Why the Brits had a hand in the Champagne story, and why the monk did not invent my favorite drink!
Cue the start of the stoning. But hear me out.
(waits for the rocks to stop flying at her)
Champagne was not invented by one person, there is no doubt that Dom Perignon played an important role in the development of the drink, and that’s exactly what it was. A development, a process, not a eureka moment by a bald monk drunk on space dust.
Wine has been produced in the Champagne region since the Roman times (probably earlier), when they planted the first vines. It was still wine at this time, in fact the first sparkling wine was made (and enjoyed as such) in Carcassone in the south of France during which the wine was bottled before the first fermentation had fully completed, causing the wine to become sparkling, givng us the Pet Nat style.
An English bloke, called Christopher Merret in 1662 presented an important paper he had written called Some Observations concerning the Ordering of Wines in which he detailed how some winemakers had been known to add sugar or molasses to still wine, causing it to re-ferment. This happened 6 years before Dom Perignon came on to the wine scene! Merrets work set out the details for what we now know was Methode Champenoise, already alive and kicking before our friend the monk could even imagine what it might be like to taste the stars.
One small issue with the champagnes of the 1600’s was the quality of the glass bottles. They were frankly crap. They could not cope with the pressure that was produced by the champagne, and would often explode. The answer? The English, again. It was an English man who invented a type of glass bottle that could withstand the incredible pressure produced by the wine and already used for the production of cider. Voila! You’re welcome.
Champagne as we know it did not come to be until the 19th century. Despite the documentation of the secondary fermentation process in 1662, bubbles were considered a wine making fault. Champagne was made in the Rurale style, as with the first sparkling wine it was bottled before the first fermentation was completed. Dom Perignon’s main task in the wine making cellars of the Abbey was in fact to eradicate the bubbles form the wines made there!
Lets talk about how today as modern drinkers, we would be likely disgusted with the taste and style of the champagne of the 19th century. First, if my sources at Pommery are correct, it would have been served at room temperature, and flat. Not because the wine was flat, but because it was poured at the start of the evening and then left to be drunk until the end of the evening. And…… sweet, it would have been incredibly sweet, as sugar was added to make the acidic wine taste more pallatable. If sweet and dessert wines are your thing, you may have enjoyed this. However, warm, flat sweet wine doesn’t push my buttons. We can thank Perrier Jouet for the Brut style we enjoy today for allegedly not adding the additional sugar to a shipment bound for the UK. Apparently, Brut champagne was created for the British Market. Again, your welcome.
While the French can certainly be held responsible for the creation of the wine for champagne, its was the British who documented its process before it was known in Champagne, and facilitated its potential with the creation of special bottles, as well as supposedly creating the niche for Brut styles.
So, you may all be wondering, what exactly did Dom Perignon do for champagne? Why do so many Champagne houses peddle the story that he invented it, including Moët & Pommery?
Well, it is nice to give the visitors to the region a fairy story. After all, Dom Perignon is perhaps one of the most well known champagne brands. Its all marketing. In fact it was this very marketing that fooled you all with the tasting stars line. This little phrase was coined by an ad agency in the 19th century. Rather than explain the whole process about the amazing collaboration between the English and the French, a story about a Monk tasting stars sells more wine!
However, Dom Perignon is very well noted for his contributions to the champagne making process, and is often credited as being the first person to blend different wines. I think we can let him have that one. Blending is a key part of champagne making, and gives more freedom to express different flavours from different grapes, and years. It is also claimed that he pioneered new pressing techniques to get white juice from black grapes and made our wines clearer. So thanks Dom!
Now, some purists will never admit that the English had a hand in the Champagne process. But the fact is, we were producing sparkling cider in bottles that could withstand the pressure before there was a bubble in champagne.
I am sorry if anyone is offended by the content in this post. I am sticking by my words. The making of champagne as we know it today was a process started by the french with their wine making skills and aided by the Brits, with our documentation and bottle knowledge. It is a process that is still today being refined.