Friday, 15 April 2011

A Lesson in Fizzics

Legend has it that Dom Pérignon invented it. But the locals of Limoux say their monks were first. Even the English claim to have mastered the style before anyone else. So when and where did bubbles first appear in wine and how exactly do they get there?

Let’s first look briefly at the science of sparkling wine. Bubbles are carbon dioxide (CO2). Cheap sparkling wines are injected with it much like a soft drink but quality wines capture naturally occurring CO2 during fermentation. The Traditional Method, used in Champagne and elsewhere, requires a still wine to be made and bottled before for a second fermentation is induced by the addition of sugar. Sealed in, the gas dissolves into the wine.

The wines of the Champagne region were originally still, though it was a hit-and-miss affair. With limited understanding of wine chemistry, winemakers struggled to prevent wines naturally refermenting (and turning effervescent) as temperatures rose the following Spring. The ‘invention’ of Champagne as we know it was not a Eurika moment, but a process that evolved over centuries.

Dom Pérignon, famous monk of the Abbey of Hautvillers, is synonymous with Champagne yet devoted his life not to making sparkling wine – for he saw it as a fault – but to improving techniques that ensured his wines remained as fresh and aromatic as possible. One of his many lasting legacies was the crafting of white wine from red Pinot Noir grapes.

In the southern French town of Limoux, the winemaking monks of St Hilaire made no attempt to prevent secondary fermentation, turning it instead to their advantage, They did so by using cork, from nearby Catalonia. This tight seal proved to be effective in trapping carbon dioxide in the bottle. The sparkling Blanquette de Limoux has been made since 1531 but early glass bottles were barely strong enough to withstand the pressure of a sparkling wine and certainly did not travel well.

The fashion for sparkling wine first took hold in London where merchants decanted and bottled oak casks of Champagne into superior quality English glass which proved less prone to exploding. The first written mention of Champagne as a sparkling wine in England was in 1676.

Early Champagnes were not clear, but cloudy. Secondary fermentation in bottle results in a sediment of dead yeast cells and it was Antoine de Muller, an employee of the Widow (Veuve) Clicquot who finally solved that problem in the early 1800s. He invented the technique of remuage – turning bottles daily to coax sediment to the neck of the bottle, thereby facilitating its removal.

Sparkling wines are made the world over with most wine regions boasting a signature style. While the Spanish have Cava and the Italians Prosecco, the French have Champagne and various sparkling wines known as Crémant made, most notably, in Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Loire.

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