Champagne – A Global History by Becky Sue Epstein
A tour of one of France's most famous wine regions
By Robyn Lewis
It’s sad news for Champagne lovers that the 2012 vintage has been almost a writeoff. The cold weather and rain that fell in the leadup to the London Olympics carried across the English Channel, dashing the hopes of the region’s vignerons.
Such is life in a cool climate wine zone, where conditions are by definition marginal. For every great year, there is a failure, and many in between. Grape growers and wine makers need to be prepared for such eventualities.
But when the sun shines and the weather gods are favourable, the Champagne region produces one of the best, and certainly one of the most famous, wines in the world. Joy!
Located north-east of Paris, Champagne was well positioned to sell its wines to the nation’s capital, although centuries ago this was still several days’ travel by horse and cart. Originally these wines were light red, still (or slightly spritzig) and quite acidic wines, reflecting their northerly latitude and short ripening season, and were often transported to Paris in barrels by river barge, and sold direct to taverns. They were also shipped to London.
We learn in Champagne – A Global History that the first genuinely sparkling wines recorded were produced as early as 1516 in Limoux, a small, mountainous region near the Mediterranean. But being far from the capital, they were unable to reach the city market, and remained largely unknown.
Then along came Dom Pierre Pérignon, a twenty-nine year old Benedictine monk who because treasurer at the local abbey in 1668. At that time, monks were the world’s winemakers, and many monasteries were funded by wine sales.
Dom Pérignon had wine experience, and was aware of changing market tastes, especially in London. He became a hands-on, meticulous vigneron, insisting on rigorous pruning in the Champagne vineyards to improve quality, through to improved winemaking techniques to achieve consistently excellent wines (weather permitting).
By 1700, the demand for sparkling wines was taking off. In London, some barrels of wine from Champagne had been topped up with a little sugar – the resultant fizz became a sensation! Of course the biological reasons for this were not understood, but Dom Pérignon had some knowledge of the Limoux production, and decided to replicate it.
He was a genuine innovator, experimenting with glass bottles and tying the corks down with twine. It wasn’t until bottles were made thicker and stronger that this became common however – bottles regularly exploded, sometimes with fatal results – but by the time he died aged seventy six in 1715, he had set the Champagne region on a very different course.
Champagne – A Global History follows the evolution of this divine beverage from its origins, through the evolution of the major Champagne houses (the oldest is Ruinart, founded in 1729) to the present day. Through wars and depressions, the Roaring 20s to the coronations of royalty and grand dining occasions, Champagne has been in demand. It is interesting to learn of the significant role that women have played in its evolution and marketing, as far back as the 1800s.
Champagne has evolved its own culture – indeed, a cult – and there are more followers today than ever. In 2007, there were over 38 million bottles shipped, and despite the vagaries of the seasons, this is expected to continue to rise, as consumers globally learn more of the smaller houses and tastes become even more discerning.
The book, being small and slender, does not contain tasting notes, but tells us what to look for in general in a good bottle of Champagne. For they are not cheap, and a dud – often caused by poor storage, or excessive exposure to light – can be very disappointing.
Tastes for particular brands vary by country: in Britain the toasty styles of Bollinger and Billecart-Salmon are favoured, whereas in the USA the preference is for a lighter, fruitier stile such as Mumm’s Cordon Rouge or Moët et Chandon’s Imperial.
In Australia, the range of available Champagnes is increasingly rapidly, as is consumption, no doubt due in part to the high Australian dollar (we drink about 1% of global production). A reputable importer will be able to offer good advice; we also recommend Tyson Stelzer’s excellent The Champagne Guide 2012-13 for specific information on the different houses and styles.
The book is illustrated with small but exquisite photographs of the region and its wines; the view of the castle of Boursault near the Marne River makes me want to visit immediately, although the book itself does not contain tourism information.
Champagne – A Global History closes with a small section on Champagne cocktails, from the tame Mimosa (with orange juice) to the ominous-sounding Death in the Afternoon (with absinthe). Personally, I like Champagne pure, and this pocket-sized, lightweight guide is a great little read in helping to understand and get more out of every glass. It would make a great gift, accompanied by a bottle of Champagne, of course!
Champagne – A Global History by Becky Sue Epstein is published by Reaktion Books (London, 2011; hc 136 pp) and is part of the Edible Series dedicated to food and drink. Other titles include Apple, Caviar, Cheese, Chocolate, Ice Cream, Lobster, Olive, Pizza, Soup, Tea, Vodka and Whisky.
It retails in Australia for RRP A$19.95, and Champagne – a Global History can also be purchased online via Booko.com.au here »
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