This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Champagne Wishes: The Tastes of Celebration, first released on December 20, 2022. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
LAUREN FRIEL: Okay. So we’ll open the champagne.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Nice.
FRIEL: So when you’re in sommelier school, or whatever, they teach you that the pop should be no louder than a nun’s fart. So that was actually a little louder than it should have been, but we’re on radio, so I guess…
[GLASSES CLINKING TOGETHER]
NICOLA TWILLEY: That’s loooovely.
GRABER: Nicky’s in her happy place.
TWILLEY: Yeah, this is good.
TWILLEY: It was indeed. I am a simple girl at heart. A glass of champagne is all it takes.
GRABER: That and a big fat paycheck to buy champagne on the regular. But we’ll ignore the paycheck side for now, because champagne is far more fun.
FRIEL: I would say, champagne is a magical beverage.
TWILLEY: And I would obviously agree. This is Lauren Friel, she’s the owner of Cynthia’s favorite bar and wine shop in all the world, it’s called Rebel Rebel and it’s in Somerville, Massachusetts. And Lauren is one of our guides this episode as we pop the cork and get fizzy with it.
GRABER: We of course are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And in case you hadn’t realized, this episode is devoted to one of the greatest beverages known to humanity, my personal favorite, champagne.
GRABER: I’m one of the rare people who had to be converted to champagne. I mean I always wondered: why the hype? Is it really worth the big bucks?
TWILLEY: Fair question, and I’ve always wondered, apart from that price tag, how exactly is it different from prosecco and cava and all the other sparkling wines out there? Are they basically champagne too?
GRABER: Who were the original Dom Perignon and Veuve Clicquot? And why were Marilyn Monroe, Winston Churchill, Napoleon, and now even Nicky obsessed with one particular sparkling wine?
TWILLEY: All the greats. What are we waiting for? Let’s dive in.
GRABER: But first, don’t forget in this season of joy, if we bring you joy, even just a little, please let us know, and if you can, then also please help support the show!
TWILLEY: We know you can listen for free, but we also know you know that it costs money to make the show, and in fact it costs more money than we make from the adverts you hear. We need listener support to make Gastropod, plain and simple. So if you can chip in with any amount, we are so grateful. Gastropod.com/support or Patreon.
GRABER: If you already do support the show, thank you, and if it’s not in the cards for you right now, we understand, and are glad to have you as a listener. Thanks to all of you!
TWILLEY: Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
GRABER: So first question: Is champagne famous because it was the very first sparkling wine?
TWILLEY: And the answer is…no! Sparkling wines were made all over the shop.
BECKY SUE EPSTEIN: Sparkling wines were made intentionally or unintentionally, probably for thousands of years.
TWILLEY: Becky Sue Epstein is a champagne expert and the author of Champagne: A Global History. And she told us that the first sparkling wines were definitely an accident.
GRABER: In fact, all wines were originally an accident. Yeast on grape skins fermented grape juice and turned it into alcohol, the alcohol is poisonous to yeast and they die. But alcohol is not the only yeast byproduct, they also poop out carbon dioxide.
EPSTEIN: So, if you capture the carbon dioxide, it essentially carbonates the wine. But most wine used to be made in open vats.
TWILLEY: And in the vats, the carbon dioxide would just bubble up to the surface and float away into the air, and your wine would be still.
GRABER: But then people started stopping up their casks of wine and storing them over the winter. And the cold puts any yeast that are still alive to sleep.
FRIEL: The fermentation would become dormant over the winter when the temperatures cooled. And then would kick up again in the spring if there was still active yeast cells in the bottles.
EPSTEIN: And because the wine was capped or in a barrel or a bottle, it became sparkling because the carbon dioxide byproduct couldn’t get out.
TWILLEY: This happened more frequently in the chillier winemaking areas—the yeast had a shorter time to make the wine before it got too cold, and so the chances were higher that some yeast cells would still be alive and have some grape sugar left to snarf when spring rolled around. So the wine would start fermenting again in the closed container, and get bubbly.
FRIEL: And if that happened that was like very, very, very bad.
GRABER: This accidental sparkling wine probably happened for thousands of years, but nobody bothered to mention it. It was just a thing that sometimes bubbled up in the spring, and it was considered a flaw in the wine.
TWILLEY: So no one knows where or when it first happened. What we do know is where and when it was first described, which was in the southwest of France—i.e., not in Champagne.
EPSTEIN: Limoux is distinguished because they have the first written record of trading in sparkling wine in the early 1500s.
GRABER: But even if the first people to write about it were in Limoux, the problem—this fizzy accident—did happen a lot in Champagne, because of where it is.
EPSTEIN: It’s almost the most northern part of the world where you can grow grapes.
TWILLEY: Champagne is the name of a particular region of France—it’s in the northeast, toward the border with Belgium.
GRABER: And this region wasn’t originally famous for delicious fizzy wine. First it was famous actually for wool, but the Romans had planted vineyards there a couple thousand years ago, and that wine did gain some fame after the Romans left.
FRIEL: But, at that time, it was actually a very, very kind of high acid, what we would maybe consider today unpalatable, very light bodied red wine. There was no fizz, there was no sparkle.
TWILLEY: So far, so unpromising. But then the wines of champagne got a real boost from an early influencer: Clovis. Not a household name today, but he was a big deal back in the 400s. The Roman Empire had collapsed, and Clovis had managed to carve out a personal kingdom in what’s now France.
EPSTEIN: Clovis had a really big battle and he was very nervous about it. And he, and he told his wife, who was a Christian, an early Christian, that if he won this battle, he would convert to Christianity. And he won. And he converted, in the Reims Cathedral. And after that, all the kings of France were crowned there. Reims is one of the two major cities of the Champagne region.
GRABER: Location, location, location. Clovis was known as the King of the Franks, and so all the other kings wanted the same seal of approval, they wanted to be crowned in the same spot that Clovis was. And that spot had a bunch of thin, acidic wine made there that they could serve at the post-coronation banquets. Frankly, it was the only option.
FRIEL: And so the wine that was made from that region, was just kind of associated with this level of aristocracy.
TWILLEY: This accidental luck of geography wasn’t the only thing the otherwise disappointing wines of Champagne had going for them. First of all, the fact that the grapes were so unripe and the wine was so acidic actually had a silver lining.
EPSTEIN: The upside was it actually preserved a little bit, better than some of the wines that didn’t have as much acidity in them.
GRABER: And that preservation made it perfect for another happy accident of location—there were rivers in the Champagne region that flowed to Paris and to the sea. And even though kings weren’t crowned in Paris, it was basically the center of everything else.
TWILLEY: In an era before railways or trucks, rivers were the number one best way to move something as heavy as a barrel of wine. So these longer lasting acidic wines were shipped down the river and became a favorite at court.
GRABER: But remember, these wines were stored over the winter and it’s a cold region and they frequently became fizzy by spring. Wine merchants in Champagne would even tell their customers to drink their wine before Easter or the hated bubbles would appear. Fizzy wine was a problem in the church because priests were only allowed to use still wine to celebrate Catholic mass. Fizzy wine was a Champagne headache.
TWILLEY: For the person whose name is perhaps most associated with champagne today, it was definitely a headache. I am referring, of course, to Dom Perignon. The monk, not the brand.
GRABER: Dom Perignon was a monk who lived in Champagne in the mid 1600s. He became business manager of a monastery in the region. Wine-making was big business at monasteries, monks used wine for mass but they sold it to make money, too, and that particular monastery had been famous hundreds of years earlier for its wine.
TWILLEY: But over the centuries, the monastery had been neglected and everything, including the grapevines, was in a bit of a state. Dom Perignon whipped it into shape.
EPSTEIN: He also became famous because he really looked at how the vineyards were kept and what was in them, what kind of vines, what was the soil, how did they prune the vines. So he really was a great winemaker. And he tried to make still wines at first.
GRABER: There’s a famous story that Dom Perignon went on to invent champagne. He took a taste of some accidentally fizzy wine in the spring, and the story goes that he called out to the other monks, “Brothers, I am drinking stars!”
TWILLEY: This story is a complete pile of horse puckey for at least two reasons. One, as we just said, these kinds of accidents had been happening since the dawn of barrels that trapped carbon dioxide, so this definitely wouldn’t have been his or the other monks first taste of bubbly wine. They were drinking stars on a regular basis. And two, Dom Perignon wanted to make fine wine, and like we also said, fizz was a flaw.
GRABER: But as it happens, a few other people had started to appreciate these supposedly flawed wines. The Brits got barrels of French wine shipped over, and they liked it when the wine was a little fizzy. They’d developed a taste for fizz, because they’d perfected a technique to make glass stronger, and they used that strong glass to bottle fizzy alcoholic cider, which they loved.
TWILLEY: We talked about this glass breakthrough in our episode about apples. It happened like so many things, kind of by accident—Britain is a small island and the British had basically cut down all their trees, which made the King nervous about what he would use to build his navy.
EPSTEIN: So they told the glass makers in England that they couldn’t use wood, they’d have to use coal. And it turns out that a coal fire makes a stronger piece of glass.
GRABER: And a stronger glass bottle won’t explode as easily when yeast are pooping out carbon dioxide. Long story short, Brits loved sparkling cider, and even supposedly flawed sparkling wine. And it turns out that while most French aristocrats preferred still champagne, some of them had developed a preference for the sparkling version too.
EPSTEIN: The regent in the early 1700s, the Duke D’Orlean, was known to be mainly under the influence of champagne pretty much all the time. And in fact, there’s a famous letter from his mother that says, This is a very light, frothy, healthful wine. So of course it’s great that he drinks it.
TWILLEY: Dom Perignon was an old man by this point. But he likely would have noticed that the flawed fizzy stuff was getting a little more popular. There’s a debate among champagne historians as to whether Dom Perignon ever made any sparkling champagne intentionally himself. But he may well have at least brought one more vital technology to the party: cork.
GRABER: Ancient Romans used cork to seal amphorae of wine, but people in France had forgotten about this and were just using all wood barrels, or leather or cloth to top bottles. But a cork is really important, it holds the pressure of carbon dioxide in a bottle. Using cork was still common in Portugal and Spain, and legend has it that Dom Perignon learned about cork from a traveling Spaniard.
TWILLEY: Again, it’s the subject of furious debate among otherwise cheerful champagne historians: no one really knows who brought the cork back to France and when. The point is, you need both a cork and strong glass to really be able to make and sell sparkling wine intentionally, and both of those things had sort of made their way to the Champagne region by the end of Dom Perignon’s life in 1715.
GRABER: And then, just after Dom Perignon’s champagne adventures, a new character came on the scene. It’s another name you might have heard of today in the champagne world. His name was Claude Moët, and he came from a trading family in Champagne. He decided to grow grapes and make his own sparkling wine.
EPSTEIN: And he also was the descendant of Joan of Arc. So he had an entrée into the court of Versailles. And he took his wine and he got one of the king’s mistresses to get interested in it, and then the kings, and soon everyone was drinking it. And he became very famous.
TWILLEY: At about this time, the king commissioned the first known paintings of sparkling champagne: two paintings of picnics with oysters and ham, and champagne corks lying in the grass where they’d landed after the bottles were popped open.
GRABER: So at this point in the mid 1700s, clearly, sparkling champagne had become a trendy drink at the royal court, and you know what happens once the royals start to drink it —
EPSTEIN: Then it became an aspirational beverage. So the new trading class, the haute bourgeoisie, would also try to drink champagne. They could now afford it. So there became a larger and larger market for champagne throughout Europe and then throughout many other countries.
TWILLEY: We’re making it sound like sparkling wine was suddenly all the rage, but it was still only a tiny tiny proportion of the wine made in Champagne. Part of that was because it was an extremely risky business. Even with the stronger glass, bottles exploded all the time.
EPSTEIN: I mean, it was common to have 20% of the bottles break, during production and storage. Sometimes even up to 90%. And workers, with the glass shooting around, workers were injured, some of them were even killed. Sometimes their eyes were put out. I mean, this was not a job you’d want to be in. It sounds glamorous, but it’s like being the coal miner of champagne.
GRABER: Workers would even wear special steel helmets where they could barely see out of the eye holes, it was that dangerous.
TWILLEY: Dangerous but increasingly systematized. By this point, a lot of the things that today are known as the way you make champagne—the methode champenoise—a lot of them had been figured out and codified. So we went out to the vineyard to learn how it’s done.
JON MCPHERSON: My name’s Jon McPherson. I’m the master winemaker for Carter Hospitality. We’re right now at Carter Estate Winery. This is kind of the pinnacle of the wine production that we do for Carter Hospitality. This is the cream of the crop, so to speak, of table wines and then the sparkling wines that we do.
GRABER: Jon is in charge of making Carter’s sparkling wine using the champagne method. He told us first he crushes the grapes to make juice, then he lets that juice ferment until it’s done, about six weeks or so.
MCPHERSON: And it’s just basically you take your wine, and we, you know, or anyone adds back cane sugar to sweeten that up. It’s somewhere around 25 to 27 grams per liter of sugar that get added back. Then when we add our actively fermenting yeast culture that we’ve built up over a period of a week, a week and a half, we add this culture to the wine that’s been sweetened and then we get it into the bottle and we crown cap it.
FRIEL: You can kind of think about it almost like a kombucha mother, if you want, if that’s an easier way to think about it. You put that back into, into the bottle, and that kicks up the fermentation again.
TWILLEY: This used to happen by accident, in bottles where there was live yeast and sugar left. But people figured out how to do it on purpose—and that deliberate secondary fermentation is really the essence of the methode champenoise. I cannot resist mentioning that it was invented by the British.
GRABER: We did already tell that story in the apple episode about sparkling cider, but I’m happy to let you mention it again.
TWILLEY: Thank you. Back in the 1700s, even though the process—the methode champenoise—had been figured out and was pretty much the same as today, the resulting wine was not exactly the same.
EPSTEIN: In the early 1700s, champagne would’ve been lightly sweet and lightly red, maybe salmon or pink or rose color because they’re using grapes that are red grapes as well as white grapes. Pinot noir is a red grape, inside a Pinot noir grape it’s white, but if you get even a little color from the skins while you’re pressing it, some of the color will remain in the wine and actually makes it a lovely color. It’s a rosé champagne.
GRABER: And while it was fizzy, certainly much fizzier than still wine, even fizzy enough to break glass—it was only about half the fizz you’d get with champagne today.
EPSTEIN: You would certainly notice a tingling on your tongue. You’d see the bubbles, you’d see everything. You’d get the aroma, the pop. It would be wonderful. It just wouldn’t be as fizzy as it is today.
TWILLEY: Still perfectly crushable, and increasingly popular—even beyond France. Although the wine of champagne had been shipped by water to Paris and beyond for centuries, it didn’t really become a global wine until the 1800s.
EPSTEIN: There was better shipping, literally ships were better. There were more trade routes established. And there was a lot more communication going on between the US and France. Between France and Russia. Between France and everywhere.
GRABER: The Russian elite, the czars, unsurprisingly, like all the other royals, they’d developed a taste for sparkling champagne. And one widow from France found a great business opportunity there. It’s another name you might recognize today, Veuve Clicquot. She inherited a vineyard from her husband, Mr Clicquot, when he died and she decided to focus on sparkling wine.
EPSTEIN: Her name was Nicole Ponsardin, but she was known as the widow Clicquot. She really had a head for business. And she knew that when the last Russian War ended in the teens, in the 18-teens, that they would probably want to celebrate with champagne. And she actually got her ships to take the champagne to Russia, to be there when the treaty was signed. It was a big gamble, because what if the treaty hadn’t been signed or war had broken out again? She would’ve lost everything. But she didn’t. She was lucky. She sent a special version of the wine that came from a harvest during a very famous comet. And the Russians just took Veuve Clicquot to heart, and that was their favorite for many, many decades, centuries.
TWILLEY: The widow Clicquot wasn’t just a businesswoman extraordinaire, though—she also figured out how to refine the methode champenoise to produce an even better beverage.
GRABER: At the time, champagne was a little cloudy, and there was a lot of stuff that accumulated at the bottom of the bottle, and then often at the bottom of your glass. There were bits of grapes, lots of dead yeast cells. If you were a noble, you’d get a fresh glass for each new pour of champagne because your glass would get so gunked up.
EPSTEIN: And she thought it would be much nicer to have a fine, clear beverage. So she made these things called riddling racks. In French, the term is called remuage.
TWILLEY: A riddling rack is just an A-frame wine rack, with holes for the necks of bottles to rest in. And then someone comes in and gives each bottle a quarter turn every day,
EPSTEIN: Just revolves it a quarter turn. And also gradually over the course of weeks, slants it so that it’s almost, by the end of these weeks, it’s just about vertical. So anything that was in the bottom of the bottle has now loosened and is now in the neck of the bottle. So that when you turn the bottle right side up and open it up, the little bits of detritus in the bottom shoot out.
GRABER: Because of all the pressure from the gas, the carbon dioxide, that’s built up in the bottle.
FRIEL: So that’s going to be all your dead yeast cells, any kind of grape stuff that’s left over. That’s how champagne gets its kind of crystal clear expression.
GRABER: At this point in the early 1800s, champagne was bubbly and clear and delicious, but it still was dangerous to make and expensive to buy. I mean, imagine if you have a business and 50 to 90 percent of what you make explodes before you can sell it, the rest better make up the cost!
TWILLEY: And then a couple of pharmacists in the region cracked the code. They developed a way to measure how much sugar was in a liquid, and a formula to decide how much sugar to add to a wine with the yeast when you were trying to kickstart that secondary fermentation.
GRABER: Getting just the right amount of sugar meant there was enough for the yeast to eat to get the wine fizzy, but not so much that they’d keep making gas and explode the bottle. The other thing that helped make it safer and less expensive was new bottling and corking machines, and the introduction of a wire cage to keep the cork firmly in the bottle.
TWILLEY: All of this meant champagne became more profitable for producers, more easily shipped, and even a little bit cheaper for its growing fan base. But there was one final piece of the puzzle. Champagne was still sweeter than it mostly is today—it was often enjoyed as dessert wine. But that sweetness was not popular with everyone.
EPSTEIN: At that point the British did not drink champagne for dessert. Unlike the Russians. The British had a very strong trade with Portugal and they had port for their sweetness after the meal. The British were a big market for champagne and they were drinking it before the meal. There is a story that they kept demanding that it be made drier and drier and drier, until the French finally said, we’re going to make it so dry we’re going to call it brut because you English are such brutes. [LAUGHS] But of course that’s probably apocryphal.
GRABER: And this brings us to Louise Pommery, she was another widow in champagne history. She lived in the late 1800s, she’d been to boarding school in England. Her husband owned a vineyard that made still red wine. Then he died. She took over and decided she wanted to make champagne, and especially champagne for Brits.
EPSTEIN: So Louise Pommery wanted to please her market. She wanted to make champagne drier and drier, and with some interruptions of various wars and trade problems and things, she eventually succeeded.
TWILLEY: It wasn’t easy—Louise had to convince the growers to leave the grapes on the vine for longer so they’d develop more natural sugars and flavors, to make up for not adding lots of sugar in later. She was super picky about which plots of land her grapes came from—it took some finesse. And the French thought the resulting dry champagne was gross. But the British loved it. And today, pretty much everyone drinks this drier champagne.
GRABER: So at this point in history champagne had become champagne. And it really hasn’t changed much in the past more than 100 years. Jon makes wine using the champagne method in southern California, and he still turns all the bottles on the riddling rack by hand, although a machine does exist to do that.
TWILLEY: But, for next step, to get rid of the yeast, there is a shiny new machine he uses—it’s called a Champagel. And it freezes all of the yeasts that have collected in the neck of the bottle during riddling.
MCPHERSON: And then you can invert the bottle back up on its base without the yeast falling back into the wine, because it’s all frozen in a little chunk of ice. And then it goes through the disgorging, which removes the crown cap, which is our temporary closure. The pressure of the wine then blows out that little chunk of ice with all the yeast.
GRABER: Jon uses a machine for that step, too. It pops the frozen yeast plug out of the neck of the bottle. But even with the machine, there still are people around—
MCPHERSON: Well, we… [LAUGHS] We always, you know, we’re on radio, but we always say, well, welcome to the shit show because it’s just, you know, there’s so much going on. You know, it’s, the bottles are popping. We run around 12 to 15 bottles a minute. So it’s just this constant: Boop! Boop! And, you know. And it’s just constantly ting, ting, ting, tinkling, you know, the glass hitting one another on the machines.
TWILLEY: It may be kind of messy, but it’s a lot safer than in the old days. That said, Jon and his team do still wear goggles and gloves.
MCPHERSON: We’re wearing protective gear, but it’s something that—you have a lot of respect for a bottle of sparkling. I think that, you know, once they’re finished, and they have the cork and the wire hood on it, they’re pretty safe. Unless, you drop it, you know, right in front of you or something, and then they do explode.
GRABER: But Jon only lost three bottles in the last harvest. Not a big deal.
TWILLEY: And the end result, after the cork, and the wire hood, and of course the label—it’s a bottle of champagne! Right?
MCPHERSON: Yeah, no. It’s sparkling wine. It’s definitely sparkling wine.
GRABER: So now I’m confused: why isn’t it champagne? And how is champagne different from all the other sparkling wines I love and buy today, pét-nat, prosecco, cava, lambrusco? What’s the difference?
TWILLEY: We get to the bottom of all the sparkles, coming up after the break.
GRABER: By the 1800s, champagne had become really popular, and so winemakers from other regions of Europe traveled to France to try to get in on this hot new trend.
EPSTEIN: They came from Italy, Spain, the US, Russia, Germany, Austria, everywhere that could get their wine makers to France. People would come and learn and they would bring back some of the equipment necessary to make sparkling wines.
TWILLEY: Of course, like we said, people elsewhere had long had their own accidental sparkling wine. But the winemakers of Champagne had turned it into a reliable and very profitable art. So everyone went there to learn.
EPSTEIN: And then they had to figure out how to make their own versions with their own grapes that had completely different soil that they grow in. The grapes themselves were different. They had different reactions to being put under pressure or not, or aging or not. They really had to figure out how to make their own best sparkling wine.
GRABER: And then something new was invented at the turn of the century that helped all these new winemakers out. An Italian guy developed a tank perfect for making bubbly wine, it was soon refined by a French guy.
TWILLEY: These tanks are super heavy duty, and so you can put the wine and the sugar and yeast in, and ferment up a big batch of bubbly. In some ways, the tank is just a bigger bottle, a much bigger one.
GRABER: This is often called the tank method of fermentation, sometimes it’s called the Charmat method after the French guy. In Italy they called it the Martinotti method after the Italian guy.
TWILLEY: So if it’s just kind of the same thing but bigger, why would you use the Charmat method rather than the methode champenoise?
FRIEL: It’s more of a controlled environment. It’s a little bit easier to predict how things are going to go.
GRABER: The reason you can predict what the final wine will be like is because if you’re using a tank you can open a spigot and taste it partway through.
TWILLEY: Which is super helpful. And it’s not the only advantage of the Charmat method.
MCPHERSON: The idea with Charmat is that you’re able to proceed through the process a little quicker. And you don’t have to rely on the yeast so much as far as a development of flavor, but the fruit itself becomes much more the expression.
GRABER: This flavor difference is also related to the fact that the wine becomes bubbly faster. As the wine re-ferments, it doesn’t spend as much time with the yeast as it would in the bottle, and so it doesn’t get as many yeast-y type flavors. Like some of the more bready notes you might get in champagne.
MCPHERSON: Again, it’s just a style. What, what are you looking for? And for me, sparkling gewürztraminer, we want it to taste like gewurtz. And so we get it in and out very quick.
TWILLEY: Like Jon says, for some wines, what you’re looking for is a sort of freshness and acidity from the grapes, and if you make it sparkly using the methode champenoise, those yeast flavors will dampen that down. Becky Sue told us that prosecco just tastes better made in a tank.
GRABER: Lambrusco, which is a sparkling red wine from Italy and which I love, is also made in a tank. That’s why it has such a lovely fruity flavor. But if you want to make even cheaper sparkling wine, you can just inject carbon dioxide into wine, basically like sodastreaming your wine. People do this.
MCPHERSON: You know, that’s kind of like making Coca-Cola, you know. That’s, that’s a way of making sparkling, but you know…that’s not real. You know, that’s like just, cheating.
TWILLEY: It’s not legit and Lauren says it also doesn’t taste good.
FRIEL: The bubble won’t hold very long. And it’ll end up giving the wine that kind of weird, carbonic, I don’t know how else to describe it, but that very kind of gassy flavor. So…I guess, at your own risk. [LAUGHS]
TWILLEY: So don’t drink the super cheapo soda-streamed stuff if you can help it, but after that, you’re left with a choice of how to want your bubbles made: the tank method, the methode champenoise, and of course the old school accidental method. Nowadays that’s a bit more under control and very trendy.
GRABER: We tasted through these options with Lauren.
FRIEL: Yeah, so, this is the Furlani Alpino. So Alpino like alpine. This is from the Dolomites. This is a wine that—so I don’t know. Pét-nats for me tend to always be a little more…joyful? A little more kind of like fresh, fun, and fruity.
GRABER: Yes, pét-nat is the name of the original sparkling wine now made deliberately. You might have seen pét-nats on a wine list or in the store, it’s short for pétillant-naturel. Or natural sparkles.
FRIEL: So basically what you do is you take your unfinished wine, so a wine that’s not finished fermenting. If you trap that process in an inert or a closed vessel, like a glass bottle with a crown cap like we have here, it’s a little bottle cap. The fermentation will continue in the bottle. The yeast will keep eating the sugars, and eventually the CO2 builds up enough in the bottle that it forces itself back down into the wine. You get this nice soft fizz.
TWILLEY: The key difference between pét-nat and champagne is you don’t have that process of adding in more sugar and yeasts to really get the secondary fermentation going. That’s part of the reason why pét-nat is typically soft and foamy rather than crisp and bubbly.
GRABER: It also ferments for less time than champagne and doesn’t age on the yeast as long, so it’s a little fruitier, and you don’t take the yeast out at the end so the wine is sometimes a little cloudy.
FRIEL: This would be the oldest, most kind of natural, for lack of a better word, hands-off way to make a sparkling wine.
FRIEL: That’s that nice pop sound.
FRIELS: The aromas here I think are really interesting. Well maybe I’ll ask you what you smell.
GRABER: I smell some pineapple. Some pineapple and some citrus and a little bread. How about you?
TWILLEY: Yeah, I mean, it smells as if it’s going to be pretty acidic.
FRIEL: Yeah. So tart, more tart fruits than necessarily ripe fruits. Yeah. You’ll have a little bit more fruit on the nose, often that—you said bread, right? That, like, yeastiness, because that fermentation happened in the bottle and the dead yeast cells and all that was never removed.
GRABER: Shall we—yeah, yeah, here, here—
TWILLEY: That’s really, really nice. But it is definitely not as fizzy.
GRABER: I think it’s one of the reasons I love pét-nats, is just the fizz is just a little bit lighter. You love like hard fizz. I like kind of light fizz.
TWILLEY: The bubbles in Charmat method sparkling wine can also seem a little bit different—there’s a lot of reasons why this is, to do with how the gas dissolves and then how it forms bubbles in the glass. But when we tasted prosecco, you could actually feel the difference on your tongue.
GRABER: And it was a little fresher tasting than the pét-nat. It’s clear looking and it had a kind of cleaner finish to it. I loved them both, though I have to admit I’m kind of a pét-nat obsessive these days.
TWILLEY: I love them all. Lambrusco, prosecco, pét-nat, and above all, champagne!
GRABER: One thing you should know is that like Nicky, Lauren does love all bubbly wine, but she really really really loves champagne.
FRIEL: One thing that I think is pretty remarkable, just right off the bat, you can tell the bead is really pronounced. So those bubbles are, really clear in the glass. The pét-nat also was a little bit cloudy. It was not crystal clear. This being proper champagne, it is really lovely and crystalline. It has like a little salmon tinge, what we would call eye of the partridge in France. It’s really beautiful.
TWILLEY: We admired, then we sniffed.
GRABER: I get a lot more of the apple in this.
TWILLEY: Also, there’s some—I’m getting some nose bubble, like the others didn’t like tingle my nose the same way. You know?
GRABER: Yeah. I definitely feel that too.
TWILLEY: I don’t think nose bubble is a technical term.
GRABER: Little sparkle in our noses.
FRIEL: Little sparkle noses. I actually don’t know if there is a technical term, if there is I don’t know it.
TWILLEY: And then we could wait no longer. From the first sip, I was basically in heaven.
FRIEL: There is just something special about champagne. There’s like an energy and a power there that you don’t necessarily find with other—other sparkling wines. This one in particular has, I mean, there’s so much complexity. There’s the apple, like you mentioned, there’s also, like, apple blossom. There’s like a, almost a baking cocoa thing happening. Almost like a cedar spice. There’s an energy and a verve and just something like, yeah, like zaps, like the core of your soul or something. I don’t know. [LAUGHS] It’s like a little…sticking your finger in a socket.
GRABER: Unlike Nicky, I’m not a fizz fanatic. I don’t mainline seltzer, and I’m not a fan of the more sparkling of the bubbles. I tend to like the softer kinds. But I’ve tried more champagnes since I first met Lauren, and she’s converted me. That said, I’m still relatively new to champagne, and so, to make sure I do actually like it, we tasted some more.
MCPHERSON: This is our 2016 blanc de noir. And this is the first, first release of this. So y’all are kind of the first, besides all the staff internally who’ve gotten to try it. You’re not going to hear much on this, because I try to be good about opening it.
[SOFT POP, HISS]
MCPHERSON: Can you hear that? Nice fizz.
TWILLEY: Hell yeah, more champagne! Or…maybe not. Because this fizzy wine looked like champagne, it tasted like champagne, and it had been made in exactly the same way as champagne. But notice how Jon didn’t call it champagne?
GRABER: It was totally delicious, but it’s not actually champagne. Cava is sparkling wine from Spain that’s also made entirely in the methode champenoise, but it also isn’t champagne. Why? That’s coming up, after the break.
FRIEL: Champagne has to come from the Champagne region in France. And all of the wines that come from this region, as we think about them, are produced in a very specific method called the champagne method, or methode champenoise. You can make wine in the champagne method from outside Champagne, but you can’t call it champagne. So it’s both a place and a method of production.
TWILLEY: This is the rule today. But it wasn’t always the rule. So far we’ve told the story of how champagne became champagne, but now it’s time for the story of how champagne became capital C exclamation point champagne. I’m talking Taylor Swift champagne, Oasis champagne, Hip Hop Nikki Jean champagne.
NIKKI JEAN: (singing) I’ll turn your water into champagne, yeah, I’ll turn your water into champagne. Guys with the cash out, girls…
TAYLOR SWIFT: (singing) Dom Pérignon, you brought it, no crowd of friends applauded. Your hometown skeptics called it champagne problems…
OASIS: (singing) Someday you will find me, caught beneath the landslide, in a champagne supernova, a champagne supernova in the sky…
GRABER: Ah, the 90s. So, to go back about a century before Britpop’s glory days, remember all those wine makers who learned how to make champagne and then went home? Many of them at the time called their wine champagne, and the Champagne champagne folks were pissed. By the 20th century, they had started to defend their honor.
TWILLEY: This was a lengthy process that sadly did not involve duels but instead lots of international trade disputes and negotiations. This whole thing gets written about in legal journals as the champagne wars. And in the end, the champenois won. Today, nobody else, anywhere else, can really call their sparkling wine champagne, even Jon who learned how to make champagne in Champagne and now makes his sparkling wine in southern California using that exact same technique.
GRABER: Even the famous Champagne champagne houses who buy vineyards in California and Argentina and the UK and they make champagne-style wine with champagne-style grapes, even they can’t call that wine champagne. Moët made in California is just sparkling wine too.
TWILLEY: Meanwhile, at the same time as the champagne houses were vigorously defending their brand, they were also hyping it.
EPSTEIN: I think that a lot of champagne’s early success and even to this day, is due to marketing.
GRABER: Champagne may have gotten a head start because it was a favorite of French royalty, but then the champagne companies made sure that everyone KEPT liking it. In the Roaring Twenties, when luxury and parties and decadence were all the rage, champagne was definitely the drink of choice.
TWILLEY: And that reputation continued as the twentieth century went on. This is Dean Martin, crooner extraordinaire, in the 1960s.
DEAN MARTIN: (singing) I’m drinking champagne and feeling no pain till early morning…dining and dancing…
GRABER: By this point champagne just meant fun. And the champagne producers marketed not only that aspect of the champagne lifestyle, but also its association with quality and with luxury.
VOICEOVER: For nearly three centuries, Moët and Chandon has brought its magic to the world’s most fabulous events. From the court in Versaille, to lighting up Lady Liberty. Pioneering rituals of dazzling effervescence. Pleasure, elegance, and splendor. Moët and Chandon. The world’s most love champagne.
TWILLEY: That was the message in their own ads, but Hollywood was happy to reinforce it for them. Champagne has a long history of being the drink of stylish people on the silver screen. In the 30s and 40s, Cary Grant, Betty Grable, and Bette Davis all sipped it and served it. When she wasn’t having her skirt blown upwards while standing over a subway grate in the movie Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe even used pink champagne as a dip.
MARILYN MONROE: Hey, did you ever try dunking a potato chip in champagne? It’s real crazy. Here! Isn’t that crazy?
TOM: Yeah, pretty crazy.
GRABER: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Humphrey Bogart all toasted with champagne. In Casablanca, champagne was too valuable and special to let the Germans get a hold of it.
RICK BLAINE: Henri wants us to finish this bottle, and then three more. He says he’ll water his garden with champagne before he lets the Germans drink any of it.
HENRI: Heh. This oughta take the sting outta being occupied, doesn’t it, Mr. Richard?
BLAINE: Hey, you said it. Here’s looking at you, kid.
TWILLEY: 007 has always been a big champagne fan. He started out as a Taittinger stan, but then for reasons that remain mysterious changed allegiance and switched to Bollinger.
BOND: (between kissing) In that case…we’re gonna need…some more champagne.
OPERATOR: Good evening, room service?
BOND: Good evening. Can I get a bottle of chilled Bollinger Grand Annee. And a beluga caviar.
GRABER: Like 007, today champagne kind of stands in for living large. It’s still the party drink — here’s Jay-Z singing about his well-known love of Cristal.
JAY-Z: My motto, stack rocks like Colorado; auto off the champagne, Cristal’s by the bottle; it’s a damn shame what you’re not though—who?—me…
TWILLEY: Jay-Z was not the first high-profile Cristal fan. Cristal was originally created by Roederer, one of the big champagne houses, exclusively for Russian royalty. It was packaged in a clear glass bottle, unlike the normal green—because Czar Alexander was afraid of being poisoned and wanted to be able to check the color of his bubbly before drinking it.
GRABER: Cristal eventually became THE hip hop drink, again, just listen to Jay-Z’s lyrics
JAY-Z: Trapped in the race and if so can I leave this place? Can I puff cigars and drink Cristal? If this is heaven to me, is this considered heavenly?
GRABER: But then when someone asked Roederer about this hip hop connection, the company rep basically said, well, they couldn’t control who bought their product. Which does sound like they weren’t too thrilled about being promoted by hip hop stars. So Jay-Z was like, screw you, and he bought an entire other line of champagne and started drinking and promoting that instead.
TWILLEY: Whatever your preferred brand, the point is champagne has become an almost universal shorthand for luxury, good times, style—and, above all, quality. In fact, it’s such a desirable brand that a lot of other products have tried to borrow some of its cachet.
VOICEOVER: Happy New Year from the champagne of beers.
BACKGROUND SINGERS: Bubble!
DEEP VOICE: It’s bubble, baby.
MAN: It’s the champagne of water.
SINGER: …we’re the champagne of ginger ale!
TWILLEY: Darjeeling claims to be the champagne of teas, Perrier says its the champagne of mineral waters, New York City tap water has marketed itself as the champagne of municipal H2O. There’s even a champagne of hot sauce.
WOMAN: Tabasco brand pepper sauce is comparing their fiery blend with the finest vintage champagnes, with their limited edition 150th anniversary diamond reserve red sauce. All of this spicy deliciousness is packaged in a 6 ounce champagne bottle, and is selling for a hefty $34.95.
GRABER: I do like hot sauce, but that sounds like a lot of money for a hot sauce packaged in a tiny champagne bottle. And speaking of cost, part of the reason I’ve never been a big fan of champagne is I couldn’t help thinking, is it really worth it, or are you just paying for the famous name?
TWILLEY: Cynthia, you’re always such a cynic. But Lauren said it is true that the name IS part of what you’re paying for,
FRIEL: And you’re also paying for the marketing campaigns, and the ad campaigns, and the celebrity placements, and all that.
TWILLEY: But you’re also paying for real costs that come with the hype. Because it has such a reputation, the Champagne region is expensive.
FRIEL: As a producer in those regions, you know, your land prices are higher, your taxes are higher, the expectations are higher, the risk is higher because your buy-in is higher, your overhead is more expensive. All of that. That trickles down to the consumer and to the price on the label.
GRABER: And then even today, making champagne is still complicated and risky. There are a lot of steps in the production, and Lauren says all those steps are places that something can go wrong—
FRIEL: And often it does. And it’s also a very, skilled process, so you’re paying for that as well.
EPSTEIN: I have to admire them for what they have done and how they’ve kept the product very good too. I mean, not just good, but they make excellent sparkling wines. They’ve never let the quality diminish at all.
TWILLEY: Part of what you’re paying for with champagne is that reliable quality, and also a reliable taste. It’s not like other wines where there’s variation year by year, vineyard by vineyard. When you buy Moët or Bollinger or Veuve Clicquot, you are going to get basically the same experience, every time, guaranteed.
FRIEL: Part of what makes people loyal to those houses, is that they have a house style that they’ve developed over the years. It’s the thing that they’re known for. And they’ve developed that house style usually over generations of wine making. In a lot of these houses it’s the same kind of quote-unquote recipe that they’ve been using for its production for hundreds of years.
GRABER: The way they keep their wine so consistent is they buy grapes from different vineyards and they make each into its own batch of wine and then they blend the different wines until they get just the same product, year after year. They know what they’re going for and even with the whims of nature, they know how to produce it.
FRIEL: And you know, that house style, if that’s what you like, absolutely wonderful.
TWILLEY: At Carter, Jon also blends his wine—in fact, he let us try some of the young barely fermented juice from different patches of chardonnay, pinot blanc and pinot noir grapes.
MCPHERSON: I’ll start with this pinot, just because this came in first and is, a little bit further along in the, in the primary fermentation.
MCPHERSON: When you smell it, you know, there’s nice kind of berry notes to it. You get a little whiff of… [SNIFFS] strawberry. There’s a little cherry something there, you know. You can make up your own adjectives.
GRABER: We loved drinking these lightly fermented grape juices, they were refreshing and had that light alcohol zing to them—but when Jon tasted each one, he was imagining how it could work in concert with the others, how he could blend them to take advantage of each one’s flavors and acidity that particular year, how the yeast would interact with it all—
MCPHERSON: You talk about the French houses and you know, it’s a lot of, it’s about style and about consistency. And having a wine that year to year, you know, reflects what the house style is. But, every year’s a little different, and we don’t blend to like match up what we did last year. You know, we’re always trying to say, let’s make the very best for what we have for this year.
TWILLEY: And Jon’s not alone in this less consistent approach. Outside the big famous champagne houses, a lot of producers are doing things differently. If Dom Perignon is like a Marvel movie, where you know what you’re going to get and a lot of money has been spent on it—there’s also a whole wide world of more indie champagnes to explore these days.
FRIEL: A lot of producers now are a lot more interested in single vineyard, single variety expressions of their own vineyard sites and their own terroir. And I think that what champagne can do is a lot broader than what we’ve kind of been fed. That it’s always this kind of, very bubbly, high acid kind of tart, lean, thing that smells like oyster shells. And, you know, there isn’t much variation beyond that. There’s a whole wild world out there, particularly these days of people playing around with—we have a champagne right now, from the Tarlant family that’s made in amphorae. We have champagnes that are skin macerated, you know, or longer presses of pinot noir. We have champagnes that are wild fermented.
GRABER: This means the champagne maker doesn’t use the standardized champagne yeast, which is part of what gives champagne its flavors, instead they use just whatever yeast is already on the grapes—
FRIEL: Just like really interesting wild, wild expressions that are a lot different than, than your regular old Veuve, which…I wish people would stop drinking. [LAUGHS]
TWILLEY: I’m not going to kick the widow out of bed, especially if someone else is paying. And ultimately, Lauren wouldn’t either. Her point, which we both agree with, is that the world of sparkling wine contains many magical things, and you should explore all of them.
FRIEL: If it’s a cold night and someone wants a sparkly wine, I might suggest a lambrusco, which is a sparkling red wine. If it’s a hot summer day, a pét-nat rose.
GRABER: And even if you want something that does taste and bubble like champagne, there are also great wines made in the champagne style that aren’t from Champagne—like the ones Jon is making.
FRIEL: If you’re not wanting to spend champagne money, it’s not hard to find really beautifully made wines that are not champagne, that are going to be more affordable, that have a really lovely story.
GRABER: Even so, champagne does still represent luxury and celebration—
FRIEL: It’s just special. There’s something about it that the wine itself is special, and then the experience of drinking the wine is special and the way it makes you feel is special. You know, it’s what we gift to people for their wedding anniversaries and their birthdays and their job promotions. And their retirements. And kind of like every life event can be marked with a bottle of champagne.
MCPHERSON: It’s something that, you know, you’re into the holidays and of course, Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years and everything, that’s when, you know, sparkling wine is—everybody wants it. And then comes back, you know, usually in early summer for graduations, weddings, all of that. So, you know, there’s kind of two seasons for sparkling, whereas, I mean, I see it certainly every day is a great day to drink sparkling wine.
FRIEL: I…am one of those annoying people who will suggest that you should try to drink champagne as often as you can. Which is, I’m aware, not fiscally responsible.
TWILLEY: But definitely enjoyable. So now you have permission to drink champagne whenever you want it. You may be wondering, how can I open champagne on a weeknight, if it’s just me, or me and partner or friend—we probably shouldn’t drink it all.
GRABER: There are special champagne stoppers that help keep the fizz in. But Jon says even a regular wine saver bottle stopper will help.
MCPHERSON: You know, sparkling wine will keep for several days. But, certainly, you know, it’s, you have it longer in two days, you’ve got a drinking problem, you know, in that you’re not drinking enough.
GRABER: And once more before the New Year, don’t forget to support the show if you can, gastropod.com/support or at patreon.com. And a special shoutout to our most recent superfans who support the show at a particularly high level: Meg Edwards, Dylan Friedgen-Veitch, Tami Parr, Bannis and Ariana, Irina Gumenik, and Aviva, Jeremy, Ayelet and Rafael Rothman-Shore.
TWILLEY: We are so grateful and lucky to have generous listeners like you. As usual, we had way too many fun stories to cram into one episode, so if you don’t want to miss out on the story of champagne coupes versus flutes, as well as expert advice on whether Marilyn Monroe’s potato chips were a good pairing and whether it’s actually a good idea to open your champagne with a sword, you’re going to want to sign up for our special supporters newsletter. Go to gastropod.com/support and help us keep on making this show for another year!
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Jon McPherson of Carter Estate Winery, Lauren Friel of Rebel Rebel, and Becky Sue Epstein, we have links to their wine and bars and books on our website, gastropod.com. Thanks also to our superstar producer Claudia Geib for all her help this episode.
TWILLEY: We’ll be back next year with lots more fabulous episodes for your listening delight, but in the meantime, a toast to you, dear listeners and supporters—we love making this show for you, and we couldn’t do it without you, so thank you!