If you were to answer the question of what you know about monks, you would probably say things like they live in remote places, don’t marry or interact with the female sex, live spartan and ascetic lives and are dedicated to the service of whichever religious deity they claim to serve. If you happened to have deeper knowledge about monks, you might also answer that they (Cistercian Monks) popularised the use of blast furnaces which were critical for forging metal, turning iron into useful material and creating part of the foundation of the industrial revolution. And if you are truly versed in monk arcana (no other way to say it) you might answer that beer and wine were traditionally made in monasteries during the Middle Ages in Europe.
Beer was one of the most common drinks during the Middle Ages. It was consumed daily by all social classes in the northern and eastern parts of Europe where grape cultivation was difficult or impossible. Though wine of varying qualities was the most common drink in the south, beer was still popular among the lower classes.
France is of course one of the countries in the south of Europe where wine of varying qualities was and is the most common drink. There are many French wine regions, each with its own distinctive wines. The reader might have heard about regions such as Bordeaux, Provence and maybe even Cotes du Rhone, but the reader will definitely have heard about Champagne.
Champagne, that wine (yes, it’s a wine) that has the power to give any celebratory event razzmatazz and lift the event’s cachet from ordinary to special. Only wines from this region may be called champagne. It is the choice tipple for winners in sporting events of many types. Formula 1, Tour de France, and many races always celebrate winners with champagne. Parties in these Nigerian climes seem incomplete without it. Mimosas, fizzes, juleps and Bellinis are only some of the types of cocktails made with this very versatile wine.
Yet, only one thing really differentiates champagne from other wines, and it isn’t just the region where the wine is made. Champagne is in the bubbles. It is always a delight to watch those perfect tiny spheres rise from the bottom of a champagne flute filled with a good cuvée. The sparkle of the bubbles as they make their way through the golden or rosé coloured brut or demi-sec just makes one feel alive in that moment. If you happen to have Diana Krall in the background while nibbling on some strawberries, the moment can get quite interesting. But I digress.
Funny enough bubbles were considered a fault in wine making at first and weren’t desirable. It was an Englishman, Christopher Merret who presented a paper detailing how the presence of sugar in a wine led to it eventually sparkling, and that nearly any wine could be made to sparkle by adding sugar to a wine before bottling it. This is one of the first known accounts of understanding the process of sparkling wine and suggests that British merchants were producing “sparkling Champagne” even before the French Champenois were deliberately making it. There was however still a technical problem which is that the wines in this style started to referment during transportation when temperatures increased which led to pressure buildup, breakage and waste.
Enter Dom Pierre Pérignon (December 1638 – September 1715). He was a French Benedictine monk who made important contributions to the production and quality of champagne wine in an era when the region’s wines were predominantly still red. In Perignon’s era, the in-bottle refermentation that gives sparkling wine its sparkle was an enormous problem for winemakers. When the weather cooled off in the autumn, refermentation would sometimes keep fermentable sugars from being converted to alcohol. If the wine was bottled in this state, it became a time bomb. When the weather warmed in the spring, dormant yeast roused themselves and began generating carbon dioxide that would at best push the cork out of the bottle, and at worst explode, starting a chain reaction. Nearby bottles, also under pressure, would break from the shock of the first breakage, and so on, which was a hazard to employees and to that year’s production. Dom Pérignon thus tried to avoid re-fermentation. The famous champagne Dom Pérignon, the prestige cuvée of Moët & Chandon, is named for him.
Philippe II, Duke of Orléans who became the Regent of France in 1715 enjoyed the sparkling version of Champagne and featured it at his nightly petits soupers at the Palais-Royal. This sparked a craze in Paris as restaurants and fashionable society sought to emulate the Duke’s tastes for the bubbling wine. Champenois winemakers began to switch their business from making still wines to sparkling in order to capitalise on this craze. Throughout the 18th century, Champagne houses opened up. Rather than single estate growers or monasteries producing the majority of wine, private houses or merchants who bought grapes from vineyard owners to make Champagne came to dominate. The houses of Moët & Chandon, Louis Roederer, Piper-Heidsieck and Taittinger were some of the major houses that were founded during this period.
The foundation of the modern champagne industry was laid during the industrial revolution with the development of better glass making techniques producing stronger bottles, and the invention of corking machines making it easier to seal champagne bottles. Both developments reduced champagne losses from ejected corks or exploding bottles due to pressure from bubbles.
An important advance made in the early 19th century was developing a technique to remove the sediment caused by dead yeast after the secondary fermentation. Early Champagne producers chose not to remove the sediment, which left the wine cloudy and prone to off flavours if the sediment was shaken up or poured into the glass. With the aid of her cellar master, Madame Cliquot of the Champagne house Veuve Cliquot developed the process of riddling in the early 19th century to solve the problem of sediments without losing much gas. This technique, which involves collecting the sediment in the neck of the bottle and using the pressure of the wine to eject just the sediment, led to the popularity of adding sugar-sweet dosage to replace the wine lost during riddling.
Throughout most of the 19th century Champagne was made sweet. The added sugar helped winemakers to cover up flaws in the wine or poor quality from less desirable grapes. The Russians, Scandinavians, French, Germans and Americans all liked sweetened champagne with the English preferring the driest style. Gradually tastes developed to favor less sweetness and higher overall quality in the Champagne. The first slightly dry Champagne to emerged was labeled demi-sec or “half dry”. In 1846, the Champagne house Perrier-Jouët introduced a wine that was made without any added sugar. This style was initially ill received with critics calling this wine too severe, or brute-like. But over the next generation, this “brut” style with significantly less sugar than wines labeled extra dry became the fashion for Champagne and today is the modern style that the majority of Champagne is made in.
So when you’ve planned that intimate soirée with friends, with sweet and savoury hors d’oeuvres and a life-changing charcuterie board, may I suggest adding a case of excellent brut champagne, with maybe a bottle of hibiscus nectar to take the champagne into sweetness utopia, and some Jazz in the background…
Written by Babatunde Olaoluwa Jeje for This Day Style