The first time I tried champagne, I was in 7th grade. It was New Year’s Eve, and my parents had permitted me to have a small amount of it as a grown-up treat as we watched the Times Square ball drop on my aunt’s TV. The countdown drew to a close, my parents kissed, and we all clinked our glasses. The adults raised their glasses. The grown-up moment had come! I pressed the rim of the glass to my lips, closed my eyes, and took a sip.
That fizzy, sour, throat-burning liquid was considered a delicacy? Grown-ups are weird, I concluded, and snuck to the kitchen to pour the rest of my glass into the sink so no one would notice.
Years later, I remember that moment as Nick and I prepare for a tour of the Champagne region of France. Our itinerary for the day includes three champagne “houses” (NOT wineries, I discovered), with tours of the cellars and production facilities mixed in with the tastings themselves, and while I’m much more accustomed to the flavours and subtleties of wines and champagnes these days, I begin the day with a question in my mind: what is it about champagne that makes us put it in a place of prominence in our special occasions?
Over the course of the day, this question is answered in a variety of ways. Our first stop is at a small champagne house called Bonnet Ponson, approximately 20 minutes outside of Reims, and we’re treated to a private tour of the presses, automated riddling racks, and corking machines. The guide is the owner of the house, and his English is shaking as badly as his hands as he attempts to describe the process. Finally, we switch to French and he becomes much more at ease. He leads us back to his office, uncorks the first bottle, pours us flutes, and we settle back to talk.
As it turns out, he’s the ninth generation of Bonnets to run this house. They hire a few field workers each year to help with the harvest, all of whom must be from Champagne according to French regulation, and then it’s just him, his wife, and his son to do the rest of the labour. Until recently, he did the riddling- the gradual turning and inversion of bottles of champagne on their second fermentation- by hand, but the automated riddling rack saves him hours of time. Neither Nick nor I knows very much about champagne, so we’re still a little lost. but from what we understand the riddling is a big deal.
At our next house, Moet et Chandon, we get to understand a little more about the process. Our guide at the house of Dom Perignon explains how champagne begins as ordinary white wine, but is then given an extra dose of yeast and sugar after having fermented so that it can develop its signature carbonation. The process of riddling is what creates those tiny bubbles and slowly draws the wine’s sediments down to the bottle’s neck. As we absorb this information, our guide dazzles us with dozens of kilometers of cellars, a corridor through which Napoleon himself strolled, and a large wine cask, now empty, that the emperor had given the house of Moet et Chandon after his visit. Here, our tasting is held in the picturesque back garden, where a server offers us white and rose champagnes and describes their particular notes. We feel like movie stars, sitting in our private garden while other tours trundle en masse towards the group tasting rooms.
But it’s at the third house, Henri de Vaugency, that the special nature of champagne really sinks in. Like the first house, de Vaugency has been in the family for over 200 years. Here, however, it’s just Monsieur de Vaugency, his wife, and his 11-year-old son who run the business. Unlike other champagne houses, he tells us, he only uses chardonnay grapes- so his champagnes have a narrower taste range than others. He still keeps his champagne bottles in old wooden riddling racks, and spends an hour each morning turning the hundreds of bottles by hand. He also leads us into a room with three giant silver vats, where he decants white wine into small paper cups- the blend of wines that will be used to make his champagnes. This is unique, for the wine blends that become champagne are usually closely-guarded secrets. Here, however, the process is much more transparent. After our white wine samples, he pours us seven tiny flutes of champagne, and we sample his entire product line while he sits and chats with us.
What makes the champagne special, we realize, is that the process of creating it- of blending wines, turning bottles, even the disgorging of the sediment- is an art form that is taught in the larger houses, but is learned by hand as one grows up in the smaller houses. For the families that produce it, champagne is unique because the process has been developed and perfected in the same vineyards that ship it globally nowadays. Monsieur de Vaugency, in his morning riddling ritual, continues a generations-old tradition that can’t be found elsewhere in the world- even in the places where other sparkling wines are produced.
In the end, we buy bottles at each house. At our final stop, we buy three. We haven’t been transformed into champagne fanatics or elitists, by any means. But on our anniversary, when we uncork one of those bottles, it will be difficult to do without remembering that this bottle was specially blended, riddled, and decanted by one of the people who took part of his day to share this special ritual with us.