Robert Walters’ new book, Champagne: A Secret History is absolutely fascinating. It’s part history of the famous Champagne region, part travel guide (to gorgeous France, mon dieu!) and part tasting guide.
But most of all, it shatters numerous myths of champagne – about the people who make it, the people who market it and the drink itself.
I lost count of the number of times I shouted ‘NO! GETTA OUTTA HERE! SERIOUSLY?’ while reading this book.
Veuve Clicquot isn’t just a brand name. ‘Veuve’ means ‘widow’ in French and Barbe-Nicole Clicquot-Ponsardin – better known as the Veuve Clicquot after her husband died – invented remuage (riddling), which helps the Champagne become clearer.
Louis Pasteur‘s discoveries – which led to the widespread pasteurisation of milk – also ‘ultimately led to the mastery of bottle fermentation and dosage addition, practices so integral to the Champagne tradition.’
Moët & Chandon has been the largest producer in the Champagne region since 1762 – ‘a bottle of Moët is opened somewhere in the world every two seconds of every day, of every year.’
Walters is a Melbourne wine merchant, vineyard owner and writer with over twenty-five years of experience in the wine trade. He’s also an excellent writer – this book is a joy to read.
Here are a few more of my favourite factoids from Champagne: A Secret History. Grab yourself a copy and read it with a bottle of bubbly close by!
1. Dom Pérignon is not the father of Champagne
Pérignon was the cellarmaster of the Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers in the late 17th-century. Historians have discovered records of the abbey which suggest that the abbey never even made sparkling wine while Pérignon was there.
He does, however, seem to have been instrumental in ensuring that Hautvillers abbey wine was renowned for high quality. It just wasn’t sparkling wine.
The rise of Champagne as a luxurious, celebratory beverage appears to have been a combination of novelty value, celebrity endorsement (from ye olde kings and queens to Scarlett Johansen and Roger Federer) and a very savvy marketing machine.
2. The Champenois were not the first to make sparkling wine
In fact, they spent centuries trying to get the bubbles to go away.
The English made stronger bottles and more reliable corks. French glass was so brittle they wound up with exploding bottles thanks to the gassy bubbles. The English were deliberately putting bubbles in their bottled cider in the 1600s. This goes a long way to explaining why the English were toasting with sparkling wine in the 17th-century, while winemakers in the Champagne region’still considered it a fault’.
3. Some of the best Champagne is grown from garbage
The soils of the vineyards of Champagne glitter. Why? Because they’re full of rubbish – including glittering glass. From the 1960s until 1998 the soil was fertilised with boues de ville (which, according to Google Translate, means ‘sludge’). This means that the roots of these famous vines spend their days squished up against ‘bits of shampoo bottles, Tetra Paks, dolls’ heads, batteries, scraps of metal, bottle tops, crushed cans and so on.’
4. Champagne actually isn’t a very good dessert drink at all
This tradition originated in the days when Champagne was a very sweet wine and typically had at least 30-60 grams of added sugar, and quite often a lot more.
These days a bottle of Champagne contains up to 12 grams. Some premium brands add between 0-5 grams. You can still find sweeter versions, though they’re rare. Look for Sec (17-32 grams per litre), Demi Sec (32-50 grams per litre) and Doux (over 50 grams per litre).
5. There’s no such thing as ‘natural’ champagne
Anselme Selosse is considered one of the great growers of the Champagne region. He doesn’t use herbicides and tries to work with the living soil as much as possible to bring out the ‘terroir’ – the flavour of the land – in his famous Champagnes. However, Selosse rejects association with the ‘natural wine’ marketing label:
This idea makes no sense. The vineyard is not natural. The vineyard is a monoculture. Nature is the forest.
As Walters fascinatingly expands:
Nature – whose logic is to introduce biodiversity to compete with and feed on any imbalance or abundance (in this case the vines and their fruit) – must be kept at bay, at least to some extent, if quality wine is to be produced. In many ways, the work of the vigneron (even a vigneron who works as closely with nature as possible) is in direct opposition to the forces of nature.