Champagne: The Cure for All That Ails You

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | jan. 2016

The Champagne area of France is the only place (appellation) in the world entitled to use the word Champagne, all other wines of this type identify as either sparkling, methode champenoise, or Cava (from Spain) or Prosecco (from Italy). The Champagne area is located in northern France around the city of Reims. This area of France is located close to the 48th parallel and the countryside is bucolic with lots of dairy farms in addition to vineyards, the wine that is produced here is in my opinion some of the best fermented grape juice in the world, but how Champagne got to the apex of the wine industry is fascinating. How it affects ones health should be of even more interest to us baby boomers as we start into our seventh decade on earth.

The story of modern Champagne begins with jealousy and envy. In medieval times the churches played a very significant role in the political structure of Europe. During this time the Catholic churches owned most of the vineyards. Monks produced wine for use in the sacrament of the Eucharist and for the rest of the populace. In France, kings were traditionally coronated and anointed by the church and the Cathedral in Reims was the place where this occurred. Wine was part of the coronation process but the wines of the Champagne region were inferior to the wines produced in Burgundy to the south. The northerly climate was not conducive to making the red wines that were produced in Burgundy. The grapes were subject to late season frosts and often struggled to ripen. The wines were extremely acidic and mouth puckering with low sugar levels. As a result, the finished wines were lighter and thinner than the Burgundies from the Maconais in the south. The Champenois were determined to improve the quality of their wines in order to outdo the Burgundians. This effort would lead to the legendary wines we drink today, but technology would have to change several things first.

Contrary to popular lore, Dom Perignon did not invent Champagne. The first record of something like Champagne was recorded by the Benedictine monks at the Abbey de Saint-Hilaire in 1531. They bottled wine before the initial fermentation had ended. If you have ever bottled your own homemade beer too soon, you know what probably happened. It was not until the English glass maker's guild invented a stronger glass bottle, sometime in the 1660s, that further developments could happen. In 1662 an English scientist (Christopher Merret) documented the addition of sugar to a finished wine that created a second fermentation. Merret presented a scientific paper to the Royal Society in which he detailed the method that is now referred to as the Methode Champenoise. This was not immediately transformative in Champagne and the first attempts produced what the French called “le vin du diable” or devil's wine because the corks exploded as well as the bottles. It wasn't until 1844 when Adolphe Jaquesson invented a wire contraption called the musclet, that held the cork in place, that the second fermentation in the bottle could occur safely. The Champenois though, continued to bottle Champagne before the initial fermentation was complete until the 19th century when they finally adopted the methode champenoise almost 200 years after Merret developed the process. When they started adding sugar to the wine after the initial fermentation occurred, Champagne production exploded from 300,000 bottles in 1800 to 20 million bottles just 50 years later. There was one more technological step that had to occur before the modern version of Brut Champagne could be made. In 1846 Pierre Jouet decided not to sweeten that year's vintage prior to exporting it to London and in 1876 the designation of Brut was assigned as a category of champagne which is the most popular version enjoyed today.

Over the past 165 years, the vignerons of Champagne have perfected the technique to the point that the best wines are extremely consistent from year to year. In Bordeaux and Burgundy today, the vintners essentially take what Mother Nature provides from year to year depending on the weather and other factors, but in Champagne, the blenders are experts at mixing wine from previous vintages in order to produce a wine that tastes consistent from year to year regardless of the weather.

For those of us who include wine as a part of a healthy living regimen, Champagne offers an additional benefit in that it may protect the brain from injuries incurred during a stroke and other ailments like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. A research paper published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in 2007 stated that responsible drinking of Champagne may benefit ones health because research has shown that sparkling wine contains high amounts of polyphenols. Further lab testing with cortical neuron cells from mice confirmed that these polyphenols protected the cells from the toxic effects of peroxynitrite a compound formed in the brain during inflamed conditions. The polyphenols responsible: caffeic acid and tyrosol, had anti-inflammatory properties and acted as cellular level mops, cleaning up and removing harmful chemicals from the body. These polyphenols are similar to those found in red wine that were discussed in that famous 60 Minutes program on the benefits of drinking red wine.

I found what I think are the two best Champagnes in the Green Bay market place. These wines are from the two premiere producers of Champagne: Roederer and Taittinger.

The non-vintage Taittinger Brut La Française ($50, 12.3 percent alcohol) is a blend of 40 percent Chardonnay, 35 percent Pinot Noir and 25 percent Pinot Meunier. The high proportion of Chardonnay is unique among non-vintage champagnes. The wine rests on its own lees for four years which produces a delicate aromatic quality with aromas of peach, white rose's vanilla pod and sweet brioche. The flavors of fresh fruit and honey will pair well with lobster, sushi on the savoury side and sweet soufflés on the desert spectrum.

The Roederer 2007 L'Ermitage Tete de Cuvee ($38, 12.5 percent alcohol) is from the estates in California; therefore it is called a sparkling wine. Do not mistake this as being inferior in any way. The juice for this wine comes only from special vintages. The wine for the reserve dosage was aged for five years before disgorgement and then five months after prior to release. The flavor profile here is apricot tart and hazelnuts with a creamy citrus acidity on the finish. Try it with truffles, pork belly, roast chicken or veal.

If you can't think of a reason or occasion to drink Champagne think of Lily Bollinger's famous quote about the wine, “I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it -- unless I'm thirsty.”

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