Champagne is the wine produced from grapes grown in the northernmost vineyards of France. Even before the Champagne method of producing sparkling wine was developed more than 300 years ago, wine from that region was already among the best in France, according to Hugh Johnson’s Modern Encyclopedia of Wine.
A Benedictine monk called Dom Pérignon, cellarmaster at the Abbey of Hauvillers near Reins, is credited with accidentally discovering how to make wine sparkling by a second fermentation in a tightly corked bottle. As wine professor Dr. Alexander Pandell tells it, Dom Pérignon corked and bottled some wine that was not completely fermented. In the spring, the wine inside the bottles began to warm and ferment, producing carbon dioxide that was trapped in the bottle. Later, he noticed that bottles of wine were exploding. He opened one that was intact and drank, declaring “I’m drinking stars.”
A bronze statue of Pérignon stands outside Moët and Chandon, the famous champagne maker, which was founded in 1743.
Dom Pérignon was also apparently the first man to design a wine by blending grapes from different varieties and vineyards. This blend, the cuvée, is the secret of each winemaker. Some are very complex, with 30 or 40 ingredient wines of different origins and ages.
Blanc de Blancs champagnes are made from white (usually Chardonnay) grapes only and are lighter than traditional champagnes. Blanc de Noirs come from black grapes only and are sometimes a faint pink.
Champagnes vary in sweetness, depending on the percentage of sugar in the dosage, which is typically a mixture of sugar and wine or brandy that is used to top up the bottles after disgorging.
A Doux champagne (with more than 6 percent sugar in the dosage) is very sweet. Demi-sec (4 to 6 percent) is distinctly sweet; Sec (2 to 4 percent) is slightly sweet; Extra Dry (1.5 to 2.5 percent) is dry; and Brut (0.5 to 1.5 percent) is very dry. Some bone-dry champagnes are topped up with wine only and are known by names such as Brut Nature or Brut Intégral, according to Johnson.