I just returned from a long and tiring business trip and was wondering what on earth to write about when I got an email from a friend in Texas. He’s bracing for Hurricane Ike and is worried about what will happen to his wine collection if they lose electricity. The chances are that nothing will happen if the air conditioning is only out for a day or two, but it got me thinking about a couple of ways in which spoiled wine has been sold as a delicacy.
The first thing that came to mind was Madeira, a Sherry-like wine that used to be very popular among the classes that hunt and suffer from gout (and that was celebrated in Have Some Madeira My Dear, a song by Flanders and Swann – below). This drink, named for its port of origin was what happened to wine that spent months in the hold of sailing ships crossing the Atlantic in hot weather. The wine literally baked and evaporated through the barrels. This exposed more surface area to air, so the wine also oxidized. By any measure, the wine was ruined upon arrival but it was wine and people drank it, eventually developing a taste for it and exporting it back to Europe. Talk about getting cash for your trash! In time, rather than going through the wasting the time and space to ship the wine to America and back, enterprising merchants built special warehouses that heated up in the sun, duplicating the heat of a ship’s hold and fortifying it with brandy to stabilize it. And the irony is that good Madeira (which is not always easy to find) is delicious, probably considerably better than the wine it started out to be.
The same cannot be said of the other great mistake in wine history. There is a story that on the night he “invented” Champagne, Dom Perignon called out to his fellow monks, “Brothers, come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” He probably said something more like “Merde!” The fact is that the Dom Perignon was trying to get the bubbles out of the wine, not put them there.
For centuries, the wines of Reims and Eperney had been considered to be among the best in France. In addition to excellent vineyards, the two cities had miles of underground tunnels, mined out by the Romans, which were ideal for wine storage. But in the 16th and 17th century, at the time of the introduction of glass bottles, something went wrong. Gas formed in the wine and if the bottles didn’t explode in the cellar (one had to wear a protective mask to avoid flying glass when one entered a Champagne cellar) the wine was likely to foam in the glass, which was highly undesirable. What was not understood at the time was that slight variations in cellar temperature stopped fermentation in winter and started it again in spring. And while the resulting carbon dioxide escaped when the wine was in barrels, it was trapped in a glass bottle and the pressure built up for months.
Great pains were taken to prevent the second fermentation but there was also the question of what to do if it could not be avoided. The answer was in the fleshpots of Paris during the reign of Louis XV. The patrons of the fashionable brothels of the Palais Royale loved the suggestive pop and spray of sparkling wine and English and Russian visitors brought to new party wine home with them. Soon there were so many orders from abroad that the demand for sparkling wine from Champagne outpaced demand for the fine still wine, which all but disappeared.
Now the problem was how to make sure the wine would, in fact, pop and spray — much the same problem that faced the old roués who favored it and, no doubt, hoped it would help — and the same efforts that went into trying to prevent the second fermentation now went into finding ways to make sure it would happen every time. Time and space do not allow a discussion here of how the “Champagne Method” was developed (I will deal with that and why not all sparkling wine is Champagne in another blog entry) but the long and the short of it is that, like Madeira, Champagne started off as something nobody wanted.
Having said that, I will also say that I love (love love love love love) Champagne and may just have to open a bottle in order to get an appropriate photo for this blog entry… And having done so, I will have to drink it.
To find great champagnes near you, visit www.winesearcher.com.
Our Nepenth columnist, Ross Wasserman has had a house in Sharon Springs since his great grandfather purchased a summer home in the village in the 1890’s. He owned and ran a restaurant in the region that won a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence every year of his proprietorship. He now runs the New York office of Benson Marketing Group, a public relations and marketing agency specializing in wine. (Full disclosure will be offered whenever a wine with which he has a professional connection is recommended.)