• Champagne was invented by Benedictine monk Dom Perignon in the 17th century. (Public domain)
It's said when Dom Perignon invented champagne he told his fellow monks, "Come quickly, I am tasting the stars." It's still universally regarded as a symbol of elegance, joy and celebration. In fact, many of us will pop a bottle of bubbly to ring in 2016. Magda Dejneka uncorks the secret history of champagne.
By
Magda Dejneka / SBS Polish

21 Dec 2015 - 12:05 PM  UPDATED 21 Dec 2015 - 12:05 PM

People usually wait for a special occasion to open a bottle of champagne, but according to champagne consultant and educator Bernadette O'Shea, we shouldn't wait - opening a bottle creates an occasion.

A leading figure in the industry, she's been recognised with a French knighthood, the Chevalier de l'ordre du Merite Agricole (The Order of Agricultural Merit).  Bernadette says champagne is unique because it engages all our senses.

"You open the bottle and the sound first, all our senses are awakened. You hear this beautiful, gentle popping of the cork. Wow. And then you are watching it visually and you see the little bubbles climbing up the glass, so visually it is beautiful. Then you smell it and you smell all these aromas and magnificent flavours in the wine. And then finally you drink it. And all your senses, by that stage, are all combined. And you have this extraordinary, beautiful experience, when you have a glass of champagne."  

The history of champagne began millions of years ago when the Champagne region in France's northeast was an inland sea, full of sea creatures and shells. 30 million years ago an earthquake pushed the sea floor up creating a new land mass containing a large amount of chalk deposits.   The champagne vine grows in the chalk soil, is bottled and stored underground in vast cellars during the fermentation process.

Bernadette O'Shea says it's like going back to the mother's womb.

"So what makes champagne very unique is the fact that it's growing in chalk and the grapes grow in chalk. And that's all they ever know. So that's what champagne is all about its connection with chalk."

The chalky soil retains water and heat; allowing the vines to grow in the cold climate and it prevents dry spells. In addition, chalk gives the vines nutrients and helps develop the unique taste.  However, it's not champagne without the sparkle. So who put the bubbles in the bottle?

Champagne's legendary inventor was Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Perignon, who lived during the 17th century.

Wine critic, author and media presenter Jeremy Oliver explains how Dom discovered the bubbles.

"He was a master blender of the cellar and a very creative blender. And he was always looking to try refining the art of creating more elegant, refreshing and vibrant wine. And in doing so after winter, as the spring would warm up in the cellar the temperature would increase a little bit and some of the slower fermenting sugars would actually then start fermenting for the first time in the bottle. Now at this stage the bottle had been sealed so this second fermentation actually produced an effervescence carbon dioxide gas. "  

Today, champagne is still produced by using the traditional method initiated by Dom Perignon. This process includes adding yeast and a bit of sugar to the grape juice and then fermenting it for a long period of time.  Fermentation can take up to 12 years and it's very expensive.

Bernadette O'Shea says, champagne makers in France's Champagne region decided to protect the brand name.

"The people in this region of Champagne are very protective of the area and it's called la Champagne. Other people make imitation of champagne but they are not champagne. They do not have this origin, they do not have the unique chalk and they don't have the hundreds and hundreds of years of tradition as well. Even in France itself, if you are outside this region, your wine is called 'vin mousseux,' which means a sparkling wine."

Amongst the popular champagne houses are Moët & Chandon, Krug and Boërl & Kroff.  Champagne is known for its quality and it often comes with an expensive price tag.  So just how expensive can champagne get?  A bottle of 1907 Heidsieck & Co retrieved from a shipwreck at the bottom of Baltic Sea sold for US $275,000 dollars.  Bernadette O'Shea was one of the lucky few to taste the vintage drop.

"So there was a cargo of champagne on its way to Russia for the tsars during World War I and it was bombed by a German submarine, so lay on the bottom of the Baltic Sea until the late nineties. In the late nineties it was salvaged and they went down to rescue these bottles and bring them up. Also on board there was a cargo of cognac and of course people would think that cognac would be the thing that would live and champagne would not live but it was the reverse, the cognac was completely destroyed, it was not drinkable. The champagne was magnificent, absolutely magnificent."  

Of course, you don't need to spend thousands.  Jeremy Oliver encourages people to be adventurous and experiment with different brands. He also shares the secret on how to spot a good champagne; the smaller the bubbles the better the quality.  

"Yes that's one indication of the quality. I think that the wines need to be balanced, they need to be harmonious, they need to have a length of flavour on the palate, they need persistence, charm, same with you know still table wines."

Australians enjoy sparkling wine.  Wine Intelligence's 2015 market report says half of the adult population; about 8 million people drink it regularly. While consumption of domestic sparkling and still wine is slowing down, French champagne, New Zealand sparkling and Italian prosecco sale are increasing.  Although champagne is still seen as the most prestigious among sparkling wines, there are some signs that it may be losing its premium position.

Award-winning Australian winemaker Andrew Pirie owns Apogee which produces sparkling in Tasmania's cool climate.  He points to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal.

"The heading was 'Has Champagne Lost Its Pop?' and the theme of the article was that champagne is no longer dominating the fine sparkling in the world. And there are sparklings from other regions that are winning trophies ahead of champagne."  

Andrew Pirie says Australian sparkling wines are created via the same process as champagne.

He says Australian wine growers enjoy a similar climate to the La Champagne region.  

"You need very cool conditions, so cool that it's difficult to make red wine. Tasmania I think has the recognition now as the leading region. It has probably the biggest area of these very cool conditions. Similarly you've got the areas like Mount Macedon in Victoria, Alpine region in Victoria, which are as cool and also making very good sparkling. So they are probably the main ones."

Andrew Pirie says Australian sparkling wine is good enough to compete with champagne.

"A good Australian sparkling will have the yeasty smell, it will have a very fine, persistent bubbles. It will be fairly pale, not too alcoholic but with very good, persistent flavour. Something like mix of lemon and redcurrants, that is features of pinot noir and chardonnay, which are the main two grapes we grow under cool conditions."

The next step is finding a recognisable brand name for Tasmania's sparkling wine.

"We are starting to think about a name for Tasmanian traditional method sparkling, so that you've got it in one word and I think that it will be an excellent marketing tool if we can find the name that does the job."

Tassie sparkling or French champagne, celebrating with a glass is a tradition that's lasted for centuries.