October 21 is World Champagne Day. The French sparkling is a favourite with Australian consumers, with 8.1 million bottles imported in 2015. That quantity makes Australia the world’s sixth biggest market by volume, and the country continues to be the fastest growing market for champagne, although prosecco – the Italian grape and sparkling style – is also starting to make its mark when locals celebrate.
But a new book Bursting Bubbles: A Secret History of Champagne and the Rise of the Great Growers, by wine merchant and vineyard owner Robert Walters, takes aim at some of the great myths and hype surrounding the famous wines of the region, as well as celebrating them.
“I have written this book because I believe that the story of the great growers of Champagne is one worth telling and because I believe that the producers I have highlighted in these pages are making some of the most exciting wines in the region,” Walters says at the start of his book.
In this exclusive extract from Bursting Bubbles for Business Insider, Walters debunks one of the most famous myths told about Champagne – that the monk Dom Perignon “invented” the wine so many love today.
He makes three fascinating points:
1. Sparkling wine was not invented in Champagne.
2. Winemakers in the region considered bubbles a fault at the time.
3. Most of the myths around Pérignon began about a century after his death.
We’ll let Walters take over the story from there. Here’s what he says:
There are so many myths about Dom Pérignon that it’s hard to know where to begin.
The typical story we are told is that he was a blind monk who discovered the “recipe” for producing sparkling Champagne and that when he did so he uttered these immortal words to his fellow monks: “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!”
For a start, he wasn’t blind. He could see perfectly well. It’s also extremely unlikely that he ever said ‘I am drinking the stars!’ as these words first appeared in a print advertisement in the 19th century, well over a hundred years after Pérignon’s death.
He was certainly not the ‘father of sparkling Champagne’. More remarkably, it appears that he never even made sparkling Champagne (at least not deliberately).
The records of the Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers where Pérignon was the cellarmaster from 1668 to 1715, do not contain any evidence of sparkling wine being produced under Pérignon’s reign.
On the contrary, the records show that the abbey sold most of its wine during this period in barrel, so it could not have been mousseux. The limited number of bottled wines that were sold by the abbey at the time seem almost certainly to have been still, non-sparkling wines, as they were never described as sparkling in the correspondence between the abbey and its customers.
Sparkling wines were still exceptionally rare during this era, and it would therefore have been remarkable for any orders and confirmation documents to not clearly describe the wine being sold as ‘mousseux’. But they do not, simply because it was for still wine that the Hautvillers abbey was in fact renowned under Dom Pérignon, and because, like all cellarmasters of the time, Pérignon worked hard to try to prevent the small amount of wine he bottled from becoming fizzy.
Bubbles were widely considered a fault in Champagne during this era; sparkling Champagne became a commercially plausible wine style only well after Pérignon’s death.
Let’s not sell Pérignon short, though. He does appear to have been involved in encouraging, and perhaps even developing, a number of practices in the vineyards and cellars that led to quality improvements. Under his management, the wines of the Hautvillers abbey were very highly regarded by buyers of Champagne and sold for high prices. But again, this renown was for still wines, not for wines that sparkled.
Another myth about Pérignon is that he was the first to use cork as a seal.
Cork was used by the Greeks and Romans, to seal jugs and amphorae, and on bottled still wine and cider in England for a hundred years prior to Pérignon joining the Hautvillers abbey. When it came to French sparkling wines, the monks of Limoux, in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, were using cork to make their sparkling Blanquette de Limoux more than a century before Pérignon was born.
It is also often claimed that Pérignon was the first to make blended Champagne. Again, this appears to be a myth. What he was actually credited with, in 1732, by the French priest and writer Noël-Antoine Pluche, was the mixing of grapes from different sources at the press. By 1778, this claim, which we have no way of verifying, had evolved from ‘blending the grapes’ in Pluche to ‘blending of wines’ in a biographical note on Pérignon.
And so, yet another myth was born.
Most of the myths associated with Dom Pérignon appear to have been started by Dom Grossard, the last treasurer at the Hautvillers abbey. Demoted to the level of parish priest after the French revolution, Grossard seems to have been determined to romanticise and glorify the abbey’s work. Significantly, Grossard was not a contemporary of Pérignon and was writing a century after the latter’s death.
While there was no evidence to back up many of Grossard’s claims (and in fact much evidence to contradict what he wrote), the legend of Dom Pérignon spread over the next century. Myth became ‘reality’ when, in 1889, the Syndicat du Commerce des Vins de Champagne, the négociants’ official promotional body, began publishing material that declared Pérignon the ‘father’ of sparkling wine and reaffirmed many of the achievements falsely attributed to him.
The story of Dom Pérignon ended up being indispensable to the propaganda of the region, as it romanticised what was ultimately a mass-produced and technological wine style. The brilliant marketeers of Champagne understood that no one thought about the large wine factories of the region’s houses when they were being told the story of a blind monk who ‘tasted stars’.
Moët & Chandon perhaps understood this best of all and legitimised the legend even further by naming their prestige cuvée ‘Dom Pérignon’.
At the time of writing, the Dom Pérignon web site makes the claim that the Hautvillers abbey (now owned by Moët’s parent company, Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, or LVMH) was the ‘birthplace of Champagne’, a statement that is patently untrue.
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