The “Devil’s Wine,” as the monks who created it dubbed the volatile spirit, has become the staple of our celebrations, an object of affection and obsession for rappers, crucial for the christening of ships, a bartender’s secret weapon in scores of dazzling cocktails, and has secured its place in our culture as the highlight of high society. In the world of spirits, champagne is a relative newcomer with a short history, but this effervescent elixir has had little trouble garnering popularity and status amongst vinophiles and cocktail connoisseurs worldwide.
The Champagne region of France has been producing grapes and exquisite wines since the Romans first planted vineyards there in the fifth century, but it wasn’t until Benedictine monks living there accidentally created le vin du diable by introducing a small amount of sugar to the wine before corking. When bottles began exploding in their wine cellars, the monks began wearing heavy iron masks before checking on their fermentations to avoid injuries from exploding bottles.
The legendary monk Dom Perignon is often credited with the discovery of champagne, but documentation of champagne and the fermenting practices it requires predate Monsieur Perignon by several decades. He did, however, pioneer a practice still in use today: a wire net used to secure the cork to the bottle to prevent the pressure from prematurely popping the top. His dedication to this spirit and pioneering methods helped foster its popularity and paved the way for sparkling winemakers around the world. In his honor, French winemaker Moët et Chandon created a champagne as legendary as the monk, and it has become one of the most prestigious and sought after champagnes in the world.
“Dom is popular mostly because of its rarity – the fact that it’s hard to get,” explains Beau Vondra of Look’s Meat Market in Sioux Falls SD. “They limit the amount that they make, and as a result, a lot of high-end champagnes will only produce 500 to 900 cases per year. Supply and demand drives the price up.”
The demand for luxury champagnes has grown exponentially in recent years. Look’s is one of Sioux Falls’ leading sellers of Dom Perignon and Cristal, the vin de choix of rappers and celebrities. While some may balk at the price tag, Vonda would remind them that with it comes a rarity, an age, and a mastering of the art of champagne-making that is rivaled by none. Still, he notes that high end champagnes owe much to pop-culture for their popularity.
“It’s over-sexualized by movies and rap music,” he explains. “Nobody outside of the wine world knew about Cristal until people started rapping about it.”
For consumers who might be in the market for something a bit more modestly priced, the champagne industry offers a wide variety of options from various vineyards, and a seemingly endless range of options based on taste and price. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia explains the range of sweet to dry champagnes: Doux is the sweetest of all champagnes with over 50 grams of sugar per liter, and scaling towards the dryer, less-sweetened end are demi-sec, sec, extra dry, brut (the most popular type of champagne with less than 15 grams of sugar per liter), extra brut, and brut natural (with less than 3 grams of sugar per liter). Tom Slattery, the general manager of JJ’s Wine and Spirits, says that he gets asked questions about champagnes and sparkling wines more often than most products.
“It’s one of the most misconceived products on the market, when really it’s just wine with a bubble,” Slattery explains. “The regionality of champagne is more important than the various styles. It is one of the most misunderstood products on the market, probably because of the generic use of the term.”
Most American consumers refer to all sparkling wines as champagne, when in fact it is not true. Champagne, by law, is a term that can only be applied to wines produced in the Champagne region of France. Apart from serious vinophiles, though, the term is commonly accepted and understood. America, however, is certainly becoming a more prominent player in the sparkling wine industry, as John Thuringer, a fine wine specialist for Republic National Distributing Company explains.
“What really put American sparkling wine on the map was Schramsberg,” he notes. “Nixon brought it on his trip to China in 1976. This marked the first time that an American President had used a non-French sparkling wine at an official White House function. The wine was such a hit that it has been used by every President since.”
Nestled in the heart of Napa Valley, Schramsberg is a pioneer in the American sparkling wine industry and is a leading producer of fine sparkling wines worldwide.
Those less discerning about dryness, sweetness, or regionality may enjoy one of the many popular champagne-based cocktails that have been increasing in demand at bars and restaurants in recent years. Taking things a step further than your average mimosa, a Flirtini is a martini made with vodka, Cointreau, champagne, and pineapple juice.
“People like the taste of champagne, but they view champagne only as a celebratory drink,” says Steve Spaniol, the insightful bartender well versed in the use of champagne. “It adds more of a texture. Champagne enhances fruit flavors and balances a light-bodied drink a lot better than adding rum or tequila.”
Another popular use for champagne is in a bellini, or, “The Italian Margarita.” A delightful blend of frozen peach nectar, white wine, champagne, and rum, finished with a hearty swirl of sangria, a bellini is the perfect after-dinner cocktail. The sangria and the champagne balance well against the density of the peach nectar to create a light-bodied texture that is unusual in a blended cocktail.
“It satisfies both men’s and women’s taste buds,” explains Nicole Webster, a banquet manager with much experience in mixology. “Champagne used to be such an exclusive drink, reserved for celebrations, but adding it as a mixer allows it to be casually enjoyed in an every-day fashion.”
While cocktails like these strive to incorporate champagne into an average night out, many still consider champagne something to be consumed in celebration. You might not find the average American family sitting down with a bottle of brut over dinner, but weddings, birthdays, holidays and promotions offer the most popular opportunities to lift spirits with bubbling elixir. For these occasions, people will always turn to champagne to commemorate and celebrate; however, as Thuringer notes, bars and restaurants are onto something by adding champagne to featured cocktails.
“The direction is there where there are so many affordable whites that it doesn’t have to be reserved for holidays and special events,” Thuringer says.
“Champagne is fine anytime.”