While some stories are backed with historical evidences, some are made to sell. Interesting stories are an imperative tool to sell wines – word of a sommelier. One such story was refurbished in 1821 by Dom Gossard that earned Dom Perignon, Benedict Monk and cellarmaster at the Abbey of Hautvilliers in Champagne, the much coveted title of ‘father of sparkling wines’. He is believed to have accidentally “discovered” them while making quaffable still dry wines. These claims can be challenged, posing questions to his title and the origin of Champagnes as there lie many flaws and misconceptions in the story.
Birth of sparkling wines is marked between 1500s and 1600s. The story of their origin goes this way. Grapes were harvested in early winters and put to ferment straight away. With the following months, winters turned too cold to let the yeast to act and ferment the sugar, and resulted in halting its activity. Mistaking this pause as the end of fermentation, the wines were bottled for later consumption. Unfermented sugar and sleeping yeast still suspended, due to lack of filtering techniques to remove the yeast. As the summers drew and temperature rose, the stalled fermentation restarted, producing more alcohol and carbon dioxide, resulting in a dry wine with bubbles upon opening. This process was called Methode Ancestrale. Champagnes, however, are made differently by a process called Methode Traditionelle. To a finished wine, a mix sugar and yeast is intentionally added and sealed in bottles for a second fermentation to occur. The resulting carbon dioxide dissolves in the liquid, under pressure, eventually forming tiny bubbles and a fine wine. However, this process evolved much later after the true origin of sparkling wines and its connection to Dom Perignon’s discovery is grim.
To begin with, let’s end this rumour that Dom Perignon was blind. He had an admirable palate and knew the region of Champagne and its vineyards like his backyard. In blind tasting of wines, he could tell the source of the grapes used, down to the vineyard’s name. Now we all know what a blind tasting is, don’t we? Another story says that he worked long-hours in underground cellars away from natural light weakened his sight, leading to complete blindness with growing age. Again, that has only little bearing to the claims. Interestingly, his major contributions to the wines of Champagne were in the vineyard, than in the cellars, that are still essentially followed in the area.
Underground cellars are preferred to that overground as they were cold and consistent in temperature, key principle for aging wines. Cellars of Abbey of Hautvilliers were ideally suited for this purpose, and Dom worked here. His wines are recorded to be still and considerably dry, indicating no residual sugar. It’s said that the wines underwent restarted fermentation at these cellars, leading the weak bottles to burst, and drawing Dom’s attention to them. However, this causes anxious contradiction from the principles of sparkling wine production. Firstly, if the wines were dry, with no sugar to feed on, how could have they have undergone restarted fermentation? Secondly, these cellars were too cold to allow yeasts activity, making it impractical for the process to occur. Thirdly, bottles weren’t used for cellaring during that era, as barrels were the preferred and wines were aged in them and served directly from. These doubts raise questionability to Dom’s work and his title. If not him, who produced the first sparkling wine? When and where? How were the bubbles produced? History dating before Dom’s birth, in 1638, answers these questions.
Blanquette de Limoux is a sparkling wine from Languedoc in Southern France. Its origin can be traced in written records at the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire from the year of 1531. Following Methode Ancestrale, wines finished their final leg of fermentation in sealed flasks producing semi-sparkling wines. Dom Perignon, on a pilgrimage visit to the Abbey here, tasted these wines and was offered complimentary training in this technique. It is indicative that he applied the technique to the still wines of Champagne aiming to produce sparkling wines. However, if he had already tasted the bubbles at Saint-Hilaire, why would he be so surprised upon tasting them at Champagne, thus quoting “I’m drinking the stars!” then?
Methode Traditionelle was introduced much after Dom’s death in 1715. In 1801, Jean-Antoine Chaptal and Andre Francois, who through their individual contributions, suggested the idea of adding sugar and yeast to the bottle to reinforce secondary fermentation and produce bubbles. In 1820, Madame Clicquot (of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin) devised a revolutionary process to remove yeast from the bottle, called riddling, thus completing the circle of secondary bottle fermentation. . If the process was evolved much later, were Champagnes even made during his tenure?
The final myth to be broken before throwing light upon the true origin of Methode Traditionelle, is the use of glass bottles. As mentioned earlier, the increasing pressure during re-fermentation was too high for these weak glass bottles to hold, leading them to burst. However, glass bottles were an expensive proposition for monks to invest in them to cellar their wines in, especially if they were still. Pictorial and theoretical facts from as late as 1713, two years before Dom Perignon died, confirm that wines at monks’ tables were served from pitchers. They were red and were sourced from barrels directly, not bottles.
It can be that London is the true home to Methode Traditionelle. Craze and liking for sweetness amongst the British grew with opening the trade channels with the West Indies. Written evidence from 1617 tells that they added sugar to their wines. Instead of adding a spoonful to their glasses, they preferred adding it to the entire barrel in their cellars. Developing upon that, in 1660s, a paper was presented to the Royal Society in London, stating that addition of sugar to a wine, followed by sealing it in a bottle, results in secondary fermentation, which produces bubbles that are released when the wine is opened. Owing to the strong glass bottles they produced, this encouraged the practice of adding sugar to the bottles they brought from their local merchants and sealing them for later consumption, only to later realise that the resultant wines were not still and sweet, but sparkling and dry.
With evident existence of sparkling wines before his birth, Methode Traditionelle’s true introduction post his demise, and no obvious signs of bottles being used in the cold cellars for storing still dry wines, it’s quite convincing that Dom Perignon’s title is false. Rather, his heroically descriptions in Dom Gossard’s story in 1821 were only to bring back the faith of the people in the Catholic Church after the long phase of French Revolution followed by Nepolean’s defeat at Waterloo in 1851. Champagnes, after Madame Clicquot’s invention, were on revolutionary hike and highly demanded by the British and European royalties and authoritarians. There could’ve been no better time or way for the Church to earn the faith in public by riding on Champagne’s success. Dom Gossard, also once a monk at the Abbey of Hautviliers, was brought to the job to execute the story and he did well at the presented task.
This version may be a yet another shot at drawing questionability to Dom Perignon’s status. However, irrespective of the outcomes of these long-going debates, Champagnes will always remain at the pinnacle of fine wines, fascinating, and enjoyable. Concluding this, I’m firm to my idea, stories do make wines interesting, and interesting sells!