Champagne acquired bubbles by accident. The cold winters of the region would stop fermentation, but with the coming of spring it would start up again and release carbon dioxide. In one of the greatest ironies in the history of popular myth, the 17th century monk Dom Perignon strived throughout his life to do away with these bubbles. His legendary services to champagne were as the still wine it was supposed to be at the time.
When the British discovered, in the 18th century, the secret of strong-enough glass, the second fermentation was finally encouraged and sparkling champagne was intentionally and commercially produced. It has never looked back.
Quality, sweetness and style are the key things to look for and the label on the bottle will provide all the clues.
Concerning quality, there are three distinct designations. Non-vintage champagne will be blended from the produce of several years and aim for a standard style; vintage champagne is the fruit of only one year and will have more depth of character and greater ageing potential; Prestige Cuvées are exclusive, excellent and enhanced by age.
Ultra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-Sec and Doux are the six categories from driest to sweetest. Sweetness is not created by noble rot but by adding yeast and sugar to the bottle before corking it. Brut, the most popular and common style in the UK, is dry.
Other than the usual blend of three grapes, the following styles of champagne all exist: Blanc de Blancs, made only from Chardonnay; Blanc de Noir, from red grapes only; and Rosé, made by blending red and white wines before bottle fermentation.
It may be surprising to find that two of the three grapes that go into Champagne are red. These are Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Chardonnay, the only white, makes up less than a third of the vines in the whole of the region.