Flavor Investigator: Champagne

There is no better way to ring in the New Year than with the bubbly sensation of Champagne. Champagne is a variety of sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France. The drink is iconic to the holidays and celebration but have you taken the time consider why this is the case? In order to that we have to take a look back on it’s history.

A Brief History of Champagne

It all started with the Abbey of Hautvillers, an building located in the northeastern region of France. This region is known as the Champagne region as it provides high-latitude locations and good grapes. Prior to 1500 Champagne wines did not contain bubbles. During the late 1400s weather conditions were colder than normal in Europe which ultimately affected the winemaking industry. Yeast which was applied to the grape skins during the warmer months did not allow for an adequate amount of time to ferment.  When these grapes were transferred to containers during the second set of warmer spring months a second fermentation period occurred. This resulted in an excess of carbon dioxide with in the containers and therefore, the birth of Champagne!

Despite the error, these grapes were sold to the French aristocracy. These aristocrats disliked the newly discovered bubbles causing the Champagne wine market to collapse. This distaste for Champagne would last for nearly 200 years until in 1668, when the Catholic Church turned to a monk by the name of Dom Pierre Pérignon to eliminate the bubbles from the wine. During this time the abbey’s wine tastes shifted and sparkling wine became popular. In an unrelated discovery a scientist by the name of Christopher Merrett found that adding sugar to Champagne wines increased their alcohol content and made them more effervescent. This meant that winemakers did not need to rely on cold winters to produce bubbly. Members of the Royal Court at Versailles under Louis XIV began to appreciate bubbles in their wine and by the end of the seventeenth century, Dom Perignon was now asked to increase the amount of bubbles in the wine.  Improving upon Merrett’s discovery, Perignon developed a way to increase the bubbles and ultimately  created the champagne we know today.

Over time, champagne has become associated with celebrations and even religious events like baptisms and weddings. In regards to New Years Eve we have the marketing department to thank for that. During the late 19th century newspaper advertisements depicted champagne at festive gatherings. These advertisements clearly did a good as they appealed to the new middle class of the Industrial Revolution. These workers used the wine to celebrated special events  and eventually caused the sparkling wine market to rise from 6 million bottles in 1850 to 28 million by 1900.

The Flavor of Champagne

The flavour of champagne varies from bottle to bottle because of the uniqueness of each Champagne vinery. Each vinery has a unique method of production and grapes which will ultimately affect the taste. For example, a comparison can be made between a bottle of Canard-Duchene Authentic Brut Non-Vintage and Nicolas Fuillatte Brut Reserve. Canard-Duchene has a slight breadiness, and ripe apple character with chalky freshness finish.  In contrast, Nicolas Feuilatte has honeyed flavours which are balanced with apple notes.

Overall though Champagne has a slight acidity to it. The wine in Champagne has about 1% acid content and a 0.5-1% sugar. This low concentration results in an subtle sweetness many individuals prefer over other sweet alcoholic beverages. The reason why Champagne has fruity notes is because of esters. Esters are class of compounds known for their fruity fragrance and are found in fruits like bananas, pineapples, cherries and lemons.  Lactones, another class of compounds can also be found in champagne. An example of a lactone found in Champagne is gamma-decalactone which imparts a fruity, peachy and sweet aroma. Acids like palmic acid provide waxy and creamy notes while decanoic acid provides acid and toasty aromas.  Other compounds found to contribute flavour to champagne are methyl dihydrojasmonate which is sweet, fruity and floral aroma and 7,8-Dihydrovomifoliol which contribute to fruity aroma.

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