Champagne, Uncorked: Review & Excerpt

Champagne, Uncorked follows the story – and production philosophy – of Krug. Although the premise of the book is following the story of one producer (the subtitle The House of Krug and the Timeless Allure of the World’s Most Celebrated Drink acts as a spoiler), Alan Tardi masterfully weaves a concise history of the region and how Champagne became the famed beverage it is today.

Guided through the vineyards at harvest time by Krug’s chef de cave Eric, and several other characters in the Krug winery and vineyards, while Tardi witnesses the inner workings of a large Champagne house, he schools the reader in all the major elements that go into Champagne – the soil, the climate, the grapes. Every aspect any wine student needs to learn about – from the different appellations, through to the weight of the press loads – are entwined in the story, offering an approachable education on Champagne through his first hand experience in the region.

But Champagne, Uncorked is by no means purely academia. This is an anecdotal and personal story of Tardi’s experience meeting the many different characters of Champagne – those of present, and past. He enthusiastically delves into the history books and puts to rest certain myths in the Champagne story (how Champagne transitioned from a still to sparkling wine for example) and inspects some key historical figures – some of whom are already widely celebrated (anyone heard of Dom Perignon?) and others who have fallen off the radar over time (like the chemist Jean-Baptiste François who studiously calculated the first guide to liqueur de tirage).

Champagne, Uncorked takes you by the hand and walks you through the entire production of Champagne, from budburst to the final popping of corks. For any Champagne lover, this is an insightful retelling of the magic of Champagne in the company of one of the greatest Champagne houses to date.

By Amanda Barnes

Champagne, Uncorked is available on Amazon

 

An excerpt on the discovery and origin of (sparkling) Champagne

As we drive, I gaze out the window and think about bubbles. So if
neither Dom Pérignon nor Jean Oudart put the sparkle into Champagne,
who did? The answer is surprising and might even be a bit
disconcerting to some Francophiles.

In the second half of the seventeenth century, England was laying
the foundation to become a world power and London was becoming
one of the financial capitals of the world. The Bank of England set
up shop in 1694, colonists were creating new markets in America,
and English maritime traders were gaining the upper hand from East
Asia to the New World.

The Brits were working hard, and they were thirsty. They could
produce all the beer, mead (an alcoholic beverage made from fermented
honey and water), and cider they needed at home, not to
mention whiskey in Scotland and Ireland. But what they really
craved was wine (even more so, perhaps, because it was impossible at
that time to grow grapes in England) and they got a lot of it from
France, at least during periods when the two countries were not entangled
in some bitter conflict.

The wine from Champagne was shipped in barrels, like wine from
most everywhere else at that time. But, unlike the wine from most
everywhere else, a lot of the wine from Champagne had not completely
finished fermentation, due to the onset of cold autumn temperatures.
The following spring, after the wine had reached its
destination and the temperature rose, the remaining sugar “woke up”
and went back to work on the remaining yeast, resulting in a distinctive
fizziness.

This was nothing new; the same thing often happened in France,
and many people were working very hard to try to find a way to prevent
it. But what was new is that for many English patrons this wasn’t
a problem: they liked the fizziness (not surprising, perhaps, given their
fondness for effervescent beer and cider). They referred to it as
“brisk,” and many people actually started specifically seeking out the
wines that had it.

It didn’t take long for English merchants to catch on and start
asking their suppliers in Champagne to give them the fizzy wine, the
brisker the better. More ambitious merchants even started to make it
brisk themselves.

In 1662 an English physician and scientist named Christopher
Merrett (the name is sometimes spelled with only one t at the end)
presented a paper to the Royal Society called “Some Observations
Concerning the Ordering of Wines” describing how adding sugar or
molasses to wine or cider makes it sparkle and exploring the reasons
why. Little was known about the science of fermentation at the time,
but Merrett noted that, besides making it fizz, the added sugar also
increased the level of alcohol.

It soon became common practice for English wine merchants to
add a bit of sugar, and the bubbly wine of Champagne became all the
rage in England; everyone was talking about it, most everyone was
drinking it, and poets and playwrights were writing about it.21
Back across the Channel, when Champagne merchants noticed
the spike in sales and learned the reasons behind it, they started
making sparkling versions of their own.22 In France, with its long
history of wine production and consumption and the ingrained attitude
that bubbles were a flaw, it took a while for the idea of sparkling
wine to catch on. But there were some early influential fans.

When Louis XIV died in 1715, Louis XV was crowned king of
France. But, as he was only five years old, Philippe II, Duc d’Orléans,
was appointed regent, which made him a very influential man indeed.
Unlike the royal predecessor, whose vinous partialities vacillated
back and forth according to his physician-of-the-moment’s
advice, the duke’s preferences were clear: he liked Champagne and
he liked it bubbly. From then on, the sparkling wine of Champagne
flowed like a fountain in the palace of Versailles and all the royal
houses of France. And when visiting dignitaries went back to their
countries of residence, it flowed there too.

The craze for mousse (foam) spread quickly. The new wine was off
to a brisk start and its future looked very promising. But there were
some problems.

One of them had to do with the bubbles themselves: now that
everyone loved them, the problem became trying to find a way to
preserve them. English merchants had discovered that the process of
adding a bit of sugar and yeast to the wine to induce a second fermentation
worked better in individual bottles than in large barrels,
and that the closed container captured the fizziness inside until the
wine was consumed (which usually didn’t take very long). But this
led to a second, even more serious problem: exploding bottles. The
carbon dioxide gas given off by the second fermentation sometimes
turned these little bottles of bliss into tiny time bombs with a tendency
to spontaneously explode, and many of them did.

Here, too, the English had a technical advantage.

In 1623, Sir Robert Mansell, along with his Welsh partner, James
Howell, received a royal patent for a technique they developed for
the production of glass in ovens fired by coal instead of wood. The
heat of the coal-fired ovens was much higher and the glass that came
out of them was much stronger. Glassblowers took to adding iron
and manganese to the raw materials, which made the glass even
stronger, and it could be blown thicker to make the bottles even
more resistant. This technology eventually made its way to France
but it took about a hundred years to get there.

Another critical issue was keeping the bottle closed. The ancient
Romans were familiar with the use of porous tree bark to close small
flasks (though most of their wine was shipped and stored in earthen
amphora), but the practice had been lost during the Middle Ages. In
France, bottles were a rarity: most wine was sold in barrels, and when
it was necessary to ladle it into a smaller container, a small piece of
wood was wrapped with oil-soaked cloth and stuck into the opening.
This worked okay to keep the liquid from spilling out but certainly
didn’t do much to help keep the bubbles in.

The English, however, who had had a much longer experience
with effervescent beverages and had a long-standing economic relationship
with Portugal (long one of the world’s most important producers
of cork), had been using cork as a bottle closure since the end
of the sixteenth century.

Cork is a good material for a bottle stopper, particularly for a bottle
of wine. Its spongy consistency allows it to contract and expand,
so it fits tightly into a narrow-mouthed bottle of solid English glass
without cracking the mouth. It is dense enough to keep the liquid
from spilling out yet porous enough to allow a slight transference of
air in and out of the bottle, should anyone desire to mature the wine
for an extended period of time (which, as it later turned out, many
would).

In 1728, after strong lobbying from aldermen in Reims, Louis XV
issued a royal edict permitting the transportation of Champagne in
bottles (though the quality of French glass was still not as high as
British); up until that time, Champagne, like all other wines in
France, could only be sold and shipped in barrels for tax reasons. This
was a real boon to the “brisk” wine of Champagne; not only did it
help retain the bubbles in the wine, it also facilitated shipping and
took bottling of the wine back from the British middlemen. And
with this development, the commercial potential of sparkling wine
exploded.

 

Excerpt from Alan Tardi’s book: Champagne, Uncorked