André Simon Awards: ‘Bursting Bubbles’

In the run up to the André Simon Awards this February, the drinks business will be publishing an extract from each of the shortlisted books in the drinks category. Next up is Robert Walters’s ‘Bursting Bubbles: A Secret History of Champagne & the Rise of the Great Growers‘ published by Quiller Publishing.

Once upon a time, the Champagne region produced only still wines – wines that were not meant to sparkle. Before the 18th century, if a Champagne had bubbles in it, it was faulty, undrinkable, an abomination. This was a time that has been largely forgotten. A time when the wines of the region were sold almost exclusively in barrel, as bottles were still very expensive and difficult to transport. A time when fermentation was a poorly understood, unpredictable force, especially in a bitterly cold region like Champagne.

The region of Champagne, in the northeast of France, is at the climatic extreme for French winegrowing, with an average temperature today of around 11 degrees Celsius (and a lower one in the past). In this icy, marginal climate, ripeness was a struggle, and the Champenois were typically forced to wait until very late in the season for their fruit to mature. This meant that when the grapes were harvested, the cold weather was already setting in. When temperatures drop too low, wine yeasts become dormant. They stop consuming sugars, they stop their bubbling, and they lie sleeping in the wine until the temperatures rise again. This arrested fermentation is exactly what would occur in the chilly late autumn and freezing winter of the Champagne area; the wines would appear to finish fermenting, and yet there would still be plenty of residual sugar left in them for the yeasts to consume. Regardless of whether they were shipped or stored in barrel or bottle, these wines would begin bubbling away again when the warm weather returned the following spring.

Unbeknown to the Champenois (before the scientific advances of the 19th century), this new fermentation was simply the yeasts reawakening from their hibernation and beginning to feed again on the sugars that were still present in the wine. This reactivated fermentation was not a great problem when the wine was sold or stored in barrel, as it almost always was prior to the 18th century. In barrels, the gas given off by the fermentation could dissipate. But as more and more wine came to be stored in bottle, this ‘second phase’ of the fermentation resulted in fizzy and cloudy wines that often forced out corks and caused countless bottles to explode. Even if the bottle survived, the wine itself was often badly affected, becoming turbid and stinky and oily. This was why bottle fermentation was at first viewed as a catastrophe by the Champenois. The renowned wine merchant Bertin du Rocheret called sparkling wine ‘an abominable beverage’, claiming that bubbles were only ‘proper for beer, drinking chocolate and whipped cream’.11 Locals desperately tried to find ways to eradicate the problem. Although Dom Pérignon is falsely glorified as the ‘inventor of Champagne’, it appears far more likely that he spent a good deal of his time trying to prevent the local wines from sparkling. There is not one iota of evidence that Dom Pérignon made even a single bottle of sparkling wine. Rather, his abbey was renowned for its still wines, sold almost exclusively in barrel. Myth I (page 30), offers more details about this famous monk and the many tales that surround him.

It was only in the second half of the 19th century, when the work of Louis Pasteur started to make headlines, that the wine trade began to truly grasp the phenomenon of fermentation. Prior to this, although growers obviously witnessed the furious bubbling of the liquid and knew that this commotion was the key step in transforming their grape juice into wine, they had no idea about the dynamics behind this strange and seemingly magical process. Fermentation was typically described as ‘boiling’, ‘bubbling’, ‘seething’ and so on. The root of ‘ferment’ or ‘fermentation’ (the same words in both French and English) is the Latin ‘fervere’, which means ‘to boil’. The Latin word for ‘yeast’ is ‘fermentum’. In other languages, including English, the root of the word ‘yeast’ also derives from ancient words meaning ‘boil’, ‘foam’ or ‘froth’. One exception is the French word for ‘yeast’ – ‘levure’ – which comes from ‘lever’, ‘to raise’, an etymology that obviously derives from the action of yeasts in breadmaking.12 Today, we know that the alcoholic fermentation that converts grapes to wine is a process by which yeasts break down the sugars in the juice, producing carbon dioxide and, of course, alcohol, as the main by-products. In the 18th century, the science behind this process still remained a mystery.

And yet, throughout this period, something surprising started to happen: Champagne merchants began receiving ever more requests from their clients for bottled mousseux. As we have noted, prior to the 18th century, almost all of the wines of Champagne were sold and shipped in barrel soon after the harvest. Yet, as bottling technologies – superior bottles and corks – slowly became more widely available, some of the region’s clients preferred to have these wines bottled as soon as possible in order to keep them fresh. The wines of a cold, northern region like Champagne were usually light-bodied and so quickly oxidised once the barrel had been opened and some of its liquid consumed. This was less of an issue for merchants, who sold full barrels, or tavern owners, who could sell through a barrel quickly, but it was a major problem for wealthy private clients who drank through their barrels of wine much more slowly. These consumers could not help but notice that the wine they were purchasing each year deteriorated over time once the barrel was breached. The solution was to have the wine bottled by their local merchant or in the region itself. Some of this wine naturally became sparkling.

In his book Burgundy to Champagne: The Modern Wine Trade in Early Modern France, Thomas Brennan writes, ‘Historians now generally agree that it was the consumers of the white Champagne wines who discovered how to turn it into a sparkling wine. Some of them had bottled this wine during the spring, before it had finished fermenting, and it had become “bubbly, foamy” (mousseux) in the bottle.’13 Clearly, a number of drinkers liked this foaminess and requested more of the same. Those doing the bottling somehow worked out how and when to bottle the wines of Champagne in order to deliberately make them sparkle. Bottle early, and you got some bubble when you popped the cork; bottle later, after the bubbles had dissipated in the barrel, and you would end up with still wine in your glass.

The English devised an even more systematic method to encourage the wines to sparkle. Tom Stevenson has shown that it was in fact the English who were the first to make sugar additions to all sorts of still wines and ciders with the specific intention of making the liquid bubbly. This practice is a key element in the famous méthode champenoise (Champagne method, now called ‘méthode traditionnelle’, or traditional method), yet it was first presented by an English doctor and scientist, Christopher Merret, to the Royal Society of London in 1662, at least thirty years before it was used in the Champagne region – or anywhere else apart from the UK, as far as we know.14 Cider-making had become popular in 17th-century England, and it appears that the knowledge of how to produce fizzy cider was soon being applied to wines. English merchants were also very keen on heavily sweetening and flavouring the wines they bottled, a practice the Champenois would later mimic.

At this time, England was the only market with access to strong enough glass (made in coal-fired furnaces and reinforced with iron and manganese) to withhold the pressure of genuinely sparkling wine. English glass was far stronger than the wood-fired equivalent from France; the French called it ‘verre anglais’ (English glass), in order to distinguish it from their own, weaker glass. The English also appear to have had far better access to proper corks; the northern French still primarily used wooden stoppers wrapped in hemp in this era – obviously not an ideal closure when it comes to holding the gas in a bottle of sparkling wine.15 From this, it seems clear that it was English, not French, winemakers who were the first to systematically create sparkling wine by refermenting still wine in the bottle. We explore this in more detail in Myth II (page 52).


Reprinted with permission from Bursting Bubbles: A Secret History of Champagne & the Rise of the Great Growers by Robert Walters, copyright © 2016. Published by Quiller Publishing.

All these books have been shortlisted in the drinks category for the André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards 2017 Founded in 1978, the André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards are the only awards in the UK to exclusively recognise the achievements of food and drink writers and are the longest continuous running awards of their kind. The first two awards were given to Elizabeth David and Rosemary Hume for their outstanding contribution in the fields of food and cooking. Other winners include Michel Roux, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Nigel Slater and Rick Stein.

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