Friday, September 21, 2012


Champagne is a wonderful drink and, if it wasn't for accidents and quirks of nature, it wouldn't exist at all.

There are many studies on how Champagne is made including one by a guy who is funded to count the bubbles in Champagne!

A French guy counting bubbles!!!

The best Champagne Houses give him their product to test and he does! He opens it and, with a heck of a lot of complicated, unpronounceable and expensive equipment counts the bubbles and the intensity of the bead (the stream of bubbles going up and out of the wine.)

The bead

He does come up with (some pretty obvious) things that the Champenoise like and adjust their production accordingly e.g: any imperfections in a glass stimulate the bead; a too clean glass has no bead; and the more sugar added before secondary fermentation results in a larger (more coarse) bubble and imperfect bead.

I could have told them that. They could send me free bottles and I'll open them but you know what? I'll drink the bloody stuff.
 Yes, you've guessed it. This French boffin counts the bubbles and then pours out the wine without drinking any.


 He proudly states "I must have tipped more Champagne down the sink than anyone else in the world" (excluding The Temperance league surely). What a bloody waste.

Anyway. Champagne. How is it made?

Oops. Before I answer that perhaps we should ask" why is it made?"

Well here's a pretty good reason.

or this

Champagne needs to be made from unripe grapes that have been fermented into making an unpalatable, tart, bone-dry wine. Why? Because it is addition of extra sugar and yeast that stimulates the secondary fermentation, in the bottle, that gives the bubbles. If the grapes are too ripe and the resultant 'first wine' balanced then it is a waste of time doing the secondary fermentation. Why? Ask a winemaker or that geek in France who keeps tipping out good Champagne.

Well then. The quirks of nature. Anyone who has visited the cool/cold Champagne region north of Paris will have noticed the chalky/limestone soils and vast caves under the ground

Caves under Epernay in Champagne

 (not to be confused with the vast bomb craters and trench systems left over from WW1).

WW1 bomb crater

Many centuries ago a grape grower fell through the top layer of soil and through the chalk ceiling of a cave system. He fell down to the bottom of the cave but fortunately carried down a tonne or two of soil with him which broke his fall. The soil still had grape vines growing in it and they resumed what they were doing. Growing. The grape grower made his way out of the caves and, at harvest time revisited to check on his grapes. To his surprise the grapes had grown, possibly as a result of the white chalk ceilings and photosynthesis which is the process of sunlight being captured by plants and channelled down through the root systems.


In effect the grapes growing above ground were bringing sunlight down through their root systems which was diffused by the white chalk and gently shone on the underground grapes.

As you would expect the grapes were small and not ripe. They had however reached their cycle of maturity and had to be harvested. Our canny grape-grower, not wanting to waste anything did just that and after many attempts successfully fermented them into a wine. Which was disgusting. He added sugar to some in bottles and it was still disgusting. Again, not wanting to waste any he corked the bottles and left them at the back of his cellar.

After some time the wine re-fermented and and exploded. R.I.P. the grape grower.

The grape-growers family, investigating his demise found out what he had done and decided to repeat the experiment but to do so in a safer way.They used bigger, stronger bottles and wired down the corks.


Champagne took the world by storm.

The carefully guarded secrets of its manufacture soon leaked out. This was not surprising as the neighbour to the North, Germany, had a habit of invading France from time to time and annexing territories like Alsace.

"Mmmmm. I feel like a Gewurtztraminer"

While they didn't successfully take over Champagne, the Germans' various sojourns in nearby Alsace enabled them to snoop around a bit. They discovered the caves, the unripe grapes and the secondary fermentation and took the knowledge back to the fatherland.

Now unripe grapes was a given for the krauts Germans as its cold up there and their grapes were normally lacking in sugar levels. Secondary fermentation was also easy to master as the Germans were quite used to coming second in most things including world wars. The third and most important factor though proved to be more difficult. The caves. Germany has caves but they are all underwater as they exist along the Mosel and Rhine rivers which seep into them. They do have some cave-like fissures in other places but the ground is not chalk, it is granite and cannot be easily dug out. Frustrated, the Germans resorted to using their above-ground unripe grapes. While these were lacking in sugar they weren't lacking in sugar enough. When sugar and yeast was added to the 'first wine' in the bottle to stimulate secondary fermentation the result was a sweetish wine with big bubbles. It was and is called Sekt which is German for sickly.

Around the world, other countries began to experiment n making 'Champagne'. There were no successes. Sure, a lot of sparkling wine was made from Spain to South Africa but none had the magic combination of the three successful elements: unripe grapes grown underground and secondary fermented in bottle.

Champagne had it to itself.

Have you ever looked at a bottle of French Champagne? It will say 'mis en bouteille dans nos caves'.
This is French for '.. made in caves and fermented in this bottle'
The Spanish, unable to replicate the taste and style of Champagne had the cheek to call their concoction 'Cava'. But that's the Spanish for you.

There are caves around the world, don't get me wrong but for various reasons these all proved to be unsuccessful as grape-growing ventures: In China the caves were full of clay warriors; in Spain they were full of dinosaur bones, the sale of which is far more lucrative than making wine; In most parts of Western Europe the caves were used as crypts and were full of religious bones so were a no go area; in Russia - well who knows what goes on over there, certainly not the government.

After several centuries, winemaking came to the newly discovered countries that make up the 'New World' including Australia and New Zealand. These countries make excellent wine, based on variations of the 'Old World' classical grapes.

When it came to making Champagne however, Australia tried but it was too hot on the surface. When they went below surface and investigated cave systems they struck gold - metaphorically speaking. Although. They did actually strike gold. And uranium. And opals. And coal. And iron. And ....etc. They struck pay-dirt in other words and making sparkling wine wasn't featured. Anyway, as far as the Aussies were concerned anything alcoholic with bubbles in it should be a beer shouldn't it (crack a tube, Straya, Straya we luv ya!)

Over to New Zealand.

New Zealand had and has the ideal climate, geography, heat-summations etc. that make up 'terroir' to stick it up, take to, challenge France as a wine making country. The long skinny country we have provides hot to cool wine growing areas that can successfully grow all sorts of varietals that are suited to either warm or cool climates.

But what about Champagne you ask?

Well, New Zealand fortunately is full of holes. There are wonderful limestone (chalk) caves in many parts of the country ideally suited to grape growing and Champagne production. As an added bonus they don't fill up with (unnecessary) water like the German ones do and are not full of dinosaur bones and Christian relics like the European ones.

The production began. And it was good. So good in fact that the frogs French seved injunctions on New Zealand 'Champagne' winemakers prohibiting them from selling the wine labelled as 'Champagne'.

Not to worry. An alternative name, acceptable to the frogs French was Methode Champenoise. Loosely translated this means made in the method of mushrooms. This was OK as everyone knows that the best mushrooms are grown in the dark and this suggested the cave-growing method. All was good.

New Zealand now has a very successful Methode Champenoise industry that is giving Champagne a run for its money. We just need to lift production to be noticed.

The new appelation regions of Waipu, Awakino, Waitomo,  Collingwood, Karamea amongst others are already producing and attracting world-wide attention.

Tourists enjoy combining vineyard visits with black-water caving experiences which is an added money-spinner and a valuable maketing bonus.

Oh, and I should mention. In an environment-friendly world, New Zealand has invested heavily in wine-making sustainability. A serendipidous advantage to making Methode Champenoise in New Zealand caves is that they all have glow worms which means that no electricity is needed for lighting. The savings are tremendous and the carbon footprint greatly reduced.

Glow Worm lighting, Waitomo vineyard


Richard (of RBB) said...

That was actually very interesting.

Terry McDougal said...

Yes, a good read. Will you be doing one on whiskey?

THE WINE GUY said...

Yes, a wine history segment on whiskey makes a lot of sense.
But ........

Richard (of RBB) said...

No it doesn't. Whiskey is not a wine. It's a sort of Scottish drink. You wear a kilt to drink it.


You wear a kilt to drink it."

And things go aklter if you drink too much of it.