A Toast to Champagne

Tip #1: Never Shake the Bottle

Whether it's a celebration with a crowd of family and friends or a romantic tête à tête, a bottle of bubbly is usually the drink of choice. Unfortunately, champagne doesn't come with a handy instruction booklet or DVD. So, here's a short history, followed by some interesting facts, and recipes that will help you finish off the leftovers.

Champagne History

Church rituals made wine a necessity. During the Middle Ages, grapevines were planted alongside churches in order to provide wine for Mass and communion. By the end of the 13th century, numerous monasteries dotted the French countryside. Benedictine monks worked diligently, tending the vineyards and experimenting with soil conditions to improve the quality of the grapes and increase the yields. At this time, they produced still wines.

The Champagne region of France became known for its effervescent wine about the end of the 17th century. The bubbles increased pressure in bottles, causing many to explode. Gradually, the right combination of good quality bottles, corks, and reinforcing metal wires solved the problem.

"True" Champagne

To protect the economic interests of the area, the name "Champagne" gained legal protection in . Under the Treaty of Madrid, it received designation as the Champagne appelation (an area special enough to warrant individual description). Effervescent wines not from Champagne are called "sparkling wines." Current U.S. regulations permit wineries to use the name "Champagne" if it was in use before . It is not allowed on newer labels. So, if you desire the real thing, make sure your champagne comes from Champagne!

Did You Know?

  • A Denison, Texas resident helped save the French wine industry. In the late 1800s, a plant louse, phylloxera, was destroying French grapevines. Thomas Volney Munson, who relocated to Texas from Kentucky in , gathered native grapevines from the Red River bluffs. He hybridized more than 300 varieties, some resistant to phylloxera. Cuttings from these rootstocks were grafted onto French grapevines. In , a grateful French government sent a delegation to Denison to present Munson with the French Legion of Honor, Chevalier du Mérite Agricole.
  • Denison's Grayson County College offers an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Viticulture and Enology. The college honors Munson's memory with the T.V. Munson Memorial Vineyard. It contains 65 varieties of grapes developed by the viticulturist known as "the grape man of Texas."
  • American actress and cultural icon Marilyn Monroe's last documented meal (at a Brentwood, California restaurant) included Dom Pérignon – the famous champagne named for the French monk who was involved in early champagne making.
  • Bollinger R.D. was served at the wedding breakfast of the Prince and Princess of Wales in . Diana's last meal (at the Ritz Hotel in Paris) consisted of an asparagus and mushroom omelet and Dover sole with vegetable tempura, washed down with Taittinger Champagne.
  • Champagne is usually found in two bottle sizes: standard (750ml) and magnums (equivalent to two bottles). There is also a demi or half bottle, and five larger sizes named for Biblical figures:
    • Jeriboam, named for the first ruler of the kingdom of Israel, holds 3 liters (four bottles)
    • Methuselah, the famous long-lived patriarch, holds 6 liters (eight bottles)
    • Salmanazar, ancient king of Assyria, holds 9 liters (12 bottles)
    • Balthazar, Babylonian regent, holds 12 liters (16 bottles)
    • and
    • Nebuchadnezzar, Babylonian ruler, (the rarest size) holds 15 liters (20 bottles).
  • Make it special by serving chilled champagne with freshly dipped chocolate strawberries.

How to Open Champagne

If you have never opened a bottle of bubbly before and you're afraid you may have to squeegee the walls afterward, never fear. Here's how to do it safely:

  1. While holding the bottle with one hand, untwist the wire with the other hand and separate the strands that hold the cork in place. Remove the wire along with the foil wrapping.
  2. Tipping the bottle slightly, hold the cork with your left hand and gently turn the bottle with your right hand. Gradually ease the cork out. Never shake the bottle.

Here are some recipe ideas for Valentine's Day, or any other romantic occasion.

Orange-Champagne Sunrise

Besides being delicious, this recipe makes enough for seconds (or thirds).

  • 1 quart orange juice
  • 2 cups champagne, chilled
  • 2 tablespoons orange-flavor liqueur
  • 2 tablespoons grenadine syrup
  • Ice cubes

In a 2-quart pitcher, stir together all ingredients except ice cubes. Refrigerate until ready to serve, up to 30 minutes. Add ice cubes just before serving. Makes about 6 cups or 8 servings.

Cheese Fondue for Two

How romantic can you get?

  • 1 (6 to 8 ounce) French baguette
  • 1/2 pound aged Swiss cheese or combination of Swiss and Gruyère cheese
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 cup flat champagne (more if necessary)
  • Salt and black pepper, freshly ground, to taste
  • Nutmeg, freshly ground, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons kirsch or plain brandy

Crisp bread by heating, uncovered, in a 350°F oven for 5 to 10 minutes. Cool. Cut into 1-inch cubes, leaving a side of crust on each cube. Set aside in a serving basket.

Coarsely shred cheese and toss with flour to coat evenly. Prepare fondue in a fondue pot, or in a medium stainless steel, enamel, earthenware, or nonstick saucepan. Cut garlic clove in half and rub entire inner surface of pot with cut sides.

Heat flat champagne in pot over low heat. When bubbles begin to rise to the surface, begin adding cheese, one handful at a time, to hot champagne. Stir constantly with a wire whisk until melted (it is traditional to stir in a figure-8 motion). Each handful must be completely melted before the next is added. When all of the cheese is melted, season lightly with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Taste, and adjust seasonings as desired.

Blend in kirsch or brandy. Cook gently, stirring constantly, about 30 seconds. Fondue must be kept warm.

To eat, push tines of fork through soft side of bread into crust. Dip bread into fondue, stirring around bottom of the pot. Lift fork and twirl to remove without dripping. Cool slightly on plate before eating from fork. As fondue thickens, blend in small amounts of warmed flat champagne.

Makes 2 servings.

Chicken Véronique

Five-star dining that's easy to prepare.

  • 2 half chicken breasts, skinned and boned
  • 2 tablespoons butter, clarified preferred
  • 2 tablespoons flat champagne
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon dried leaf tarragon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup fresh green or red seedless grapes

Heat a 7-inch skillet over medium heat. Rinse chicken breasts and dry on paper towels. Add butter to skillet and swirl to melt and coat evenly. Place chicken breasts in pan and sauté until lightly browned on both sides. Add flat champagne, tarragon, and salt; cover and simmer slowly for about 5 minutes.

To test doneness, press finger into thickest part of chicken breast; meat should spring back. Do not overcook. Place chicken breasts on a plate and keep warm by covering with skillet lid.

Quickly boil pan juices until syrupy. Add whipping cream and boil until lightly thickened. Stir grapes into cream and cook briefly to warm through. Stir in any juices that have drained from the chicken breasts. Arrange chicken breasts on two plates and spoon sauce over. Makes 2 servings. Serve with a green salad, some crusty French bread, and a bottle of your favorite champagne.