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Local sellers toast champagne's unique history

If you're holding your noggin on New Year's morning, it's probably because champagne really does "go to your head."

The bubbly, carbonated concoction, which has become synonymous with celebration, is one of man's great mistakes, and one of France's greatest exports, according to local beer and wine sellers.

Bill Remy, wine manager of the Highway 138 Package Store in Stockbridge, said champagne sales help make New Year's Eve the biggest sales day of the year for most beer and wine vendors.

Champagne, itself, however, was the accidental discovery of Dom Pierre Pérignon, a 17th-Century, French Catholic monk, whose hobby was making wine.

"He [Pérignon] accidentally sealed a batch of wine that was still fermenting, hence the carbonation that is usually let off during the fermentation process was trapped inside," Remy said. "When they [the monks] opened the bottle, it spewed everywhere ... They thought there were bad spirits involved. For a long time, it was called ‘Devil's Wine,' because people couldn't understand how it was behaving. This new version was a revolutionary development. That was the first recorded incident of carbonated anything."

Remy said the new "sparkling wine" was eventually named after the Champagne region of France, where it was born and, eventually, became the region's most notable export.

Thicker bottles and corks were used to trap the tremendous pressure [of the wine.] And the small explosion that takes place when a bottle is opened, eventually, became a staple of joyous occasions, he said.

"The Chinese invented fireworks," Remy said. "The Europeans were already familiar with the idea of things going up in the air to celebrate events. [Champagne] kind of fit right in. Now, it is used in almost every celebration."

According to Remy, champagne comes in three main varieties: Demi-sec (sweet); extra dry (less sweet); and brut, the driest variety of champagne, created as a result of British market demands, following the drink's creation.

He said the carbonation in champagne, however, makes the drink a more efficient delivery method of alcohol into the blood stream.

"There is truth to the saying, ‘champagne makes me so tipsy,'" Remy said. "Whereas, everything else has to go to your stomach, the carbonation in champagne creates almost an immediate injection of alcohol into the bloodstream. They [champagne drinkers] do get off on a quicker start. Beer does the same thing, but a sip of champagne typically has three times more alcohol than wine."

Lata Chinnan, owner of New South Package Store in Riverdale, said champagne plays only a minor role in the store's year-round sales, but it is what "everybody who walks in on Dec. 31 wants.

"Usually that day, we have a big display," Chinnan said. "People like that little sound when it pops. It's like a little celebration."

David Wynn, operations manager at Eagle's Landing Bottle Shoppe in Stockbridge, said champagne sales at the store go up about 60 percent in December, in preparation for the new year. He suggests drinking champagne immediately after opening it, however, as the drink tends to loose its fizz very quickly.

"Everybody is always looking for something, so they can have that cork pop at midnight," Wynn said. "[However,] champagne doesn't keep well. If you have a champagne stopper, you can use the leftovers the next day for a mimosa, but for the most part, it's done. It has no real life after it has been left open."

Remy said the way to tell a good champagne from a bad champagne is "the bead," or rather, the size of the bubbles. The smaller the bubble, the higher the quality of the product, he said.

"If you see big basketballs floating up to the top of the glass, they probably didn't spend that much," Remy said. "If you look at the highest quality French champagne, the bubbles are so tiny, and that is difficult to produce."