The History of Sparkling Wine Includes Accidental Science and Exceptional Champagne

Photo of riddling rack with bottles in it
Photo courtesy of Stockfood Cephas Picture Library

As you raise a glass of bubbly to toast the new year (or an average Tuesday), take a moment to drink in the centuries of culture and innovation in your glass.

In the Beginning

Blanquette de Limoux, from Languedoc, shows up in writings from as early as 1531 by the monks of Saint-Hilaire.

“Mauzac is the main grape of Blanquette de Limoux,” says Jason Wilson, a drinks writer and historian whose books include Godforsaken Grapes. “[It] has these really unique apple-peel aromas and flavors.”

Blanquette de Limoux was first made using the ancestral method, or méthode ancestrale, where fermentation is stopped early, and wine undergoes a secondary fermentation in bottle. The technique might have been a happy accident, with winter weather halting fermentation, and then yeast waking up as temperatures climbed. (Now, Blanquette de Limoux is made using the traditional method for sparkling wine production, and Blanquette de Limoux Méthode Ancestrale is a separate designation.)

Illustration of Napolean in his bicorn, in a wine cellar
Napoléon I in Epernay, 1807/Photo courtesy of Moët & Chandon

Champagne Rising

Wine production started here in the 17th century, when a monk named Dom Pierre Pérignon planted vines. He’s also credited with having observed the sparkling wines of Limoux and bringing the style to Champagne, but he died in 1715, before any commercial production began. Ruinart, the oldest established Champagne house, was founded in 1729, and documents show it began shipping bubbly in 1764.

The style gained in popularity among French and English nobility. In 1745, Moët & Chandon became the first purveyor to a European royal court, at the court of King Louis XV.

Veuve Clicquot was then founded in 1772. Among other things, Madame Clicquot invented the riddling process to remove yeast after secondary fermentation, creating the traditional method or méthode Champenoise.

Black and white photo of a cellar with stacked barrels
Wine cellar in Trento/Photo courtesy of Trentodoc

Meanwhile in Italy

Prosecco’s history is almost as long as Champagne’s, with the first written record dating back to 1754. Vinified in the col fondo, or “with sediment,” style, same as the ancestral method, this wine from the Veneto was made from the native Glera grape.

“For years, Prosecco was understood as the name of the grape,” Wilson says. “But as the demand for Prosecco exploded worldwide in the 2000s, the Prosecco producers in northern Italy wanted to protect their wine… So they found a village in Friuli called Prosecco, and redrew the DOC [to include it].”

The invention of the Charmat method in 1895 made Prosecco much more affordable to produce. This technique dictates wines undergo secondary fermentation in a pressurized tank, and then get filtered and bottled under pressure.

In Franciacorta, meanwhile, producers began making traditional-method sparkling wines modeled after Champagne, picking up on the premium end.

Two women in long dresses, ina. vineyard harvesting grapes
Cava harvest/Photo courtesy of Cava DO

Spain Gets in on the Action

In 1872, a winemaker named Josep Raventós Fatjó decided to try his hand at traditional-method bubbles. He used Macabeu, Parellada and Xarel-lo grapes native to Penedès, in Catalonia, where his family had been making wine under the Codorníu label since 1497. Legend has it that he was so pleased with the results, he immediately called for a cave (cava) to be dug, so he could produce more, and Cava became the name of the regional designation.

Cava has always been made using the traditional method, but higher quantity production and a shorter required time for secondary fermentation led to much lower prices than Champagne.

The California Exception

Sparkling wines have been produced in the Golden State since the 1860s, with the exception of the Prohibition era. Use of the name “Champagne,” on the labels of bottlings produced here has been the topic of many international trade agreements, and was finally banned for good in 2005. A handful of historic winemakers, however, had been grandfathered in and are allowed to continue making California Champagne.

Let's Talk About Sekt, Baby

The Modern Era

Sparkling wine continues to grow and evolve. In France, the crémant designation came into effect in 1975, so producers from some other regions could denote their traditional-method sparklers.

Italy also saw increased production in the 1970s, when the Ferrari family started making top-quality, traditional-method sparkling wine in the Alpine region of Trento, which has unified to form Trentodoc.

South Africa has a rich history of producing traditional-method sparkling wines. French Huguenots introduced the technique, and the designation Méthode Cap Classique, or MCC, was adopted in 1992.

More recently, English fizz and German sekt have made inroads in international markets, and American pét-nats are bubbling over. With almost 500 years of history behind it in total, the style’s future is nothing less than sparkling.

Published on December 2, 2019
Topics: Wine and Ratings


SUBSCRIBE TO
NEWSLETTERS
The latest wine reviews, trends and recipes plus special offers on wine storage and accessories