Science & Nature

Who put the bubbles in Champagne?

Who put the bubbles in Champagne? thumbnail

Published December 29, 2022

10 min read

Popping corks and fizzing bubbles are the signature sounds of Champagne, perhaps the most popular drink to ever come out of France. Associated with wealth, glamour, and good times, this sparkling white wine can be found at celebrations of all kinds, from boisterous New Year’s Eve parties to intimate dinners for two.

While fizzy wines are made all over the world, to be called “Champagne” the wine’s grapes must hail from the Champagne region of France, and the wine must be made using the méthode champenoise to create the signature bubbles. Stemware was designed to highlight the appearance of these bubbles. Tall slender flutes and sophisticated coupes showed off the sparkles created by the method.

Wine is made by fermentation, when yeast converts the sugars in grapes into alcohol. The chemical reaction produces carbon dioxide, which is allowed to dissipate when making a still wine. To make a bubbly one, vintners employ a second fermentation inside the bottle, which traps the gas within. When a bottle of sparkling wine is opened, it’s the escape of the carbon dioxide gas that produces the distinctive “Pop!” as well as the beverage’s tiny bubbles.

“Pinning down a date for Champagne’s first bubble is one of those silly academic crusades, as [naturally occurring] fizzy wine has been around for as long as wine itself,” said David White, author of But First, Champagne: A Modern Guide to the World’s Favorite Wine. A place with a deep, rich history of winemaking, Champagne’s viticulture goes back 2,000 years. Romans planted vines there around 57 B.C., and they gave the area its name: Campania, Land of Plains. These early wines were meant to be still, and it would be centuries before Champagne became synonymous with sparkling wine.

(How shipwrecked Champagne is changing winemaking.)

Birth of the bubbles

By the Middle Ages the abbeys and priories of Champagne were producing light-bodied reds that won many admirers. Philip Augustus, France’s ruler from 1180 to 1223, would only serve wine from Champagne’s Abbey of Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers. Champagne’s capital, Reims, traditionally hosted royal coronations, which featured local wines. At the coronation of Louis XIII in 1610, only the wines of Champagne were served.

These lands are France’s northern-most wine-growing region, and its cold winters could interrupt fermentation. When temperatures warmed, the process would restart, and gas would be produced in the bottle. Sometimes it would turn the wine fizzy, but it could also cause glass bottles to explode.

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The Champagne name game

Pinot Blanc, illustrated here, is one grape varietal that is used to champagne.

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Pinot Blanc

Pinot Blanc is the name of one varietal that is used to make sparkling wine; the final appellation of the wine ​itself depends on where it was grown and bottled.

DEA/Album

Sparkling white wines are also made in Italy (prosecco), Spain (cava), and California (which has been making them since the 1860s). Some of these houses use the méthode champenoise to produce their bubbles. But in the eyes of the world, these wines are not true Champagne. European Union trade agreements bar the use of the term “Champagne,” along with “méthode champenoise,” to protect the French appellation. Even so, some sparkling wines from California, such as Korbel, use the term “California Champagne” to describe their bubbly. In other words, all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne.​

Birth of the bubbles

The question, then, is who was the first to intentionally make sparkling wine? To White and other experts, the answer lies in England. Champagne wines were shipped there in casks. Upon arrival, the wines were transferred from casks into thick glass bottles with cork stoppers where a secondary fermentation could happen. If it did, the bubbly wine delighted English drinkers, who began working out how to make the fizzy stuff themselves.

(Raise a glass to the British version of champagne.)

In 1662, in a paper delivered to the Royal Society, Dr. Christopher Merret stated, “Our wine-coopers of recent times use vast quantities of Sugar Molasses to all sorts of wines to make them brisk and sparkling.” This description is the first documented use of deliberately adding sugars to wine in a sealed bottle, the technique that became the basis of Champagne production.

A few years after Merret submitted his paper, Dom Pérignon, a Benedictine monk, would become the cellar master of the Abbey of Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers. Later, in the 19th century, he would be falsely credited as Champagne’s inventor when in reality he was the first to blend different grapes to create lighter, more complex still white wines. Far from being the inventor of fizzy wine in the region, he may have even worked to get rid of bubbles in Champagne wines.

The growing English taste for fizz began to catch on with the French aristocracy even though Champagne production was technically demanding—in 1710 fewer than 10,000 bottles were sold. In 1715, after the death of Louis XIV, Philippe II, duc d’Orléans, became regent until Louis XV came of age. His parties famously featured sparkling wine. The oldest winery in Champagne dedicated exclusively to sparkling wines, Ruinart, opened in 1729. In the 1730s Voltaire’s poem “The Man of the World” captured the bubbly’s growing appeal:

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Serve me with wine, whose mighty force 

Makes the cork from the bottle fly 

Like lightning darting from the sky.

(Ancient wines are having a moment in Italy. Here’s why.)

Mothers of invention

Champagne’s popularity steadily spread from France and England to other markets. The advance to world domination began in full force during the 19th century, with French widows leading the charge. In the early 19th century, married women had little independence, but widows could own property and businesses. A small group of women who took over Champagne labels from their deceased husbands transformed them from modest operations into today’s most recognizable houses.

Foremost among these women is Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, better known today as Madame Clicquot, or Veuve (Widow) Clicquot. Her husband died in 1805, and she struggled to revive their sinking wine business amid the widespread upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). But war, she realized, could be turned to her economic advantage. As the conflict drew to a close, she anticipated demand for Clicquot wines in Russia, whose troops had occupied Champagne and developed a taste for its wines. Defying French trade blockades, she shipped her Champagne to Russia, where it found great acclaim.

(A road trip plan for Champagne, France.)

Madame Clicquot is probably best known for her innovative solution to a problem that had bedeviled Champagne makers for centuries: how to remove the sediment formed after secondary fermentation. If left inside the bottle, this layer would make the wine cloudy and unappealing. Vintners would remove it by transferring wine from one bottle to another, which was a labor-intensive and wasteful process.

Madame Clicquot designed a rack to store wine upside down during secondary fermentation, so the sediment would collect in the neck of the bottles. By pulling the corks on these bottles, the layer was easy to remove with little loss of fluid. This technique, called remuage (or riddling), is still used today. For Clicquot, it also accelerated production to meet rising demand and outpace competitors.

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In the 1860s another Champagne widow, Louise Pommery, created a sparkling wine using less sugar. Dry rather than sweet, Pommery Champagnes relied on better quality grapes and took longer to produce, so they were more expensive to make. Economically, Pommery took a risk, but it proved to be a shrewd move in an international market. Pommery looked to Britain, already awash with sweet wines such as port, Madeira, and sherry, and whose consumers were looking for something new. Pommery’s brut style of Champagne won over Victorian England and soon the rest of the world. It remains one of the most popular styles of Champagne today.

(A road trip in Burgundy reveals far more than fine wine.)

Grapes of wrath

Champagne’s geographic location has made it a battleground whenever France has been invaded from the east. For centuries, conflicts rampaged over the Land of Plains, led by the Romans, the Goths, and Attila the Hun. Later, the Hundred Years’ and Thirty Years’ Wars had huge impacts on the region. One of the most devastating events inflicted on Champagne was World War I, when more than 40 percent of the region’s vineyards were destroyed. During the conflict, residents in the heavily bombed city of Reims sought shelter in wine cellars. With most local men fighting in the French Army, the tasks of gathering grapes and processing wine fell mostly to women, who emerged from the cellars by night to pick grapes and keep basic production alive.

In World War II Champagne was again occupied by the Germans, but the vineyards survived relatively intact. Winston Churchill (who some say consumed 42,000 bottles of Champagne in his lifetime) told his colleagues at the height of the war: “Remember, gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!”

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