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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Scoundrel or Visionary? Who Really Invented Champagne

           Wine-Knows with the "Dom" prior to lunch at the private Chateau of Moet & Chandon 

Countless legends attribute the discovery of Champagne in the 1600’s to Benedictine monk Perignon. Truth be known, Dom Perignon (who was cellar-master at the abbey in France’s Champagne district) was not the first to create these illustrious bubbles in a bottle. In fact, there are indications that he may have not only confiscated the Champagne recipe from another monastery, but that he may have been involved in shady financial dealings with the church’s money. Whether any of this is true----or a case of sour grapes---the process of making sparkling wine appears to have been “discovered” at least 100 years earlier by monks in another part of France.

 It is important to understand the wine scene in Europe at the time of Dom Perignon. From the Middle Ages through the 18th century, the wine industry was primarily the domain of the church. Monks were the grape growers, the winemakers, and the sole retail arm of the trade. While wine was used in religious ceremonies, the wine that was sold was a lucrative business for filling church coffers.

 In the 1500’s, Benedictine monks at a church in France’s southern Languedoc area found an interesting way to trap effervescence in wines. In the 1600’s when one of their brethren from the Champagne area visited, the Languedoc monks gladly shared with the guest how they made their special wine with bubbles. They revealed how the yeast in the fermenting grape juice went dormant during the winter when it became very cold. Next, they explained that the bubbles were created when the yeasts became active again in warmer weather and gave off the gas carbon dioxide in this process. The visiting monk was Dom Perignon.

Perignon returned back to his job as head winemaker at the abbey in Champagne armed with this information about the rudimentary process of making sparkling wine. In the late 1600’s, no sparkling wine was made in his district. Furthermore, all wine produced in the area was red. Monk Perignon is credited with the change from still wine to sparkling in his area. He is also recognized for being the first to use a black grape (Pinot Noir) to make white sparkling wine. Most importantly, however, he is acknowledged for his blending skills. Prior to Perignon, grapes from different vineyards were not blended. Today, blending remains one of Champagne’s hallmarks.

Myths die hard….Dom Perignon has become larger than life. One cannot argue that monk Perignon did contribute to perfecting the art of making sparkling wine. There were others, however, who contributed much more. In fact, one of them nearly single-handedly changed the landscape of the modern day Champagne industry. Stay tuned for more on this person, Veueve Clicquot.

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