Dom Perignon was a Benedictine monk who is credited with the discovery of Champagne. His story is as mystified as Dionysis, and the mythology behind the man has served as the foundation of sparkling wine history for centuries – but is it true?
Did Dom Perignon Discover Champagne?
Let’s start with the story, you’ve probably heard it before. Dom Perignon was cellarmaster of the Benedictine Abbey in Hautvillers, where he was said to have discovered Champagne in 1693. Some say he was blind, which gave him a heightened sense of taste. As legend has it, when Dom Perninon drank the first bottle of bubbly, he said, “Come quick! I am tasting the stars!”… And the rest was history.
Charming story? Yes… But did it really happen? Not exactly.
The origins of sparkling wine are murky. We do know that Dom Perignon was a real man, and he was the cellarmaster of the Abbey in Hautvillers– but the chances that he was the first person to discover sparkling wine are not likely.
Sparkling wine production began sometime within the 1500s-1600s, and the incorporation of bubbles was a result of accidental science. The most popular theory is that frigid winter temperatures put the primary fermentation process on hold. Fermentation Part 2, Electric Boogaloo took place in the springtime as the cellar warmed up and reignited yeast cells, causing them to release CO2 into the sealed barrels.
Dom Perignon’s discovery was not methodical. It’s supposed that the first sparkling wine he tasted came from a bottle that he thought had completed its fermentation process, and the bubbles caught him by surprise. Of course, this explanation is based mostly on inference, there only is so much that we can know with certainty. But to say that this was a eureka-moment for Dom is… a bit of a stretch.
Bubbles were not always appreciated, even in the heart of what would become the Champagne region. In fact, bubbles were a problem for winemakers of the day because of their explosive tendencies. Some wine historians suggest that Dom Peringnon was tasked with eliminating bubbles from the wine, not creating them.
Whether he was a bubble-lover or not, the science remains the same. When you’re working with fermentation, running into bubbles is an inevitability! Dom Peringnon most definitely came across bubbles, but there’s just no feasible way that he could have discovered them.
So, why is the Dom Peringnon story so widely accepted?
Well, wine historians work hard, but the Catholic church works harder.
After the French Revolution (1789-99) the Catholic Church-backed monarchy had been abolished, Church property was nationalized, thousands of priests were exiled, and to say the least, the Church needed some good press. Conveniently enough, Champagne production was on the rise!
By 1800, Champagne was producing about 30,000 bottles per year, and by 1850 it had grown to 20 million. To save some face with the French public, the Church attached itself to the Champagne story. Dom Perignon was the perfect underdog monk, hero of all things fizz and sparkle!
It seems that the Dom Perignon story was spun almost entirely from scratch in the 1820s. It was written into the general history of the Church, and the French have been swearing by it since. There is very little written record prior to this, so it stuck.
If it feels like we just killed Santa Claus, dry your tears! Dom Perignon was real– and the history of Champagne can still be just as magical as it was before. With all of this in mind, it’s less like a fairytale and more like an ultra-juicy historical drama mystery. (You’re welcome, now get the popcorn out…)
So, What Was The First Recorded Sparkling Wine?
Someone, somewhere, intentionally (this is key) bottled the stars for the very first time– we just aren’t exactly sure who or where it was.
There are a few villages, including Gaillac and the Italian region of Franciacorta, that claim that sparkling wines have been crafted there since the middle ages, but there is hardly any evidence to back these claims.
The early sparkler widely regarded as the first bubbly ever made is Blanquette de Limoux. It’s said to be invented by the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire as early as 1531– more than a century prior to Dom Perignon’s discovery. Blanquette de Limoux was said to have undergone a second fermentation in a flask. It is still sold today, but is now produced in the méthode champenoise.
Origins of the Méthode Champenoise
The French credit méthode Champenoise to none other than Dom Perignon. Sure, it’s possible that he could have created the production method, but the history of glass bottle and sugar production tells us otherwise.
The defining trait of the traditional method is the second fermentation process that occurs within the bottle it is sold in. But here’s the issue– wine was traditionally bottled by the wine consumer, not the producer.
Shopping for wine looked different back in the day. Instead of picking up a packaged bottle, one would take their personal glass bottles to their wine merchant to be filled from the oak barrels it was fermented, transported, and stored in. This was the standard practice well into the late 1690s and beyond. In fact, in the year 1713 (just two years before Dom Perignon died) inventory of the Hautvillers Abbey shows that almost all of the wine was red and stored in barrels, not bottles. So, by the French standard, it was not made in the traditional method Dom supposedly originated.
Before the invention and widespread use of the coal furnace, glass bottles were just too expensive and too thin to withstand the fermentation process necessary to execute méthode Champenoise. Glass wine bottles didn’t resemble the ones we know today until 1820. Even still, glass bottle usage and production began in England, not France.
One of the earliest written instances of what would become the traditional method came from English scientist Christopher Merret in 1662 when he presented a paper to the Royal Society titled “Some Observations on the Ordering of Wine.” He found that adding large quantities of sugar to wine and sealing it resulted in a sparkling texture. It is the first written description of this reaction. Interestingly enough, Merret’s former studies were in glass and tree bark, or cork. See the picture coming together?
In the late 1600s, wealthy English folk were adding sugar to everything– coffee, tea, wine, you name it. The fizzy realization likely started with the English adding spoonfuls of sugar to wine glasses, and then deciding to dose the entire bottle with sugar.
It could be that the first instances of the traditional method were in wealthy Englishmen’s cellars, not French monasteries.
We have Sherlocked our way through the sparkles, but it’s necessary to give credit where credit is due.
Champagne’s bubbles may not have been totally discovered and harnessed in Champagne, but the craft was perfected there. Champagne gave us the fine details of méthode champenoise craftsmanship– and they rightfully earned their right to the fizz kingdom, but it’s a right they share. Italy, Spain, Germany, and California are just as pivotal to sparkling wine history, and new regions continue to make strides in sparkling wine with every harvest.
The sparkling wine story is still in the making, and you’re a part of it– yes YOU! Now go fill your glass and make some history.
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