The past couple of weeks I’ve been further exploring my mother’s favourite tipple, champagne. Her preference was Dom Pérignon, but only for very, very special occasions. Let me explain why.
Dom Pérignon is a brand of vintage Champagne produced by the Champagne house of Moët & Chandon, and it serves as that house’s prestige Champagne. It is named after Dom Pérignon, a Benedictine monk who was an important pioneer for Champagne but who, contrary to popular myths, did not discover the Champagne method for making sparkling wines. Dom Pérignon is always a vintage champagne and all grapes used to make the wine are harvested in the same year. Since 1921, Dom Pérignon champagne has produced only 43 vintages from an assemblage of Pinot noir and Chardonnay grapes, although the final composition changes every vintage.
Who was Dom Pérignon?
Dom Pérignon (1638–1715) was a monk and cellar master at the Benedictine abbey in Hautvillers. He pioneered a number of winemaking techniques, such as blending grapes to improve wine quality; balancing one element with another in order to make a better whole; perfecting the art of producing clear white wines from black grapes; enhancing the tendency of Champagne wines to retain their natural sugar in order to naturally induce secondary fermentation; and, mastering the timing of bottling these wines to capture the bubbles. He also introduced corks (instead of wood), which were fastened to bottles with hemp string soaked in oil in order to keep the wines fresh and sparkling, and used thicker glass in order to strengthen the bottles (which were prone to exploding at that time).
The development of sparkling wines as the main style of production in Champagne occurred progressively in 19th century, more than a century after Dom Pérignon’s death.
How the bubbles get into Champagne
In fact, in Dom Pérignon’s time, wine with bubbles was something to be avoided. It did occur naturally from time to time and was called “devil’s wine” (vin du diable). The bubbles would develop when wine was bottled before the fermentation process had finished. Pressure would build inside the bottle and often cause either the cork to pop or the bottle to explode. Flying debris would hit other bottles and set off a chain reaction of popping and breaking bottles. This could cause substantial loss of wine, not to mention the wounds inflicted on any unsuspecting monk who happened to be working in the cellar at the time of an explosion. So, while it’s true that Dom Perignon did a lot to advance the Abbey’s wine production, he never tried to create sparkling wine. In fact, he tried to avoid it.
The first French sparkling wine made for the fun of it?
Dom Perignon’s newfound celebrity as the so-called inventor of the Champagne-making process provoked another abbey in Carcassonne to stick up their hands and say, “No, we were first.” Benedictine monks in Carcassonne are documented as making a sparkling wine since 1531. Their version is called Blanquette de Limoux and is bottled before it has finished fermenting. So, while the Carcassonne abbey may have a claim as possibly the first sparkling wine made on purpose, they did not invent the modern Champagne-making method. However, Carcassonne’s claim gave rise to another legend which says that Dom Pérignon had visited their abbey, saw their wine-making process and stolen the recipe from them. It seems those monks were not to be trusted!
Then in the 1990s, news from England made the French Champagne industry pop its cork. Papers were discovered proving that the English were using the modern method of Champagne-making before Dom Perignon even entered the abbey. It seems that in 17th century, England imported large quantities of non-sparkling wine from the Champagne region, by the barrel, and bottled it themselves. They particlarly liked it when they got the occasional bubbly barrel and worked out a method to ensure their wine fizzed and sparkled.
In 1662 English scientist Christopher Merret wrote:
Our wine-coopers of recent times add vast quantities of sugar and molasses to wines to make them drink brisk and sparkling.
The English had an abundance of sugar from their Caribbean colonies and they added it to the finished wine when they bottled it to cause a second fermentation in the bottle. A great plus was that they had also developed a stronger, thicker glass that could withstand the pressure of the secondary in-bottle fermentation.
The method of double fermentation called the méthode champenoise was used in England from 17th century while the Champagne region didn’t start to use it until 19th century. Even so, since 1994, the term méthod champenoise cannot be used to describe the process for making any sparkling wines other than those produced in the Champagne region of France.
So, while sparkling wine has occurred naturally and sporadically since people began making wine, it seems the modern method used in Champagne-making today may have began across the Channel in England.