Champagne pouring into glasses

The Champagne region, which runs east from near Paris along the Marne Valley, spreading north to Rheims and south to Côte des Bar, is home to the world’s most famous sparkling wine. Champagne is a byword for luxury and elegance, a reputation built on viticultural expertise, and a painstaking production method known as the traditional method or the méthode champenoise.

Champagne was the first region in the world to build a profitable industry from sparkling wine. Bubbles have always been an occasional side effect of winemaking but were not always created deliberately. In fact, Champagne’s early winemakers deemed effervescence a failure since it often caused the wine bottles of the era to explode. 

It took a combination of chemistry, glassmaking, ingenious engineering, and market demand to make sparkling Champagne production a reality.

Early Wine Production in the Champagne Region

The Champagne region has produced wine since the 5th century AD. The Romans brought viticulture to the area, and by the 9th century, vineyards were well-established.

In the Middle Ages, wines from Champagne gained a reputation for quality. The Counts of Champagne were influential promoters, as were the monasteries in the region. By the 12th century, Champagne wines were renowned throughout Europe and graced the tables of royalty.

However, the wines of medieval Champagne would not be recognized by a modern sparkling wine enthusiast. Champagne is in the far northwest of France and is cooler with shorter summers than wine regions further south. Low temperatures prevented grapes from ripening fully, resulting in light-bodied, acidic red wines. 

As tastes changed in later centuries, Champagne’s winemakers could not compete with the full-bodied reds of Burgundy. They had to pivot to meet the market’s needs, and they did so in a unique way that took advantage of the region’s soil and climate. 

White Wine from Red Wine Grapes

One of the key developments in Champagne's history was the discovery that white wine could be made from red grapes. The region’s chalky soils are well-suited to Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, black grapes with thin skins. White grapes like Chardonnay are grown, but they are more susceptible to frost damage and rot in Champagne’s marginal climate. 

Normally, contact between the grape skins and juice during fermentation imparts color, body, and flavor to the wine. However, in the 17th century, winemakers found that if they pressed the region’s red wine grapes gently and separated the skins from the juice quickly, they could produce a pale, nearly colorless wine. This “blanc de noirs” style became the preferred wine of the French court and aristocracy.

Modern Champagne still uses this blend of grapes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay, with smaller quantities of Pinot Gris, Petit Meslier, and Arbane. 

Cold Winters, Exploding Bottles, and Entrepreneurial Monks

The cool climate of Champagne meant that fermentation would sometimes stop prematurely in the winter as the yeasts went dormant from the cold. If the wine was bottled in this state, it could start fermenting again in the spring as temperatures rose. This secondary fermentation produced carbon dioxide that became trapped in the wine, making it effervescent. 

Unfortunately, the pressure often caused the weak, hand-blown glass bottles to explode. Bottles were stored in cellars for safety, but inventory losses of 20–90% were not uncommon. The famous Dom Pérignon (1638–1715), cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers, worked to refine the production process and prevent explosions, though, in these early days, many of his innovations were aimed at eliminating bubbles, not enhancing them.

Much of the wine produced in this period was shipped to Britain and bottled there; the aristocracy had developed a liking for still Champagne wines. Earlier in the century, the British had developed superior glass manufacturing technology that resulted in stronger bottles. When the secondary fermentation effect occurred, the bottles didn’t explode, and when they were opened, the wine was found to be bubbly.

Unlike French winemakers, British drinkers didn’t consider the bubbles a sign of failure. They began to seek out sparkling Champagne, and the winemaking monasteries seized on the opportunity, adopting British glass-making techniques to store the newly popular sparkling wine. Further advances in glassmaking in the early 1800s by companies like Verreries Royales de Saint-Gobain resulted in stronger, even more pressure-resistant bottles.

The British market was instrumental in driving demand for sparkling Champagne. The English had a taste for off-dry, effervescent wines, and they were willing to pay high prices for the prestige and novelty of Champagne. By the early 1700s, sparkling Champagne had become the most fashionable drink among the British aristocracy, a status it would soon achieve throughout Europe.

Refining the Méthode Champenoise

The quality of the bubbles and the sweetness of the resulting wine depend on balancing the sugar and yeast content before secondary fermentation. Pharmacist André François discovered the exact relationship between sugar content and carbon dioxide production in the early 19th century, giving winemakers precise control over the wine’s effervescence.

The secondary fermentation leaves a residue of dead yeast, which clouds the wine. In 1816, Madame Clicquot of the Veuve Clicquot Champagne house developed the riddling rack and pupitre, a key innovation in Champagne production. 

These machines gradually tilt the bottle, consolidating the spent yeast for easy removal without losing much of the precious Champagne. Once collected at the bottle’s neck, the bottle is dipped in cold brine, freezing the yeast plug, which can then be removed in a process called disgorgement. 

Finally, a mixture of sugar syrup and wine—the dosage—is added to replace the volume lost during disgorgement and balance the high acidity of the base wine. The amount of sugar in the dosage determines the sweetness of the final Champagne, from the very dry “Brut Nature” or “Zero Dosage” styles to the very sweet “Doux” Champagne. Most Champagnes today are in the “Brut” category, which contains less than 12 grams of sugar per liter.

As Champagne production became more reliable and consistent over the 18th and 19th centuries, the market expanded rapidly. Many of the most famous Champagne houses were founded during this period, including Moët & Chandon (1743), Krug (1843), and Bollinger (1829).

Sparkling Wine Beyond Champagne

The success of Champagne inevitably inspired imitation. In the 19th century, sparkling wine production spread throughout France and Europe. However, legal protections enacted in the early 20th century prohibit any sparkling wine made outside of the Champagne region from using the term “Champagne.”

Today, excellent sparkling wines are made around the world, from Spanish Cava, Italian Prosecco and Franciacorta, to New World sparklers from California, Australia, and beyond.  But centuries of tradition, a unique terroir, and an uncompromising commitment to quality ensure that Champagne remains the global standard against which all other sparkling wines are judged.