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A Brief History of Champagne

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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 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 of 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?

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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 really a 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 a 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?

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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.

This article originally appeared in 2008.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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