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Dom Pérignon: The Truth - Sipping the Stars and Taming Diabolical Fizz

Words by Lucy Edwards

In the enchanting realm of champagne, where every resounding pop of a cork heralds a moment of celebration, the legacy of a monk looms large. It's not because he "invented champagne" as many claim, but mostly because he did everything in his power to keep champagne from becoming effervescent. Prior to champagne's association with fizz, it was a still wine. The perlage we cherish today were once deemed a flaw.

Preserving Champagne's Still Wine Legacy

Dom Pierre Pérignon, born in 1640 just east of the Champagne region, joined the Benedictine Order at the tender age of nineteen. His tenure as the cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers commenced at twenty-eight and spanned until his demise in 1715. In this role, he held stewardship over the abbey's vineyards and winemaking operations. The wines he meticulously crafted were used both for ecclesiastical ceremonies and as commodities for the abbey's sustenance.

Rather than pioneering the second fermentation in champagne, he dedicated himself to managing the unpredictable prise de mousse. The resident monks would often preach,

"One must drink their champagne before Easter, before the wines become possessed by the Devil."

But why? Well, because they were unaware of a fundamental aspect of vinification. The chilling winters of Champagne induced a dormant state of fermentation in the wine, with the yeast remaining inactive until spring. It was this secondary fermentation that manifested as mysterious effervescence and subsequently 'tainted' the wine. One bottle would explode, and the whole cellars would go up in domino effect.

It became such an issue that the bottles experiencing this turbulent reawakening were considered 'spoiled' and subsequently discarded. Hence, upon the passing of Dom Pérignon in 1715, according to a monastic inventory, there was not a drop of sparkling wine found in the cellars of Hautvillers. Instead, these cellars harboured hundreds of barrels of red wine and some white, reserved by Dom Pérignon for the art of blending. During those bygone days, champagne was referred to as "œil de perdrix," denoting a still red wine adorned with a pale pink robe, capable of rivaling the finest Burgundian reds. It was often just labelled as "Ay", "Bouzy" or "Hautvillers" rather than "champagne".

Champagne's Secret Revealed: Christopher Merrett's 1662 Breakthrough

Intriguingly, the veritable protagonist of this narrative is none other than Christopher Merrett (1614 -1695), who artfully unlocked the mystery behind champagne's effervescence. the English would import champagne wine in barrels, and often bottle them in their own cellars.

Merrett discovered that if he used English charcoal-fired glass instead of French wood-fired glass, and if he added a touch of molasses, he could have consistency in the fizz in his cellars. The charcoal-fired glass withheld the second fermentatiion, and the molasses kickstarted it. In 1662, he submitted an eight-page manuscript to the recently established Royal Society, outlining his formula for creating bottle-fermented sparkling wine.

Dom Pérignon's Legacy: Shaping the Champagne Industry

The oft-cited quotation, "Come quickly, I am tasting the stars," commonly attributed to Dom Pérignon, is, regrettably, apocryphal. It was concocted by an advertising agency two centuries posthumously. Furthermore, the assertion that he was blind is a fallacy.

So, why do we revere Dom Pérignon as the luminary of Champagne? His name has become synonymous with luxury, and lauded in the greatest literature, cinematic productions and rap songs. The label's distinctive design and the bottle's signature shape, modelled on 17th-century forms, have etched the brand into the annals of popular culture. It is a paragon of sophistication and finesse.

Where Pérignon truly shone was in the realm of blending, an innovation that elevated him above his contemporaries. He shunned the conventional practice of relying on the grapes at hand, choosing instead to assess the quality of the fruit through blind tastings. He was dedicated to sourcing the highest fruit quality and was the first to different varieties from different crus.

He was also a trailblazer in immediate and gentle pressing of red grapes to secure white juice for assemblage. Slow pressing is now a cornerstone of today's champagne production.

The sealing mechanism he employed entailed employing robust Spanish corks and securing them with hemp rope, a precursor to the wire cage employed today.

For centuries, regional vintners have harnessed the allure of Dom Pérignon's name to propel their Champagnes into the market. But in the 1920s, Moët et Chandon formally adopted the namesake their prestige cuvée, thereby etching his name onto the global consciousness as a revolutionary winemaking luminary.

Next time you visit the champagne region, and you arrive along the winding roads and up the hill to Hautvillers, try to imagine the simple monk overlooking the rolling hillsides at harvest, and deciding which plots and crus to blend together. Recently, a statue was unveiled in this village, and during the ceremony, the champenois rejoiced with songs, dances, and toasts to honour Dom Pierre. On such an occasion, one can't help but ponder the potential form of Champagne today. It would undoubtedly still sparkle, but would it be quite so enchanting?



Gold Animate cork (1).jpg
Gold Animate cork (1).jpg