A New Year's Eve Champagne FAQ

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iStock

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.]

5 Facts About Thomas Crapper

MJC Plumbing, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
MJC Plumbing, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

You may have heard a tale or two about Thomas Crapper, the Victorian-era inventor and sanitary engineer, but there’s a good chance those stories are untrue. So, in honor of Thomas Crapper Day on January 27 (which this year marks the 110th anniversary of his death), we want to set the record straight. Here are five facts about one of the world’s best-known but least-understood plumbers.

1. No, Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet.

The biggest myth about English plumber Thomas Crapper is that he invented the first flush toilet. This would make for an amusing anecdote—"Crapper invented the crapper"—but the fact of the matter is that Crapper wasn’t even alive when the first flush toilet came to be. That dubious honor goes to Sir John Harington (a distant ancestor of Game of Thrones star Kit Harington), who built the toilet in 1596 for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I. (She reportedly complained it was too loud). According to Snopes, many of the myths surrounding Crapper’s accomplishments stem from the 1969 book Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper, which “has often been dismissed as a complete fabrication.”

2. Thomas Crapper did hold other plumbing patents.

Thomas Crapper & Co flush toilet in Sir John Soane's Museum
By Rainer Halama, Wikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA 3.0

Unless you’re a plumber, you’ve probably never stopped to appreciate the inner workings of a toilet. That little floating valve inside some toilets that prevents tank overflow is called a ballcock, and Crapper did invent that. Altogether, he held nine patents for his inventions, including designs for water closets (early flush toilets), manhole covers, pipe joints, and drain improvements.

3. Thomas Crapper plumbed for the British royalty.

Crapper’s plumbing company was commissioned to do plumbing projects for some pretty high-profile clients, including the people over at Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and the Sandringham Estate. Sadly, any tales that he was knighted by the Queen are untrue.

4. Thomas Crapper opened the world’s very first bathroom showroom in 1870.

This is perhaps Crapper’s greatest claim to fame. At a time when it was considered improper to publicly acknowledge bodily functions, Crapper’s Marlboro Works showroom boldly placed functioning toilets on display—and customers could even try them out before buying them. According to Snopes, an article in Plumbing and Mechanical Magazine argued that Crapper “should best be remembered as a merchant of plumbing products, a terrific salesman, and advertising genius.”

5. You can still see Thomas Crapper's name on manholes in London.

Manholes with Thomas Crapper's name on them
Barry W, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

If you head to Westminster Abbey and look down, you might see a manhole sporting Crapper’s name This is because he re-plumbed the building. According to the Londonist, some original Crapper toilets can also be found around the city—complete with chain-pulls—and a plaque commemorating Crapper’s achievements can be seen outside his former home in the London Borough of Bromley.

10 Fascinating Facts About Chinese New Year

iStock.com/aluxum
iStock.com/aluxum

Some celebrants call it the Spring Festival, a stretch of time that signals the progression of the lunisolar Chinese calendar; others know it as the Chinese New Year. For a 15-day period beginning January 25 in 2020, China will welcome the Year of the Rat, one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac table.

Sound unfamiliar? No need to worry: Check out 10 facts about how one-sixth of the world's total population rings in the new year.

1. Chinese New Year was originally meant to scare off a monster.

Nian at Chinese New Year
iStock.com/jjMiller11

As legend would have it, many of the trademarks of the Chinese New Year are rooted in an ancient fear of Nian, a ferocious monster who would wait until the first day of the year to terrorize villagers. Acting on the advice of a wise old sage, the townspeople used loud noises from drums, fireworks, and the color red to scare him off—all remain components of the celebration today.

2. A lot of families use Chinese New Year as motivation to clean the house.

woman ready to clean a home
iStock.com/PRImageFactory

While the methods of honoring the Chinese New Year have varied over the years, it originally began as an opportunity for households to cleanse their quarters of "huiqi," or the breaths of those that lingered in the area. Families performed meticulous cleaning rituals to honor deities that they believed would pay them visits. The holiday is still used as a time to get cleaning supplies out, although the work is supposed to be done before it officially begins.

3. Chinese New Year will prompt billions of trips.

Man waiting for a train.
iStock.com/MongkolChuewong

Because the Chinese New Year places emphasis on family ties, hundreds of millions of people will use the Lunar period to make the trip home. Accounting for cars, trains, planes, and other methods of transport, the holiday is estimated to prompt nearly three billion trips over the 15-day timeframe.

4. Chinese New Year involves a lot of superstitions.

Colorful pills and medications
iStock.com/FotografiaBasica

While not all revelers subscribe to embedded beliefs about what not to do during the Chinese New Year, others try their best to observe some very particular prohibitions. Visiting a hospital or taking medicine is believed to invite ill health; lending or borrowing money will promote debt; crying children can bring about bad luck.

5. Some people rent boyfriends or girlfriends for Chinese New Year to soothe their parents.

Young Asian couple smiling
iStock.com/RichVintage

In China, it's sometimes frowned upon to remain single as you enter your thirties. When singles return home to visit their parents, some will opt to hire a person to pose as their significant other in order to make it appear like they're in a relationship and avoid parental scolding. Rent-a-boyfriends or girlfriends can get an average of $145 a day.

6. Red envelopes are everywhere during Chinese New Year.

a person accepting a red envelope
iStock.com/Creative-Family

An often-observed tradition during Spring Festival is to give gifts of red envelopes containing money. (The color red symbolizes energy and fortune.) New bills are expected; old, wrinkled cash is a sign of laziness. People sometimes walk around with cash-stuffed envelopes in case they run into someone they need to give a gift to. If someone offers you an envelope, it's best to accept it with both hands and open it in private.

7. Chinese New Year can create record levels of smog.

fireworks over Beijing's Forbidden City
iStock.com/lusea

Fireworks are a staple of Spring Festival in China, but there's more danger associated with the tradition than explosive mishaps. Cities like Beijing can experience a 15-fold increase in particulate pollution. In 2016, Shanghai banned the lighting of fireworks within the metropolitan area.

8. Black clothes are a bad omen during Chinese New Year.

toddler dressed up for Chinese New Year
iStock.com/lusea

So are white clothes. In China, both black and white apparel is traditionally associated with mourning and are to be avoided during the Lunar month. The red, colorful clothes favored for the holiday symbolize good fortune.

9. Chinese New Year leads to planes being stuffed full of cherries.

Bowl of cherries
iStock.com/CatLane

Cherries are such a popular food during the Festival that suppliers need to go to extremes in order to meet demand. In 2017, Singapore Airlines flew four chartered jets to Southeast and North Asian areas. More than 300 tons were being delivered in time for the festivities.

10. Panda Express is hoping Chinese New Year will catch on in America.

Box of takeout Chinese food from Panda Express
domandtrey, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Although their Chinese food menu runs more along the lines of Americanized fare, the franchise Panda Express is still hoping the U.S. will get more involved in the festival. The chain is promoting the holiday in its locations by running ad spots and giving away a red envelope containing a gift: a coupon for free food. Aside from a boost in business, Panda Express hopes to raise awareness about the popular holiday in North America.

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