One pours it for New Year’s, christens ships with it, clinks it at the Oscars. Marilyn Monroe supposedly bathed in it. And it’s January, so I bet someone with a raised pinkie already has informed you at least once this year that sparkling wine cannot be called “Champagne” unless it is from Champagne, implying that if you do, you are unforgivably gauche and don’t deserve to drink it.
The nomenclature part is, strictly speaking, true. But what that statement suggests about the provenance of everyone’s most revered sparkling wine is designed specifically to sell said wines to said raised pinkies. And it is mostly lies.
According to trade regulations adhered to by both the United States and the European Union, Champagne sparkling wine is a protected designation of origin, and for commercial purposes, you cannot refer to something from even a hair outside Champagne by that sacred moniker. But it is here that I tell you that the origin story that you probably picked up about Champagne is probably incorrect, including the idea that sparkling wine, as we know it, was invented in France at all.
Yes. I know. Sacre bleu.
To be strictly accurate, the first sparkling wines were produced in France, but not in Champagne. As early as the 1530s, the French were producing a cloudy, bubbly wine called Blanquette de Limoux by bottling it before the initial fermentation ended, thereby allowing some gases to build up inside the container. This is called the méthode ancestrale, and it produces the real O.G. sparkling wine, which you can still purchase to this day, and which cannot, according to the rules, be called Champagne. And while these wines are tasty, the method did not become widespread at the time because the bottles had a tendency to explode.
Proper Champagne is now produced in Champagne according to the méthode Champenoise (aka the méthode traditionnelle), which involves first fermenting the wine in batches, then bottling it, adding additional sugar and yeast, and allowing it to ferment a second time in the bottle. These bottles must be laid on their sides and periodically rotated, or riddled, to allow the dead yeast and fermentation waste (yum!) to settle in the neck. This neck is then frozen, the bottle is opened and the pressure from the CO2 forces that little vile plug out. The bottle is then capped off with some additional wine and corked, and the cork secured into place with the little wire cage we’ve all struggled with while our friends watch.
This is the traditional French method of producing Champagne, popularly credited to the French monk/winemaker Dom Pérignon, who, upon first discovering bubbles in bottles of wine in the abbey cellars, was supposed to have said, “Come quickly! I am tasting the stars!” Which is all charming, but untrue. The French did not even invent the méthode Champenoise. It seems to have been — shudder — the English.
Yes! The English! Famed for their supposedly unsophisticated palates and crappy wines and boorish tendency to call Champagne “Champers” for some reason! In 1662, an English gentleman-scientist named Christopher Merrett documented a widespread practice among British wine merchants of purchasing French wines in bulk and then using the above method of adding sugar and bottling and riddling etc. to produce wines with bubbles because their British customers preferred them that way. And they were able to do this in England, as opposed to France, because they made better bottles.
The exploding issue was, actually, a major problem with early sparkling wine, earning it the name “the Devil’s wine.” Pressure inside the bottles could not only blow out the corks, but explode the glass bottles, and one exploding bottle could cause a chain reaction in a cellar, making the bottle next to it explode, and so on, and so on, until the whole batch was lost. Early producers of sparkling wine had to wear iron helmets to protect themselves against the volatility of their own product.
But English glass production (which was actually Merrett’s area of interest, not wine) was vastly superior, so they were able to produce thick-walled bottles that could withstand the pressure from all that built-up gas. Only 200 years later did French bottlemaking catch up, allowing them to begin wide-scale production of the fizzy wines we all pay slightly too much for today.
Thus the newfangled practice of selling sparkling wines in cans should not offend you. The lined aluminum can is an ideal vessel for a beverage under pressure. The actual Dom Pérignon spent most of his time trying to keep his wines from going fizzy so they wouldn’t blow up. The story about him inventing sparkling wine was a later fabrication designed to sell regional wines, and the romantic line about tasting stars appears to date back to a rather poetic 19th-century ad.
So, if you’d like a little fizz from closer to home, there are many fine local sparkling wines available in bottles and cans (Underwood‘s Oregon-produced canned bubbles are ubiquitous in Seattle’s grocery stores — I particularly like the rosé). And given that many of our New Year’s celebrations will be smaller this year, with no one but our household to impress, there’s no reason not to crack open a humble can, one of which is just enough to fill two generous flutes … and no flying corks, so no iron helmets required.