In 496AD when Clovis, the first king of France, converted to Christianity he was baptised by the Bishop of Reims and anointed with wine from the Champagne region.From 898 to 1825 Reims, in the centre of Champagne, was the site of all coronations. The coronations of the kings of France were celebrated with Champagne wines. The wines were also offered as tributes to any visiting monarchs, including the future Mary Queen of Scots. Celebrations and major events are no longer considered complete without the mandatory glass of champagne for the toast.
However, until the late 17th century, champagne was a still, crisp wine and not the sparkling wine we know today. The still wines of Champagne and Burgundy were the only types of wine to be favoured by the King and Church. In order to distinguish their wines, the Champenois started pressing black grapes to produce white wines that were purer and lasted longer (up to four years). Slow and progressive pressing was used and forms the basis for today's method. Furthermore, the Champenois started using bottles instead of barrels as the storage vessels during fermentation which meant that the effervescence no longer escaped and sparkling wines were created. Dom Pierre Perignon was one of the first producers to add "mousse" (sparkle) to his wine deliberately. The smaller the bubbles, the higher quality the wine as it will be softer and gentler than a wine with larger bubbles. There are apparently 58 million bubbles in an opened bottle of champagne!
Vines in the Champagne region are cultivated by 11,000 growers and then the champagne is produced by the 110 champagne houses. This balance is starting to shift as the growers demand higher prices for their grapes and some are even producing and selling the champagne themselves.
The grapes used to produce champagne are Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir (both black grapes) and Chardonnay (white). Blanc de Blanc champagnes are made entirely from Chardonnay grapes.
The Champagne region has chalky soil and a cool climate - perfect for producing grapes for sparkling wines.
Vintage champagne - Champagne from the 1971 vintage is drinking well now. More recently, 1990 is a fantastic vintage for champagne!
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill liked his champagne so much that he had his favourite named after him - the Pol Roger, Cuvée Winston Churchill.
Serving champagne - it is recommended that you chill champagne to 5-10 degrees Centigrade using ice and water in a bucket rather than just ice. If the wine is too cold it will corrupt the flavour: the finer the wine, the less it needs chilling. Champagne bottles should be held at 45 degrees when opening. Tulip shaped champagne flutes are better than the saucer shaped 'coupe' glasses as they allow the bubbles space to rise up without being lost too quickly and also keep the temperature even. Incidentally, it is rumoured that the original saucer shaped 'coupe' glass was fashioned in porcelain from a mould taken from Marie Antoinette's breast.
Champagne and food - Champagne is the perfect match for caviar, oysters, shellfish, smoked salmon, fois gras and red fruits such as strawberries. The oilier foods, such as smoked salmon, go well with the high-acid Champagne as the wine clears the palate ready for the next mouthful.
Champagne Cocktails - Crème de Cassis, made from blackcurrants, makes Kir Royale when added to champagne. Peach juice and champagne creates a Bellini, although technically this should be made with the Italian sparkling wine Prosecco.