About the Region
The most famous and romantic of all French wines, champagne is sparkling wine made from chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier grapes by the so-called méthode champenoise, or champagne method, in northeastern France. (Four other grape varieties are also permitted — pinot blanc, pinot gris, petit meslier, and arbane — but their use is uncommon.) Still wine has been made in the region since the Middle Ages, and at one time the reds, made from pinot noir, competed in the marketplace with those of Burgundy. Legend credits the Benedictine monk known as Dom Pérignon (1638–1712) with having "invented" champagne when he noticed that new wine sealed in a bottle became carbonated (this is due to the carbon dioxide created during the fermentation process, which in ordinary winemaking dissipates into the atmosphere). In fact, the phenomenon was almost certainly noticed by numerous winemakers in the region, both before and after Pérignon — and in fact the formation of bubbles was seen as a fault, which they tried to prevent. Sparkling champagne didn't become the predominant wine of the region until well after the monk's death. In the méthode champenoise, the wine is blended and fermented in stainless steel tanks. It is then bottled, with a crown cap, with yeast and sugar added to facilitate a secondary fermentation. It is during this process that the wine becomes carbonated. The bottles are stored at a downward angle and turned a quarter-turn ("riddled") at regular intervals so that the dead yeast collects by the cap. The neck of the bottle is next frozen and the cap removed, along with the frozen plug of yeast. The bottle is topped up with the so-called liqueur d'expédition, which is some of the base wine with a small quantity of added sugar (the amount of sugar determines the final dryness or sweetness of the champagne). The bottle is then sealed for the last time until serving, with a cork and wire cage.