The big celebration is almost here. At the stroke of midnight everyone will be toasting the new year with a glass of Champagne. Did you ever wonder where the name Champagne came from? That part of Burgundy is known for its snow white soil. Once the bottom of an inland sea, the white limestone soil is the remnant of that ancient period. The Celtics called the region kann pann meaning white country. This in turn may have influenced the Roman name for the region, Campania.

What about the idea of toasting, where did that come from? In the days of the Greeks, one of the easiest ways to end the life of a rival was to poison their wine. It became a custom to raise a glass to the health of your drinking partners and drink first - to assure the safety of the beverage. The Romans adopted this practice and added their own flair by dropping a piece of burnt bread, "tostus" in latin, into the cup!

There are several ways to produce a sparkling wine. The great houses of France use what is called the Champagne or traditional method. The production is time consuming and expensive but the result is well worth the effort. A Blanc de Blancs is 100% Chardonnay. A Blanc de Noirs, meaning white from black has a pink hue from the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes used.

In the early 1800's, Champagne was not the limpid liquid we have come to love. Because the second fermentation occurs in the bottle, the dead yeast cells left the wine murky and cloudy. The lack of clarity in Champagne was highly objectionable to Madame Clicquot of Veuve-Clicquot fame. She found that by shaking the bottles and slowly turning them upside down, you could loosen the yeast sediment. The dead yeast would settle in the neck of the bottle and could be removed. This process is called riddling, and though once done by hand, machines now do all of the shaking.
The names of the great champagne houses read like a who's who of the wine world. Veuve-Cliquot, Bollinger, Roederer aren't just the names of three amazing wines, but they are also the names of three of the Champagne widows who ran the family business and made it to the top of a male dominated industry. Madame Cliquot is probably the most famous and the name of her champagne says it all, the veuve of Veuve Cliquot means widow.

Madame Bollinger took control of her winery in 1941, right in the heat of World War Two and she doubled the winery's production. She is credited with one of the most famous wine quotes of all time. "I drink Champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty."

Roederer Champagne House is one of the few that actually grow the majority of their own grapes for its sparkling wine. The flagship, Cristal, is made from the best grapes from all of their vineyards and bottle aged for five years on the lees which are the dead yeast cells. This aging adds additional character and finesse. During the 1800's they provided Cristal to the Russian Tsars. After the Communist Revolution, they lost an astonishing 75% of their business.
Legends add romance to our lives. Most of the time the stories aren't true. But they add a little spice and allow us to imagine "what if?" Take the legend of Dom Perignon. This Benedictine Monk was active in the Champagne region of France. He served in the Abbey of Hautvilliers as the cellar master. Under his stewardship the Abbey doubled the size of its vineyard holdings. When he died Perignon was awarded the honor of being buried in the section of the Abbey reserved solely for Abbots.

Those are the facts and now for the fiction. It is not true that Dom Perignon invented Champagne. That seems to have been a story invented by a later Abbott at Hautvilliers in order to increase that Abbey's prestige. Then there is the quote that's attributed to him upon his first taste of Champagne. Historians say it never happened. The romantic in me will always believe that Dom Perignon sipped and then exclaimed, "Come quickly, I am tasting the stars."

The day after Thanksgiving is the day of leftover food. New Year's Day is the day of leftover sparkling wine. For that reason, the official drink of New Year's Day is the Mimosa. In fact it's become a tradition in many restaurants to use the somewhat flat champagne from last night to make their batch. Mimosas are made by mixing three parts sparkling wine to one part chilled orange juice. This supposed "hair of the dog" was invented in 1925 at the Ritz Hotel in Paris.
Many prefer the flute, those tall, narrow glasses. There is good reason for this. They preserve the effervescence of the Champagne longer than any other glass style. In the past, many romantic men have preferred the pump method. That strange tradition of sipping Champagne from women's shoes.

It all started in Paris at Maxim's restaurant in the 17th Century and amazingly lasted right up until the 1920's. Still others like to sip their bubbly from the short but wide brimmed coupe style glasses. The legend is that the shape of these glasses was based on the shape of Marie Antoinette's breasts. While its true that they are more decorative than the flute, the wide surface area allows the bubbles to quickly escape, causing the wine to go flat faster.

More than any other region, Champagne takes aging very seriously. The Pommery winery alone has over 11 miles of underground cellars. A cross section of the region would reveal a labyrinth of tunnels and passages, some of which are wider than the streets above. In total, there are over 300 miles of interconnecting galleries that hold more than a billion bottles of bubbly.

For wine lovers, these caves are sacred ground. They have even been designated as historical monuments. The original caves were excavated long before thought was ever given to storing to sparkling wine. In the third and fourth centuries the limestone was used to build homes and roads. The Romans dug pits about thirty feet down that widened as they descended. Later, the champagne makers connected these shafts in order to house their liquid gold.