The concept of popping open a bottle of bubbly to celebrate new beginnings, toast to loved ones, or cheers to making it through the week seems as old as time. And, if you dive into the history of Champagne, it pretty much is. While this celebration-worthy sparkling wine has been modernized to feet today’s top trends (mimosas at brunch, for example), it’s unique taste and symbolism is rooted in French history and culture.
Before Dom Pérignon and Veuve Clicquot came about, the fizzy white wine that exudes a sense of elegance and class was viewed as red wine’s uglier, tasteless cousin. In fact, when the Champenois started making wine in the 2nd century, they thought it paled in comparison to the rich, fruity red wine from the neighboring Burgundy region. Because Champagne is based in northern France, it took some time for the local winemakers to learn how to properly ferment grapes, since the cold weather stopped grapes from fully ripening. The ripening process they came up with was a recipe for disaster: The bottles of bubbly had to be stored at the perfect temperature or a bottle in the cellar would explode causing an unfortunate chain reaction.
Then Dom Pérignon entered the scene. While working as a cellar master at an abbey near Epernay, the 17th century Benedictine monk came up with a solution to this ongoing problem: thicker glass bottles that withstood pressure and rope snare that kept corks secure. During this time, English coal-fired glassworks started producing bottles stronger than anything the wood furnaces had made before. By 1740 they developed molding techniques, allowing all bottles and corks to be identical.
The fermentation process, on the other hand, was still unreliable. Widow Clicquot — yes, like Veuve Clicquot — perfected a way for other Champagne producers to get rid of the dead yeast, which ferments the grapes yet leaves a cloudy appearance at the top of the bottle. In the past, winemakers would not-so-gracefully get rid of the yeast, spilling some precious bubbly along the way. Cliquot’s method required winemakers to “remuage” the wine bottle (flip the bottles and let the yeast settle in the neck). Once the yeast was separated, they submerged the bottle in ice to freeze the unsightly yeast that would be removed before re-corking.