When wine has bubbles it’s a sign that it has continued to ferment inside the bottle. For much of the history of viniculture this was a no-no, a sign of wine gone bad, associated with murky, unstable and unpredictable vintages.
Although a few vineyards had produced intentionally sparkling wine (as early as the 15th century in Limoux in the South of France), it was only in the late 1600s that bubbly from Champagne began to be produced and respected.
Wines from Champagne has always had tendency to fizz because early frosts often led to incomplete fermentation during the manufacturing process. When things warmed the following spring, some of the wine would begin to sparkle. Fizzy Champagne, in fact, was popular among the well-to-do in Georgian England long before it became chic in the courts and chateaus of Pre-Revolutionary France.
Barrels of champagne were shipped across the channel and bottled there. In the early 1600s, English coal-fired glassworks produced bottles far stronger than anything wood furnaces could manage. By 1740 molding techniques had arrived, which allowed for the production of identical bottles and standardized corks. Suddenly the fizz could be contained.
In 1815, another key innovation arrived from a Champagne producer known as the Widow Cliquot. Champagne’s in-bottle fermentation clouds the wine with dead yeast (early Champagne glasses were made mottled to help hide this effect). Getting rid of the yeast during manufacturing took an expert hand and spilled a lot of precious bubbly.
Cliquot’s innovation was to turn the bottles neck-down and let the yeast settle in the neck in a process known as “remuage” or riddling. Once the murk was isolated, the bottleneck could be submerged in icy brine, freezing the bad bits into a floating plug of wine-debris that could then be removed before the remaining clear bubbly was sweetened and re-corked.
During the French “Belle Époque” (the peaceful decades between 1871 and 1914), Champagne became a mass-market luxury, its story woven into French popular culture by paid and unpaid marketing. Painters from Manet and Cézanne to Mucha and Toulouse-Lautrec depicted it in their panoramas of modern life. Novelists such as Goethe, Zola and Pushkin wove it into their stories.
It was in the restaurants of Paris during the same time that oysters began to be served in a rich champagne sauce - a combination worthy of romance all year long.
OYSTERS IN CHAMPAGNE
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup sliced shallots
- 2 cup brut Champagne
- 1/2 cup clam juice
- 3/4 cup whipping cream
- 1 pint Taylor Shucked Oysters
- Salt to taste
- Ground white pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup snipped fresh chives
- In a medium-size sauce pan, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over high heat.
- Add shallots and sauté until tender, about 3 minutes.
- Add 1/2 cup Champagne and clam juice.
- Boil, uncovered, until reduced by half, about 15 minutes.
- Reduce heat.
- Add the cream.
- Cook until thickened enough to coat back of a spoon, about 10 minutes.
- Cut the remaining butter into 6 pieces.
- Whisk into the sauce, one piece at a time.
- Add 1/4 cup Champagne.
- Cook sauce until thick enough to coat the back of spoon, about 3 minutes.
- Adjust salt and pepper.
- In a separate pan, poach shucked oysters in remaining champagne and water to cover until plump, about 1 minute.
- Drain and transfer to a bowl.
- Add Champagne sauce and chives.
- Serve immediately on pastas rice