Making Champagne in France, an article from the August 23, 1891 New York Times

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The New York Times, August 23, 1891, p. 17:

THE CHAMPAGNE COUNTRY

THE GREAT WINE-PRODUCING DISTRICT IN FRANCE.

FROM THE VINEYARD TO THE COMMERCIAL ARTICLE
IS A LONG AND DELICATE PROCESS--
WAGES AND THE COST OF MAKING.

    REIMS, France, Aug. 12--There is a whimsical German legend that champagne was invented by one hundred thousand evil spirits, who, in the absence of their master on private business, went off on a wild frolic.
    On his return they were so alarmed that they fled into the cellar of a Baron and entered his wine bottles. Their master in a rage corked them up, and in the future the wine sparkled with a fiendish brilliancy.
    A more commonplace, and doubtless more accurate, account was imbibed in its native home along with itself--a demonstration, in fact, that the story was true, for here more than five-sixths of the champagne consumed in all parts of the world is produced.
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    Champagne and its virtues were discovered by Dom Perignon in 1688. He was cellarer to the monks of St. Benedict, who cultivate the vineyards around the Abbey of Hautevillers, near Epernay, in the Valley of the Marne. He had a palate and the genius necessary to supply its needs.
    By a lofty flight of imagination he conceived of the idea of marrying the vintages, that one year's product and one kind of wine might impart its graces to another. He found that even contiguous pieces of ground imparted different qualities to the grapes, and that white wine could be made from black grapes and would keep better than that made from white grapes.

    Champagne is made from red grapes to the extent of four-fifths of its amount, but the skins are removed before fermentation begins. If allowed to ferment with the skins, the result would be red wine, except in the case of Sillery and Choilly, which are made from the pure white grapes.
    In all wines there is the good and bad vintage, and the quality varies with the year. In a good vintage the grapes are gathered when fully ripe and the fruit is slightly tinged with the color of the skin, giving what is known as œil de perdrix, usually associated with good vintages. The famous vintage of 1874, which all connoisseurs know, had this quality.

    Dom Perignon has also the credit for the invention of the corks as now used. Before his time, and even yet in parts of Italy, Epernay wine was stopped with a plug of flax soaked in oil.

    The white wine of Champagne became famous under the inventive cellarer. In the gay days of Louis XIV, the Marquis of Sillery, at a supper which has since been immortal, introduced the new beverage into public life, and a brand of it yet bears his name. The bottles, wreathed in flowers, were borne in by a bevy of bacchantes, and the revelers could form no idea why the seductive drink foamed and sparkled. The mystery of it caused a reaction, and the sparkle was attributed to the influence of noxious drugs.
    But the pious cellarer went on improving his wine till in 1715 as good a wine was produced as can now be procured. The inventor of sleep has deserved a blessing, and in the same way Dom Perignon is entitled to consideration.

    There are two peculiarities connected with champagne, the rapidity with which it exhilarates, considering the small amount of alcohol imbibed, and the lethargy or deadness induced by its indiscreet consumption.
    This promptness of action is due to the prescence of carbonic acid gas, which is inhaled while drinking and expedites the effect of the alcohol. One glass of champagne is equal to two glasses of still wine possessing the same proportion of alcohol.
    The stupor induced is analogous to that produced by the breathing of a deleterious gas, and is assisted by the excess of sugar deranging the stomach by being turned to acid.

    Sweetness is often confounded with richness, and this is sometimes gained in cheap brands by the addition of grape sugar. The richness produced by the natural saccharine is caused by a natural arrest of the processs of fermentation, leaving an excess of saccharine in the liquid, while in port making there is an artificial arrest of fermentation.
    Good champagne only thins the blood, it does not remain undigested, nor does it turn acid. In low grades of champagnes sugar of lead is added. A common test used in France for champagne is to heat a small quantity with chlorate of potash and hydrochloric acid. When the chlorine and coloring matter are driven off, the remaining liquid is put into sulphurated hydrogen. If there is any sugar of lead present, it will be precipitated as a sulphide.

    To produce champagne a uniformity of temperature is absolutely necessary, and the reason why this wine is confined to the district now sacred to it is because the caves which exist in that part of France permit of this. Buildings could be erected, but the cost is too great to enable the experiment to be made profitable.
    In the champagne country the soil is chalky, and deep caves are easily excavated, giving unlimited cellarage forty feet below the surface.

    After Dom Perignon's death the manufacture received new attention from men who developed the patience and precaution involved. Much depends upon the selection of the natural wines, as each vineyard has its own peculiarity.
    The wine of Avonay has the flavor of strawberries, that of Av has the flavor of peaches, the wine of Hautevillers tastes like nuts, and that of Pierry has a peculiar fruity odor. These must be selected in the proper proportion to give the quality of a peculiar brand.
    The area of the champagne country is only 35,000 acres, and contains about 400,000,000 vines, valued by the Minister of Finance, for purposes of taxation, at $20,000,000. This year's crop promises well, but whether it will be a notable vintage remains to be seen.

    The people living in the district have no other employment, and the vintagers come long distances to their work. They are engaged beforehand, and at daylight assemble in the market place, where the rate of wages is fixed day by day. It varies according to the demand for labor, and is usually about 50 cents a day.

    A drum is beaten, and the pickers assemble ready for work at daybreak, as the grapes must be picked at sunrise, as then they make the brightest and cleanest wines and yield more juice. In the heat of the day it is impossible to prevent fermentation, and the grapes are spoiled.
    The women and children go up the mountain sides and pick between the rows. The men carry the baskets down to the villages, where they are wheeled to the reeking presses.

    The vine gatherers are subject to rigid superintendence, and no damaged or unripe fruit is permitted at the press. Again, the fruit is examined, and all bruised or bad berries and pieces of stalks are removed one by one, as one rotten grape would spoil the whole contents of a press.
    The press is like that used in the New England States for making cider, with a flywheel for applying pressure. The grapes are first spread on the floor and are trodden by two men with bare feet. Each press contains about eight thousand pounds, and by the first process yields about two hundred and twenty gallons. Mechanical pressure is then applied and as much more is obtained, making a total of 440 gallons, which flows into reservoirs.

    From these it is pumped through pipes lined with gutta-percha to vats. After standing ten hours a froth comes to the surface and then the liquor is drawn off into new casks. Pressure is applied for the third time, but the product is kept for home consumption only. The casks are then left untouched till the following year, when it is taken either to Reims, Epernay, Ay, Avize, or Pierry, where the owners of the various brands have their manufactories.
    Here the wine is drawn into new casks, which are kept tightly bunged till ready for mixing, according to the practice of each manufacturer to produce the flavor and quality of a particular brand.

    If the vintage is below the average, then a stock of old wine has been reserved to bring the wine up to standard. The mixing is done in large vats holding from ten to twelve thousand gallons, and thorough mixing is provided for by a set of fans.
    The result of the mixture is called cuvée, and it is tempered by adding four-fifths of the wine expressed from black grapes to one-fifth from white grapes.

    The art of the champagne maker lies largely in mixing the crude wine so as to produce in the champagne the special flavor and bouquet desired. He has also to regulate the effervescence and the carbonic acid gas which depends upon the amount of saccharine.
    If there is too much, the bottle will burst. If there is too little, the wine will be flat. A new instrument, called a glucometer, is now in use, which registers the amount of saccharine in the mixture. If there is too little, some sweetening is added.

    Next the cuvée is drawn off into casks and is refined with isinglass, and a small quantity of tannin is added to make up for that lost during fermentation.

    In a month the liquor is clear and ready for bottling; if not, it is again drawn off and further refined. Only new, sound bottles, well tested, are used, as the loss from explosion, even with the greatest care, is one of the chief causes which go to enhance the cost of champagne.

    Then the bottling begins. After the fitness of the wine is assured, it is emptied from the casks into vats and flows along into long reservoirs provided with a row of taps on the siphon principle. The necks of the bottles are slipped into these and the wine flows in till they are full. Boys carry away the full bottles and replace them with empty ones.
    The corkers take them in hand and stop them up quickly with a cork forced in by a machine. Great speed and dexterity are necessary, as a moment's delay will alter the wine.

    The bottle is then passed to a man known as the agrafeur, and he secures the cork with an iron clip or agrafe. The bottles are carried to a cellar or cool vault, where a density of two to six atmospheres is obtained. A pressure gauge is used, and the required density is provided.
    A "grand mosseux" wine shows a pressure of 5¾ atmospheres and is then allowed to acquire the proper sparkle in subterranean vaults. If the pressure is too low, it is conveyed to a warmer vault to develop further, and charcoal fires lighted to encourage the effervescence.

    The bottles are now stacked in rows. In three weeks the explosion begins and the breakage averages from 2½ to 8 per cent. By October the breakage will be over, but one year 120,000 out of 200,000 bottles were lost.

    Then the unbroken bottles are stacked in rows lying on their sides, where they remain from eighteen months to three years. The sediment has now fallen to the side, and the position is altered day by day till it descends near the mouth and finally on to the cork. The cork is withrawn, the sedimnet expelled, and a new cork inserted.
    There is a great art in giving the necessary slope to the bottle, and much dexterity is required to remove the sediment neatly, and men spend their lives doing nothing else.

    The wine is now known as "Vin Brut," and has yet to be transformed into the wine of commerce. The operator who removes the cork and sediment passes the bottle to the doseur, who doses it with the exact amount of liqueur or syrup prescribed for that particular brand. Each maker has his own receipt, and the syrups are altered to suit the market.
    The dose usually consists of very old wine of the best quality, to which a quantity of sugar candy and cognac is added. For "dry" champagne the dose is much smaller than for the ordinary kinds. The sweet champagnes are usually sent to Russia and kept for the French markets, and the best brands of dry are exported to the United States and England.

    From the doseur the bottle is passed to the egalisseur, who equalizes the contents, fills the bottle with pure wine to the proper level for the final corking, and if color is needed he adds a proper quantity of red wine.
    The corker then compresses the cork and drives it home. He then passes it to the ficeleur, who rounds off the top and secures it with wire. Another whirls it about his head, one in each hand like Indian clubs, to mix the wine and liqueur.
    Then it is set away for six months more. It is at the end of this time labeled, capsuled, wrapped in tissue paper, and packed in baskets or cases.

    The grape itself is cultivated by small vine farmers, although a few large makers have their own vineyards. The small farmer does not crush his grapes, but sells to the middlemen, who have presses and capital, or to agents of the large makers.

    The rule is to sell the crop by the caque of 132 pounds. Seven caques of grapes make a hogshead, or forty-four gallons, of new wine.

    The average price of the fruit is 7 cents a pound. A "piece" of new wine, consisting of forty-four gallons, usually costs $100, though in bad vintages it rises as high as $300, but the making of champagne only begins where that of ordinary wine ends...

See also:
Wine & Liquor Shops & Links
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Classic Wine Articles:
White Wines of Bordeaux 1876
Wine Making at Home 1919

Classic Champagne Articles:
Champagne Making in France 1867
Making Champagne in France 1891

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