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The real history of Champagne and its bubbles

Pouring Champagne in a glass

Champagne, that bubbly beverage that pops its cork for celebrations, is named after the region in northeast France where it’s produced. The name “Champagne” is protected and only sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region can be called Champagne. The same goes for the process that assures those trademark bubbles: It’s called the méthode champenoise and only Champagne-makers in Champagne can claim its use. But who really invented this method for assuring that the wine sparkles?…

The people of France thought they had discovered the answer in 1821 when a Benedictine monk, Dom Groussard, told a wonderful story…

Did Dom Perignon put the bubbles in the Bubbly?

Rue Dom Perignon in ChampagneHe told of Dom Perignon, a monk who had lived at the Abbey of Hautvillers more than 100 years earlier. He said Dom Perignon had experienced a happy accident when he opened a bottle of wine that had been bottled before it had completely fermented. The wine continued to ferment in the bottle, and when the monk went to open it, the cork popped out and the wine fizzed and sparkled. Curious, Dom Perignon poured himself a glass. He was thrilled with the taste and the little bubbles tickling his nose. He called out to the other monks, “Brothers, come quickly – I’m drinking stars!” Then Dom Perignon went on to develop a method of assuring that his wine was always fizzy.

It’s a charming legend, and the French believed it for a long time. After all, a monk should be a pretty reliable source. But as it turned out, this one wasn’t: he liked to exaggerate. Part of what he said was true: Dom Perignon did exist and he did work as cellar-master at the Abbey of Hautvillers for most of his life. He was responsible for acquiring more vineyards and for improving the Abbey’s non-sparkling wines. However, his work was documented, and there was no mention of him ever making sparkling wine, either accidentally or on purpose.

How the bubbles get into Champagne

In fact, in Dom Perignon’s time, wine with bubbles was something to be avoided. It did occur naturally from time to time and was called “devil’s wine” or “pop-top wine” (vin du diable or saute-bouchon). 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.

It seems that Dom Groussard invented this story and other embellished tales to give the abbey more historical importance. He also claimed that Dom Perignon was the first to use the cork and that he could identify which vineyard a grape had come from just by tasting it (both also untrue). But all of France believed his tale and gladly embraced the star-sipping monk as the inventor of Champagne.

Bottle of Dom Perignon ChampagneDom Perignon Champagne

It was a good story, and French business associations used it to promote the drink and the Champagne region. The legend also helped the reputation of the fizzy drink which had long been associated with royalty. Now that people knew it had been invented by a lowly monk, it would be a drink for everyone. In 1921 Moët and Chandon created a brand of Champagne called Dom Perignon after the monk credited with inventing the bubbly brew.

The first French sparkling wine made for the fun of it?

Dom Perignon’s newfound celebrity as the inventor of the Champagne-making process provoked another abbey in Carcassonne (southern France) to stick up their hand 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 Perignon had visited their abbey, saw their wine-making process and stole the recipe from them – It seems those monks were not to be trusted!

Champagne from England?

Then in the 1990s, news came out of England that 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 the seventeenth century, England imported large quantities of non-sparkling wine from the Champagne region. The Brits bought it by the barrel, and bottled it themselves. They 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 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 the seventeenth century. The Champagne region didn’t start to use it until the nineteenth 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 began across the Channel in England. (Oh my!)

Margo Lestz lives in Nice, France and blogs at curiousrambler.com.  She is the author of Curious Histories of Provence, Curious Histories of Nice, France and French Holidays and Traditions, details: curiousrambler.com/margos-books

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