In the 17th Century, in the chilly northeastern French region of Champagne, little bubbles appeared in wine bottles. Unknown at the time, an accidental second fermentation caused by the cold created CO2 in the wine, turning the bottles into ticking time bombs. Corks jolted away as if possessed. Bottles exploded, causing chain reactions of shattering bottles. Monks, many of whom were winemakers, called it "le vin du diable" -- the wine of the devil. One monk in particular, named Dom Pérignon, tried desperately to get rid of the bubbles that appeared in his abbey's wine. But try as he might, he couldn't get rid of the fizz.
Since he couldn't fight it, Dom Pérignon decided to try to perfect the art of making sparkling wine, and today he is credited as champagne's inventor. When he tasted champagne for the first time, he is said to have exclaimed, "Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!" The people of the Champagne region followed his lead and embraced champagne as something different (and therefore marketable). Soon it became the dominant product of the region.
Today, the region is home to the best (and only, if you ask them) champagne-makers in the world. By law, anything made outside of the Champagne region is sparkling wine, not champagne, even though some of the major houses like Moet & Chandon, Taittinger and Ruinart have reciprocal houses in California that make "sparkling wine" from local grapes. (I think there should be a little-c big-C distinction, like big and small-r Republicans).
In the historic city of Reims, you can visit the headquarters of large champagne houses, including Moet & Chandon, which decided to name their best line of champagne after Mr. Pérignon. A network of 75 miles of champagne cellars runs underneath the city, originally dug out by the Romans in the 13th century to preserve food and wine. During World War I, while Reims was bombed by the Germans, the city's inhabitants took shelter in these cellars. Schools and hospitals were set up and an underground life developed. The champagne houses took measures to protect their champagne from the refugees, building fake walls to hide the best vintages.
If you have time to venture into the countryside, head to the picturesque village of Ville-Dommange, where almost everyone makes champagne. Fresne Ducret, a boutique champagnery passed down through seven generations, is owned today by Pierre and Gabriella Fresne, a couple in their thirties. For tourists who want to learn how to bring a little bit of the region home with them, Gabriella offers cooking classes, pairing different champagnes with recipes like Roasted Garlic and Pea Canapés with Parmesan and Arugula, and Roasted Supreme of Guinea Hen with Tarragon Jus and Vegetable Tagliatelle.
Outside the couple's reception area, which is outfitted with a rustic wood dining table and bar, I was taught to saber a champagne bottle, a great future party trick if I can pull it off. (Use the back of a large knife to strike the bottle where the vertical line splitting the bottle in two meets the bottle head).
Pierre gave me a tour of his cellar, where the champagne is stored in huge stainless steel vats. When I asked him how he cleans the vats, he told me he climbs in through the little opening and hand washes them. When I didn't believe he could fit through the small opening in the vat, he put his arms over his head as if he was about to dive into a pool and wormed his way in.
"If we expanded, I would spend all day in an office. Right now, I can do everything. I can spend time outside picking the grapes, experiment with new blends. Every single bottle in our cellar has been in my hands at some point," said Pierre, his head sticking out of the wine vat, "and I like it that way."
Champagne bottles aging the the Taittinger cellars. (Credit: Sonja Stark)
A champagne tasting at the Taittinger Headquarters outside the historic French city of Reims.
Champagne bottle sizes in the cellars of Taittinger. The second bottle from the right is a standard size champagne bottle. The largest bottle, at the far left, is the equivalent of 50 standard champagne bottles.
Poached quail’s eggs with morels, asparagus and fava beans; and mini cannoli filled with herb goat cheese mousse at the champagne house of Fresne-Ducret. (Credit: Sonja Stark)
Champagne bottles going through the riddling process, in which dead yeast cells that have accumulated during the aging process are removed from the wine. Champagne bottles are placed upside down at a 75° angle, and turned 1/8 of its circumference by a riddler. Riddlers turn 20 to 30 thousand bottles a day.
Bottles of rose in the Fresne-Ducret wine cellar. (Credit: Sonja Stark)
Champagne bottles riddling in the Taittinger cellars. (Credit: Sonja Stark)
A look down into Taittinger champagne cellars. The cellars, located 59 feet under the city of Reims, were originally excavated by the Romans in the 13th century.
Pierre Fresne of Fresne-Ducret Champagne, climbing into a wine vat in his cellar. (Credit: Sonja Stark)
Pierre Fresne, owner of the Fresne-Ducret champagne house in northern France, demonstrates how he is able climb through a small hole in a champagne vat to clean out the vat from the inside. (Credit: Sonja Stark)
For more information:
-- Fresne Ducret Champagne: Located in the small city of Villedommange outside Reims, this boutique champagnery offers vineyard and wine cellar tours, champagne tastings and cooking classes in French and English.
For more information:
-- ATOUT France/France Tourism Development Agency (www.franceguide.com)
-- Reims Tourist Office (www.reims-tourism.com)
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