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Travels in Europe Last Updated: Aug 20th, 2006 - 06:20:08

By Ric Polansky
Aug 20, 2006, 06:07

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                                           © Ric Polansky


It’s called Champagne. You’ve probably heard of it. That “memorable drink for the memorable occasion”. The marketing has been good. It has to be to support the price of 18 Euros a bottle—and that is if you go there, to Epernay, France and negotiate and buy it directly from the vineyard. Otherwise it’s about 50 Euros a POP for the average gargle; good years command hundreds of Euros and vintage years demand prices in the thousands.


The district sold just under 300 million bottles in registered sales in 2003. Worldwide cash registers keep jingling, people keep clinking glasses and no one could wipe the ludicrous grin of the mugs of the local French farmer’s. All for sweeten carbonated wine fashioned by a couple of monks just three hundred years ago to produce the divine taste.


Ancient historian Pliny had already documented the viticulture in the Marne Valley as long ago as 79 A.D. Wines from the area were already renown throughout France. But it was celestial accident in that a local boy made good, and became Pope Urban II who initiated the first crusade. Naturally plenty of True Believers and many rich knights, to prove their devotion, volunteered from his district and carried the Christian banner to the Holy Lands. Most never returned. Their estates were confiscated or left to the Church who became the regions largest land baron. With the Church’s extensive holdings revenues need be defended against the intrusion of popular reds from Burgundy. Worst yet, climatic conditions were making the winters longer and therefore the wine taking longer to ferment. Two men were sent to the area to investigate and improve circumstances.


  Dom Pierre Perignon (1639-1715) a Benedictine monk and just 2 miles away in the Abbey of St. Pierre aux Monts de Chalons laboured Frere Jean Oudark (1654 – 1742) who most likely consulted other about their experiments.


The unsolvable problem was how to keep the wine from exploding while it was fermenting. The Abbey of Hautvillers (pronounced Oh-vee ers and considered the home of Champagne) erected by Benedictine Monks back in the 7th century started making changes by shifting the fermentation process from large barrels to small and strong glass bottles thereby slowing down the process of oxidation. But, the wine would stop fermenting during the cold winter months and then restart again in the spring’s warmer weather creating much carbon dioxide gas during this second fermentation. By using bottles it made the wine easier to handle and put in the hands of the locals to drink. It was a innovative taste, sweet and bubbly.


The Abbey’s revenues leaped. So, Dom Perignon made the unique decision to not get rid of the dreaded bubbles but increase them. His wine became an instant hit.


Long ago the Romans had named the area “Campus” or “Campania” meaning large field.  The medieval French word became Champaign and then renamed Champagne wine, the novelty wine with sparkle and zest.


But Dom Perignon’s real genius was that he also discovered how to make white wines from black grapes. (This is simply done by not mixing any of the dark skins with their white interior. Therefore the juice always remains white.)


Champagne is a blended wine and made from three different grapes, the white Chardonnay and the two dark grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.


But it was one Claude Moet a wine merchant in 1743 that continued to market the novelty that was titillating the taste buds of the times. He began exporting to England by 1750, Germany by 1758, Spain by 1761, Russia by 1762, and Champagne even arrived in America just 12 years after it became a nation in 1787.


Literary giants like Voltaire raved about the delicious flavour and recorded orders from first Consul, one young Napoleon Bonaparte can still be viewed today. 


Two distinct outside influences played an important role in world acceptance of the beverage. No less a personage than the Marquise de Pompadour herself, greatest courtesan of her era to philosophers and dignitaries (including Louis XV) who said “Champagne is the only wine that leaves a woman beautiful after drinking”. Women were conquered. And the English played an important role-- they started serving it chilled.


Champagne was established and is still evolving. In 1836 a local  pharmacist perfected what has become known as the “Method  Francois”. He discovered that sweeter grapes produced a higher level of alcohol and carbon dioxide, therefore he could measure exactly how much carbon dioxide could be created under specific atmospheric pressures and how much additional sugar was needed to produce a specific volume of the gas. Therefore the whole process became 100% reliable with fewer broken bottles. This method for making “mousse”, (another name for bubbles in wines), is the secret to all new sparkling wines. 


By the year 1949 Champagne got its derivative names and  distinctive bottle design. A bottle, magnum, the Jeroboam, Methuselah, Salmanazar, Balthazar and Nebuchadnezzar—depending on the size.


Today the France’s Champagne district is one of the most beautiful areas to drive through.  An epic Route de Champagne has been established which takes you through more than 250 villages. On the way you can stop at one of more than 4000 Houses selling their own brand of the fine effervescent wine. Even minute farmers have jumped in and sell their own family champagnes. After all, why grow corn when an acre of farming land is worth 400,000 Euros. Everyone is in the trade. The fields are patch work quilts of varying sizes. The major Vineyards putting up signs next to their grapes but the lowly private farmer still charging the same as the big houses.


For a “roadie” making the journey it is almost like visiting Disney Land. The roads are pristine black asphalt, not a bump or pothole, nor cigarette butts or wisps of paper blowing. It is as touring a fairy-land created just to sample the special wine.


A visit to one of the Houses or cellars, is a must. Under the town of Epernay exists almost 200 kms. of tunnels filled with bottles of the ageing drink. One hundred and twenty five kms belong to Moet Chandon the oldest and largest of all the Champagne Houses.


But, it is all marketing. Grab a bottle from the shelf, extract the carbon dioxide and you won’t have a third remaining of actual liquid. What does that tell you? Expensive bubbles!


The same beverage in Spain is produced and called Cava and sells for one Euro fifty in Mercadona, Spar or El Arble. I challenge anyone to take the test. Drink two glasses of either Champagne or Cava. Once imbibed, then blind folded try five different versions of the same  (Cave or Champagne)— which is which? Rank them, which is the most expensive-- or not? No one has passed yet. I will bet you can’t tell the difference.


Nevertheless, I like Dom Perignon’s comment that launched the spectacular new wine to the world. The first time he tasted it he replied “I am drinking stars”. As I have explained, Champagne is a heavenly orientated drink. 


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