It’s amazing how fast the holidays creep up. I say it every year… in fact, I’m sure we all say it every year. Come the first of the month I’m making my wish list and it’s no longer from the Sears Wish Book. What are we going to drink this year? What do I bring to the in-laws holiday party? What pairs well with morning stocking explosions? What will bring peace to a room filled with forty of my cousins? What is going to help us ring in the New Year?
No matter how many reds and whites go through my head like visions of sugarplums… The piece de resistance is always Champagne. From the devil’s wine to a delicacy rivaled by none, here’s a short history of Champagne and why I think it’s so damn good.
Like many wine styles, Champagne as we know it today was truly nothing more than an accident. Located on the cool 54th parallel, the frigid wine producing region northeast of Paris is carved in two by the river Marne. The Romans were the first to plant here in the 5th century, and it was the churches and monks who commonly cultivated the land for sacramental wines. If you then jump to the 16th century, you’ll find a region struggling to rival Burgundy and due to the cool climate and shortened season, struggled to ripen grapes. In the end they were left with thin and acidic wines.
The upside to this was that the British in fact had a palate for the acid driven whites from the region and many of them began shipping up and over. What the producers did not realize at the time was that the cool autumns had in fact halted fermentation, which still needed to be completed to produce a dry and still wine. With the bottled wine sent abroad, it was not until the spring when the temperatures rose that a secondary fermentation was taking place in the bottle and creating CO2. Now imagine the purchaser’s surprise when bottles began exploding left, right and center. Yes, it was in fact the devil’s wine.
The British take credit and the French take credit but regardless, Champagne was born. Over the course of the century, glass became thicker, cages were invented to contain explosions and the famous Methode Champenoise was first documented. This painstakingly long and rigorous process became Champagne’s most famous marker.
By the 17th, 18th and 19th century, the sparkling wine had become associated with both luxury and power. French Kings were anointed in Reims, in the heart of the Champagne region, and the local wine was always used to celebrate. Although not without it’s challenges; world wars, phylloxera and depressions, the region endured and continued to produce their uncompromising wine.
Today, there are over 5,000 producers, 19,000 growers and farming over 270,000 parcels of land in 84,000 acres. Last year the region produced 268 million bottles. They’ve come a long way, baby.
So although the process may vary from other regions, and the chalky soil may separate it even further, what makes it stand apart? Why do we buy it so religiously? Those nuances we love, the creamy texture and the virtual geometry are thanks to nothing more old-fashioned than time spent in those ancient, dank cellars. The time spent quietly on the dead yeast, as it collects in the bottle’s underbelly is what gives the wine its character over time.
So once it reaches us, be it the toasty brioche and honey style or the linear grapefruit and floral school — there are options to run us from sleigh rides to turkey dinners to New Years toasts.
So if you’re thinking of adding some sparkle to your holiday season, here are some classics available in Toronto LCBOs:
Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut Rosé ($40.95)
Tarlant Brut Reserve ($39.70)
Fleury Extra Brut 1995 ($59.75)
Jacquesson Cuvée No.736 Brut Champagne ($69.00)
Krug Grand Cuvée Brut Champagne ($271.95)
Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Brut Champagne ($98.95)
René Geoffroy Premier Cru Brut Rosé de Saignée ($45.75)
Nathalie Falmet Brut ($51.95)