 17 have achieved the highest quality level called “grand cru.”

The Champagne production process is lengthy and requires much effort.

After being harvested by hand, the grapes go through two pressings, and then are fermented for the first time.

This is followed by the blending process. While most wine regions produce a new vintage of a particular wine every year, the Champenoise have the reputation of being master blenders — although in a good year, many vineyards will also produce a vintage Champagne.

When the blend has been created and sugar and yeast has been added, a second fermentation that lasts between four to eight weeks takes place. The yeast will consume the available sugar, resulting in the production of alcohol in a the sealed bottle. Afterwards, the aging period begins that takes at least 15 months, but can also be twice as long.

After the aging process is complete, the dead yeast cells and sediments at the bottom of the bottle needs to be removed. This is achieved through “remuage.”

“The bottle is turned slowly every day, until it is upside down and the yeast is in the neck of the bottle,” Mirey explained. “Only then, it is ready to be disgorged.”

Disgorging means to remove the dead yeast from the bottle neck.

“We then top up the bottle with the lost Champagne and seal it with the wooden cork,” Mirey said. “Nowadays we use machines and lasers to make sure that each bottle contains the same amount of Champagne. But in the past, it was all done by hand. That’s why all Champagne bottles have a long foil wrapped around its bottle neck, to hide the variation.”

The long foil is not necessary anymore, but has become somewhat of a trademark.

Two of the most popular Champagne brands worldwide and the biggest owners in the Champagne region are Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot.

Moet & Chandon, known for its fruitiness and maturity in taste, was created in 1743 by Claude Moet, a Frenchman with German ancestors.

“When the king of France discovered Champagne, it was somewhat of a revolution as it was so new,” Mirey said. “And what can be better marketing than the king himself?”

The other royal courts soon followed suit, but it was Emperor Napoleon I who proved to be one of the most faithful consumers of Champagne. He famously used to drink a glass of Moet & Chandon before going to the battlefield.

The story behind Veuve Clicquot, which literally translates as “Widow Clicquot,” is equally intriguing and dates back to 1805 when Francois Clicqout, owner of the Champagne house, died at a young age and left behind his 27-year-old wife Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin.

“At that time, it was a common perception that wine was a business for men only,” Mirey explained.

“So everybody expected her to sell the business. But she decided to continue her husband’s work and became the first woman to step into the world of Champagne.”

“The great thing about Champagne is that it can be served with a wide variety of food,” Mirey said.

“Only chocolate and Champagne don’t go together. This is one of the most common mistakes made.”