In the season of holidays, it is an enticing idea to open a bottle of celebratory sparkling wine, to toast Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or the New Year (though obviously not for Eid ul-Fitr celebrations earlier in the year).

But what makes a wine sparkle?  The very best sparkling wines (the French would have us believe) are made by a still wine undergoing a second fermentation in the bottle.  This secondary fermentation is caused by adding sweetness (for example, unfermented grape juice or sugar) and yeast culture to the wine and sealing it tight for nature to take its course.  This technique is called the méthode Champenoise after the Champagne region where it was perfected.  Champagne is a fiercely protected trademarked name, so in most of the world the “approved” terms for the technique include méthode ancestrale, méthode traditionelle, metodo classico and klassische flaschengärung.

There are other ways of making a sparkling wine including secondary fermentation in a closed tank or even <shudder of horror> by pressurizing still wine with carbon dioxide.

The French would also have us believe that méthode Champenoise and sparkling Champagne were invented by a monk called Dom Perignon (1639-1715).  Don’t be fooled by this propaganda.  Dom Perignon did work as cellar master at Hautvilliers Abbey in Champagne and he focused on improving vineyard and cellar techniques.  Secondary fermentation in the bottle was a very bad thing, and sparkling wines were regarded as faulty.  Much more important, French bottles of that time were not strong enough to contain the pressure and exploded!  Cellar workers were at regular risk of injury from flying fragments and wore heavy iron masks for protection.

In fact, the first document describing how to deliberately create a sparkling wine by secondary fermentation was a paper presented at the Royal Society of London by Christopher Merrett in 1662, six years before Dom Perignon even arrived at Hautvilliers. The English were technology leaders in glassmaking in Europe at this time and they were able to make bottles fit to contain refreshing sparkling wines.

In the end,  the result is a bottle of sparkling wine containing up to 50 million bubbles at a pressure of 6 atmospheres (88 pounds/sq. inch).   So be careful when you open that bottle to welcome the New Year.  The pressure can send a cork flying at 50mph, and there are regular reports of injuries and even deaths.

Robin Hall

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