A New Year's Eve Champagne FAQ

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As midnight approaches on December 31st, more than a few of us will crack open a bottle or two of champagne to help toast in the New Year. With a few choice facts about the bubbly stuff, you can look knowledgeable rather than just tipsy when you drain your flute. Here are a few little nuggets you can share with fellow revelers.

What exactly is champagne?

Strictly speaking, champagne is a sparkling wine that comes from the Champagne region of northeastern France. If it's a bubbly wine from another region, it's sparkling wine, not champagne. While many people use the term "champagne" generically for any sparkling wine, the French have maintained their legal right to call their wines champagne for over a century. The Treaty of Madrid, signed in 1891 established this rule, and the Treaty of Versailles reaffirmed it.

The European Union helps protect this exclusivity now, although certain American producers can still generically use "champagne" on their labels if they were using the term before early 2006.

How is champagne made?

Sparkling wines can be made in a variety of ways, but traditional champagne comes to life by a process called the methode Champenoise. Champagne starts its life like any normal wine. The grapes are harvested, pressed, and allowed to undergo a primary fermentation. The acidic results of this process are then blended and bottled with a bit of yeast and sugar so it can undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle. (It's this secondary fermentation that gives champagne its bubbles.) This new yeast starts doing its work on the sugar, and then dies and becomes what's known as lees. The bottles are then stored horizontally so the wine can "age on lees" for 15 months or more.

After this aging, winemakers turn the bottles upside down so the lees can settle to the bottom. Once the dead yeast has settled, producers open the bottles to remove the yeast, add a bit of sugar known as dosage to determine the sweetness of the champagne, and slip a cork onto the bottle.

What's so special about the Champagne region?

Several factors make the chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier grapes grown in the Champagne region particularly well suited for crafting delicious wines. The northern location makes it a bit cooler than France's other wine-growing regions, which gives the grapes the proper acidity for sparkling wine production. Moreover, the porous, chalky soil of the area—the result of large earthquakes millions of years ago—aids in drainage.

Do I have to buy champagne to get good sparkling wine?

Not at all. Although many champagnes are delightful, most the world's wine regions make tasty sparkling wines of their own. You can find highly regarded sparkling wines from California, Spain, Italy, Australia, and other areas without shelling out big bucks for Dom Perignon.

Speaking of Dom Perignon, who was this guy?

Contrary to popular misconception, the namesake of the famous brand didn't invent champagne. But Perignon, a Benedictine monk who worked as cellar master at an abbey near Epernay during the 17th and 18th centuries, did have quite an impact on the champagne industry. In Perignon's day, sparkling wine wasn't a really sought-after beverage. In fact, the bubbles were considered to be something of a flaw, and early production methods made producing the wine somewhat dangerous. (Imprecise temperature controls could lead to fermentation starting again after the wine was in the bottle. If one bottle in a cellar exploded and had its cork shoot out, a chain reaction would start.) Perignon helped standardize production methods to avoid these explosions, and he also added two safety features to his wines: thicker glass bottles that better withstood pressure and rope snare that helped keep corks in place.

What's the difference between brut and extra brut?

You'll see these terms on champagne labels to describe how sweet the good stuff in the bottle is. As mentioned above, a bit of sugar known as dosage is added to the bottle right before it's corked, and these terms describe exactly how much sugar went in. Extra brut has less than six grams of sugar per liter added, while brut contains less than 15 grams of additional sugar per liter. Several other classifications exist, but drier champagnes are more common.

Why do athletes spray each other with champagne after winning titles?

Throughout its history, champagne has been a celebratory drink that's made appearances at coronations of kings and the launching of ships. However, the bubbly-spraying throwdowns that now accompany athletic victories are a much more recent development. When Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt won the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1967, they ascended the winner's podium with a bottle of champagne in hand. Gurney looked down and saw team owner Carroll Shelby and Ford Motors CEO Henry Ford II standing with some journalists and decided to have a bit of fun. Gurney gave the bottle a shake and sprayed the crowd, and a new tradition was born.

What's sabrage?

After the French Revolution, members of Napoleon's cavalry decided that the normal pop-and-foam ritual of opening a bottle of champagne just wasn't as visually impressive as it could be. They responded by popularizing a way of opening bottles using a sword. The technique, known as sabrage, involved holding a bottle at arm's length while quickly running a saber down the bottle towards the neck. When the saber's blade struck the glass lip just beneath the cork, the glass breaks, shooting off the cork and neck of the bottle while leaving the rest of the vessel intact. Ceremonial "champagne swords" are available for just this purpose, and if you can pull off this trick, you'll be the toast of your shindig. (Be careful, though. A flying champagne cork is already you'll-put-your-eye-out dangerous, and adding a ring of ragged broken glass to the equation doesn't make the whole endeavor any safer.)

[For more champagne facts, check out Allison Keene's latest installment of Dietribes.]

Run! IHOP Is Giving Away Free Pancakes for National Pancake Day

What better way to celebrate National Pancake Day than with a free stack of IHOP's signature buttermilk pancakes?
What better way to celebrate National Pancake Day than with a free stack of IHOP's signature buttermilk pancakes?
StephanieFrey/iStock via Getty Images

If ever there were a day to forgo that container of leftovers in the fridge and treat yourself to breakfast for dinner, it’s today: IHOP is celebrating National Pancake Day by giving each customer a free short stack of buttermilk pancakes. The dine-in deal is available at participating locations from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.—but the hours can vary, so you might want to confirm with your local IHOP before heading there.

While a pile of hot, syrup-soaked pancakes is definitely a good enough incentive to visit IHOP immediately, it’s not the only one. IHOP is also hosting a sweepstakes that offers thousands of instant-win prizes across all locations, and you can only enter by scanning the QR code on your table at IHOP. One lucky carb-loader will win the grand prize—pancakes for life—and other rewards include everything from $500 IHOP gift cards to IHOP merchandise like blankets, watches, duffel bags, customizable jackets, and even bikes.

The pan-tastic event is all in the spirit of charity, and IHOP is hoping to raise more than $4 million for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, Shriners Hospitals for Children, and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society—you can donate online here. According to a press release, IHOP has contributed more than $30 million to its charity partners since beginning its National Pancake Day celebrations in 2006.

“IHOP launched its National Pancake Day event 15 years ago as a way to celebrate the best food ever—pancakes—and put a purpose behind the day by partnering with Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and other charities to help kids in our communities,” Stephanie Peterson, IHOP’s executive director of communications, said in the release.

If you can’t make it to IHOP to claim your free short stack today, you can always celebrate National Pancake Day with a tall stack of homemade pancakes—find out how to make them extra fluffy here.

Why Do People Toss Beads During Mardi Gras?

Kameleon007/iStock via Getty Images
Kameleon007/iStock via Getty Images

Each year, more than 1 million people descend on New Orleans for Mardi Gras, an organized parade of debauchery and alcohol-induced torpor that may be the closest thing modern civilization has to the excesses of ancient Rome. Saturating the scene on Bourbon Street are plastic beads, handed or tossed to partygoers as a kind of currency. Some bare their breasts or offer booze in exchange for the tokens; others catch them in the air and wear the layers around their necks. Roughly 25 million pounds of beads are in circulation annually, making them as much a part of the Fat Tuesday celebration as sugary cocktails and King Cake.

Traditions and rituals can be hard to pin down, but Mardi Gras historians believe the idea of distributing trinkets began in the 1870s or 1880s, several hundred years after French settlers introduced the celebration to Louisiana in the 1600s. Party organizers—known locally as krewes—handed out baubles and other shiny objects to revelers to help commemorate the occasion. Some of them threw chocolate-covered almonds. They were joined by more mischievous attendees, who threw dirt or flour on people in an effort to stir up a little bit of trouble.

Why beads? Tiny tokens that represent wealth, health, and other prosperity have been a part of human history for centuries. In Egypt, tokens were handed out in the hopes they would guarantee a happy afterlife; the abacus, or bead-based system of accounting, used trinkets to perform calculations; pagan pre-winter rituals had people throwing grains into fields hoping to appease gods that would nourish their crops.

Humans, argues archaeologist Laurie Wilkie, display "bead lust," or a penchant for shiny objects. It's one possible reason why Mardi Gras attracts so many people with their arms in the air, elated to receive a gift of cheap plastic.

Photo of a well-dressed bulldog celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The early beads were made of glass before more efficient production methods overseas led to an influx of plastic beads in the 1960s. Unlike some of the more organic predecessors, these beads have come under criticism for being a source of health problems and pollution. Made from petroleum, they often harbor lead that seeps into the soil and rubs off on hands. (One estimate puts the lead deposit after a Mardi Gras celebration at 4000 pounds.) In 2017, New Orleans paid $7 million in clean-up costs to remove discarded beads from drain basins. In 2018, they installed gutter guards to prevent the necklaces from getting into the system in the first place. Meanwhile, scientists have been working to create an even more eco-friendly version of the beads—like a biodegradable version made from microalgae.

Environmental hazards aside, the beads of Mardi Gras have become as much a holiday staple as Christmas stockings or Thanksgiving turkeys. But the passion and desperate need for them is only temporary; in 2018, 46 tons of the beads were removed from just five blocks of the main parade route on Charles Street. And no bacchanal should leave that much bad juju behind.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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