August 4, 2007
Dom Perignon Invents Champagne
"Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!"
Dom Perignon is credited with having exclaimed this in 1693, when he discovered the effervescent beverage we now know as champagne. It's a nice story, but almost certainly untrue.
Wines from the Champagne region of France had been well-known since early medieval times, but there is no evidence that the area was the first to develop sparkling wines. There were more likely developed in either England or Russia.
England would seem to have a particularly strong claim for the honor, due to two important advantages in technology. First, England had developed a stronger bottle, which could bear up to the pressures created by the second fermentation of the wine inside the bottle. The reason English glass was stronger was due to the use of coal fires by English glassmakers, instead of the charcoal fires of the French artisans. (The English King James I had prohibited the use of charcoal burning in order to preserve the nation's forests for shipbuilding.) Secondly, English vintners rediscovered the use of corks -- they had been used by the ancient Romans, but the practice had fallen out of use -- about 130 years before the French did. French winemakers were still using wooden bungs wrapped in hemp, which could not hold up anywhere near as well to the internal pressure of the fermenting wine.
Dom Perignon was a real person, however. He was a Benedictine monk who served as the cellar master for the Abbey of Hautvillers near the town of Epernay, France. He had actually been given the charge of reducing the refermentation within the wine bottles (which gives champagne its characteristic effervescence) -- exploding bottles were both a physical and economic danger, and could destroy as much as 90% of a wine cellar's stock if not checked.
Perignon introduced important reforms to the Abbey's winemaking process, many of which are still part of the standard of champagne making today, including the blend of grapes, pruning and harvesting standards, and a curtailing of the use of any foreign substances. His efforts must have been appreciated -- he was buried in a section of the Abbey that was normally reserved only for abbots.
Photo Credit: M. MacKenzie, www.sxc.hu