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World of Wine: While popular now, bubbly wines originally a nuisance

I find my tastes have become more appreciative of sparkling wine - pure Champagne and the American versions of it, as well as prosecco, the Italian input to the bubbly market.In the movie "Gigi," Leslie Caron gave a fitting tribute to this wonder...

Ron Smith
Ron Smith

I find my tastes have become more appreciative of sparkling wine - pure Champagne and the American versions of it, as well as prosecco, the Italian input to the bubbly market.

In the movie "Gigi," Leslie Caron gave a fitting tribute to this wonderful wine in the song "The Night they Invented Champagne" with the lyrics, "It's plain as it could be they thought of you and me ... that all we'd want to do is fly to the sky on Champagne and shout to everyone in sight, that since the world began, a woman and a man, have never been as happy as we are tonight."

As popular as Champagne and its cohorts are today, and the end of its continued popularity is nowhere in sight, it's interesting that bubbles in wine were once considered a fault.

Dom Perignon was under orders to come up with a way of ridding the wine of bubbles that continually showed up from the Champagne region of France. The bubbles of carbon dioxide created pressure, and the weak glass bottles in France would explode, often resulting in a chain reaction, with a significant loss to the winery.

Being popular in England, Champagne wines were shipped in wooden barrels and then bottled by various merchants during the early days of commerce between the two countries. When the wine had been shipped out of the Champagne region it had stopped fermentation due to the cold weather. Once bottled in England, the residual sugar in the bottles would resume fermentation once again, giving rise to effervescence the English loved.

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Since their glass was made using coal fires, not the wood fires in France, and therefore stronger, explosions were infrequent. When the corks were pulled on these bottles, a very distinct "pop" occurred; no longer under pressure, the bubbles poured forth tickling everyone's noses and taste palates.

An English scientist in 1662 discovered that it was indeed the sugars in the wine that caused the effervescence to take place.

In essence, any wine could be made into an effervescent bubbly, but it was the winemakers in the Champagne region who were clever enough through several generations of effort to turn this anomaly into a deliberate process called methode champenoise (aka traditional method), where the carbonation could be controlled in making the wine.

Basically, this method has a second fermentation that takes place in the bottle. Otherwise, it could be carried out in a large tank, called the Charmat process, and then bottled under pressure into the bottles.

The least expensive - and with the fewest and largest bubbles - is to simply add carbon dioxide to the wine, similar to the way carbonated sodas are made.

The traditional method of Champagne or sparkling winemaking produces the most bubbles - some 2 million per glass - which last the longest, are the smallest and enhance the flavor of the wine best.

This week, I raise a toast to two years of writing this column. Both yours truly and the column have evolved over these 104 weeks.

Thanks to many wine tastings with sommelier Jean Taylor, my classes of students, and with some of my North Dakota State University colleagues, I can honestly say that my taste buds have gained a lot of good experience.

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I look forward to many more years of sharing my enthusiasm about wine with you.

Ron Smith, a retired NDSU Extension horticulturist, writes weekly about his love of wine and its history. Readers can reach him at tuftruck1@gmail.com .

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