The region of Champagne, specifically the city of Rheims (alternately pronounced "rans" or "remz") was originally known as the coronation site of French kings. Legend holds that at the coronation of Clovis, France's first Christian king, in 487 A.D., a white dove descended from heaven and placed a vial of holy oil in the hands of St. Remy, to use in the anointing of the new king. St. Remy allegedly took this precious oil with him to his grave, where it remained for four centuries.
Miraculously or mysteriously, Hincmar, the Archbishop of Rheims, found the oil. From that time forward, all French kings came to Rheims to be crowned and to be rendered divine by the anointing St. Remy oil.
As royalty and their retinues flooded the region for coronation events, the region's still wines grew in favor until the 16th century, when the region experienced a mini ice age.
Falls and winters became so cold that wines placed to ferment and age in abandoned Roman chalk caves ceased fermentation. When fermentation resumed in the spring, the resulting wine was a cloudy, gritty, fizzing mess prone to exploding because of pent-up carbon dioxide. Ruling classes rejected these gritty, suspicious bubbling wines in favor of clear, still wines from Burgundy.
But many, including a monk named Dom Pérignon, tried perfecting a method for clarifying the region's wines and combating the bubbles. Gradually, by the early part of the 19th century, the Champenoise started capitalizing on the uniqueness of their fizzy wines. These wines once again gained popularity with the rich and famous, but clarification remained problematic for vintners.
A feisty widow ("veuve" in French) named Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, of the Champagne house now known as Veuve Clicquot, solved the clarification problem by designing a riddling rack. In the rack, the bottles stand almost on end. By gradually turning, or riddling, them, sediment in the wine collected in the neck of the bottle. When temporary caps were removed, the sediment spewed forth, leaving a clear wine. The first riddling rack was fashioned from the Veuve's kitchen table.
All the great Champagne houses benefited from the widow's invention. Her process remains the preferred method for clarifying champagne, though some houses replicate the process using machines rather than human hands.
All true champagne shares this storied history. Champagne remains the drink of kings and the wealthy. Through revolution, war and our current recession, it remains expensive, but it is the perfect gift wine, versatile and always exciting to receive. Consider one of these locally available gems:
Dom Pérignon 2000. $143 at Tyson Art and Frame in Golden Springs. Top wine of the house of Moet & Chandon. A vintage champagne. All champagnes are blends of juice from many vineyards and years, but when vintage is stated on the bottle, the blend is made from juice of a single outstanding year.
Moet & Chandon Brut Vintage 1999. $60.75 at Midtown Chevron in Anniston. From the vintage of 1999. A brut — dry, off-sweet champagne — from a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.
Moet & Chandon Imperial. $36.44 at Target at the Oxford Exchange. Non-vintage, entry-level Moet champagne. Brut in style. Delicious.
Drappier Rosé Brut. $44 at Tyson Art and Frame. Beautiful, non-vintage pink wine sourced from Val des Demoiselles, a small vineyard plot planted exclusively to pinot noir. Off sweet, fruity, yummy wine.
Veuve Cliquot Brut. $44.81 at Target. Perhaps America's most popular champagne from the house established by the widow Cliquot. The house calls this wine their yellow label, but it is in fact orange.