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The History of Champagne: From the Devil’s Wine to drinking the stars – The ultimate transformation

From Laura McCann, Dining room manager & in-house wine expert. Laura will be featured on H3Daily once a month to share her vast wine knowledge. It is part of the Hilton Head Health philosophy to consume alcoholic beverages only in moderation in order to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle.  

We are close to toasting the New Year and our heads are dancing with all of our resolutions; so while you lift a glass of your favorite bubbly and look ahead to the transformations your life will be taking in 2013 think of the story of Champagne:

The Champagne we know today started as what is now a happy accident. The region of Champagne, which is in the high northwest of France; has been producing wine since the time of the Romans – but the wines of Champagne were often thin, highly acidic, pinkish wines made from pinot noir (think biting into a tart apple) – hardly the stuff that could compare to the famous Burgundies to the south. 

The people of Champagne were desperate to prove they could make wines worthy of the kings that were crowned in the Cathedral of Reims.  But alas, the grapes in Champagne were in an uphill battle to become worthy delicious reds.  One, it is COLD in northwest France so the grapes must struggle to ripen and it is a ripe grape that gives us luscious fruit.  Second, the region of Champagne is a crossroads of northern Europe and this makes it a great pathway for invading armies including Attila the Hun; and war never does good things for grapes.  Lastly, after the wine was bottled and laid to rest in the cool Roman chalk caves to age, they would tend to freeze before fermentation was complete.  In the spring, with the warming temperatures, fermentation would resume and thus bubbles were born; however, these bubbles led to very unstable bottles – imagine flying corks and exploding bottles (fun fact – you are more likely to be killed by a flying champagne cork then by a poisonous spider bite). So these wines of Champagne were dangerous, mad and even called the devil’s wine.  Not a promising start.

Enter one monk, Dom Perignon, he was the cellar master in Hautvillers, it was he who ultimately gave birth to some of the best methods for producing today’s champagne, from blending and stronger bottles to the invention of the Spanish cork.  The blind monk is oft credited with discovering champagne, probably not true; he in fact spent his life trying to eradicate the bubbles.   In the early part of the 1700’s, Philippe Duc d’Orleans came to the French throne and France was thrown into an extravagant decade with fast young women and gay men, where the pursuit of pleasure was the call of the day and nothing went better with this pursuit then the popping of Champagne corks; but champagne was still scarce, unstable and hard to get ahold of so it was Royalty and people of means who had access to the real stuff.  Time and the Industrial Revolution, along with the help of the Veuve (widow) Clicqout, created better and more stable means of producing the effervescent beverage. 

So champagne, with its branding firmly in the hand of those looking to have good times, and its ties to the lustful courts of France and its scarcity had managed to go from a looked down upon wine to the pinnacle of all brands.   So as you are contemplating your journeys in the new year and wondering if you can make all of the changes you want to in life take time to toast yourself with a glass of bubbly and remind yourself that the golden nectar you are sipping also had humble beginnings before becoming the true star it is today.

You may ask what should you be drinking?

If you are really treating yourself go with Krug or one of France’s other big boy houses: Tattinger, Veuve Clicquot, Piper-Heidsiek; or of course Dom Perignon.

You want to treat yourself but save your wallet:  Grower’s Champagne; The big houses of champagne buy their fruit from 15,000 farmers in France and several years ago these farmers realized they could save the best fruit from the vineyard,  sell the rest and make some spectacular bubbly  at $30 to $40 a bottle.

Want to buy from the States: I highly recommend Schramsberg Brut Rose – but ask your local wine shop for their delicious recommendations.

Want to toast the little milestones along the way: Explore the world of Spanish Cava’s and Italian Prosecco’s .  They don’t have the cache of French Champagne but they do have deliciousness just the same and they are extremely wallet friendly.

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