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Ten Things You Need to Know About Champagne

HG Wine & Bar

Ten Things You Need to Know About Champagne

Plus a little bit more


Is there a right time to drink champagne? Napoleon, who carried a sabre and used it to open bottles, was known to have said “In victory one deserves it, in defeat one needs it.” This would suggest that there is no bad time to drink a bottle of bubbly, however, the tradition of drinking champagne to mark celebrations began in the royal courts of Europe in the 1700s. It was viewed as a status symbol and many claimed it had “positive effects on women’s beauty and men’s wit”.  After the French Revolution, champagne became part of secular rituals; you could now christen a ship without a priest by using the “holy water of champagne.”  Champagne was also used to mark special occasions and religious events, marking joy and the sanctity of the occasion.  Whether you’re planning a party for two or a wedding for two hundred, opening a bottle of bubbly elevates any occasion, and is meant for year-round enjoyment.  We spoke with Igal Amsallem, who left his law practice in Paris to become a sommelier and wine educator, to learn the ins and outs of champagne, including how to sabre a bottle, a gesture that’s sure to add some pop to your next party.

1. Champagne is not a Crémant, Mousseaux, Prosecco, Cava or sparkling wine

Only sparkling wine made from grapes grown in the region of Champagne, north-east of Paris, may be called Champagne. The French maintain a legal right to use the name, and the region’s cooler climate and chalky soils give it its distinctive character.  Sparkling wine made in France but outside of Champagne is called a Crémant or a Mousseaux.  Prosecco is made in the Veneto, the region north of Venice, while Cava is Spain’s national bubbly.  In North America we use the term sparkling wine.


2. Champagne is made by a process called the “méthode champenoise”

Champagne starts its life like any normal wine: harvested, pressed, fermented, then bottled with yeast and sugar. It’s during the secondary fermentation that the bubbles are created. Bottles undergo a process called riddling where they’re placed with their necks down at a 45-degree angle and periodically rotated. Winemakers open the bottles after 15 months to remove the yeast (this process is called dégorgement) and add a touch sugar, after which they slip on a cork, cage and foil.


3. Contrary to popular misconception, Dom Pérignon did not invent champagne

Pérignon wasa Benedectine monk who worked as a cellar master at an abbey during the 17th and 18th centuries. Though he didn’t invent champagne, Pérignon had a big impact on the industry, including innovations that prevented explosions. Champagne was actually originally produced in England in the late 1500s, where the technology of bottling and corking drinks containing carbon dioxide was developed.


4. The term ‘Brut’ is a descriptor for how sweet the wine will be

A Brut champagne should taste dry with no perception of sweetness. Extra Brut means totally dry, with no added sugar.


5. Champagne costs more than other sparkling wines

There are two reasons why champagne costs more. The first is history and branding. There are enough people in the world who want to buy a brand with a history and reputation that has been built up over centuries.  The second is supply and demand, given the limited growing region and a consistently low global supply.

6. North Americans drink champagne too cold

The ideal temperature to serve champagne is 50 degrees.  Most of our refrigerators run at about 45 degrees, so once you open a bottle, let it sit out in the open.  Don’t drown it in a bucket of ice because the freezing temperatures lock-up flavours.


7. Don’t store champagne in the refrigerator for weeks on end, they’re best stored in a cool dark place

Use a mixture of water and ice to cool a bottle from your cellar. This takes 15-20 minutes. If you don’t have a cellar, give it about 40 minutes to cool (between 8-10° Celsius).


8. Great wines have a vintage year but champagnes do not

Champagne is not considered a vintage because most bottles are a blend of wines from different years.  This is done in order to create a consistent product. Vintage champagne is only made in the best years.  In exceptional years, producers declare that year to be a “vintage” year and make special bottles just from that harvest.


9. Champagne hangovers are real

Sparkling wines cause hangovers, but not for the reason you might think: the sugar content is less of an issue than are the bubbles. Effervescent drinks are absorbed into the bloodstream more quickly than flat ones, meaning Champagne hits you harder than, say, a glass of Bordeaux; but the effect is the same as a Rum and Coke, or any spirit mixed with soda, so pick your poison.


10. The debate over which glass is better rages on

Wine connoisseurs have long argued over whether a flute or coupe is better to bring out the taste of champagne, as the glass will emphasize both the fizz and the aroma. Those who advocate for the flute indicate it keeps the drink colder for longer, makes for more bubbles because they get trapped in the mouth, and provides more of a nose-tingle than other glasses. The flute also concentrates carbon dioxide at the top of the glass, whereas the coupe’s wide mouth means the bubbles evaporate more quickly. Those in favour of the coupe – the oldest type of champagne glass and most popular in the early 20th Century - may be attracted to how it evokes imagery of the roaring 20s, or a celebration from the 60s, both eras when it was popular. If this is your preferred glass, drink it fast before it becomes flat, and double up by using it as an elegant dessert dish. Some experts are saying it may be best served from a simple white wine glass, as it emphasizes both the fizz and the aroma.

Facts and Figures

  • The classic champagne coupe was adapted from a wax mold made from the breast of Marie Antoinette

  • Each bottle of champagne has 49 million bubbles

  • There is three times the pressure in a bottle of champagne than in an automobile tire

  • A Champagne cork reaches a velocity of about 64 km (40 miles) per hour; the longest recorded flight of a champagne cork is over 177 feet

  • Actress Marilyn Monroe once took a bath in 350 bottles of champagne

  • The largest champagne bottle is called a Melchizedek, equal to 40 standard bottles

  • The tradition of champagne spraying after athletic victories began in 1967 when Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt won the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans. They ascended the winner’s podium with a bottle of champagne, looked down and saw team owners Henry Ford II and Carroll Shelby with some journalists and decided to have some fun. A new tradition was born

How to Sabre a Bottle of Champagne

Add a little theatre to your next celebration by sabering a bottle of champagne, a process of using a large blade to pop off the cork with one smooth motion. Because glass will break when  pressure is applied, just one well-placed scratch on its surface will compromise its integrity.   A light score along the 90-degree angle underneath the bottle’s lip will create a microscopic crack where the bottle is weakest, and with one fluid nudge from your sabre, the pressure inside opens that crack in the glass, releasing the collar of the bottle and the cork with it.   Done right, the neck won’t shatter or splinter but break off with a clean split.


Chill a bottle of champagne or sparkling wine.  Stand in a place (a back yard is ideal) where no one will be hit by a sharp piece of flying glass.


Once the foil and wire basket have been removed from the bottle, locate the seam in the glass that leads to the lip.


Grip the base of the bottle and hold it at a 30-degree angle, with the top angled away from you. Rest the blade flat against the bottle seam, blunt edge toward the cork.


Quickly slide the blade along the seam, up the bottle, aiming for the ring.  It doesn’t take as much  force as you think; in fact too much force can cause the knife to bounce off.

In Vino Veritas