Raise a glass to Dom Pierre Pérignon
There is much speculation, myth, legend and hearsay surrounding the long-discussed topic of exactly who can be credited with the invention of Champagne. The most frequent among these is that it was the French Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon to whom it owes its glorious inception. As much as these claims feed into a delightfully romantic narrative however, it is sadly not true, but that is not to say that Dom Pierre Pérignon’s contribution towards it was anything less than revolutionary.
The Monk, the Myth, the Legacy
Let’s get this out of the way first – no, he did not say “Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” Dom Pierre Pérignon’s life predates this quotation by almost two centuries. But more poignantly, the man actually dedicated a sizable amount of his time as cellar master of the Hautvillers Abbey researching how to NOT make sparkling wine.
The carbon-dioxide build-up from the secondary fermentation process happening in-bottle made the wines sparkling, but also highly volatile, causing bottles to explode without warning, and therefore effervescence was largely seen as a fault. Dom Pierre Pérignon's process was angled towards solving this issue. The solution to this was later solved thanks to an Englishman, Sir Kenelm Digby, who revolutionized glass making with coal fired furnaces that resulted in much stronger glass. In England, everything French was considered the height of fashion. Wines exported by barrel from Champagne were bottled in England and became sparkling shortly thereafter, and it wasn’t long before this became en vogue. With stronger bottles now able to be mass-produced, the deliberate addition of sugar before bottling enhanced its sparkling finesse, as was discovered by English scientist Christopher Merret, and, as far as records show, this was the birth of Champagne.
So if Dom Pérignon DIDN’T invent Champagne, what DID he do that sees him emblazoned across one of the world’s greatest wines? Well, as a considerable fan of the wines of Burgundy, his goal was to somehow create wines of such extraordinary quality that they might rival those of his southern neighbors. As he wrote in September 1694, it was his mission to make “the best wine in the world.” But Champagne was too cold a place for Chardonnay to ripen fully, and so he set about his research into which varietals might work in its place and how they would react to the conditions at hand. This focus on terroir became instrumental in establishing the level of complexity in the wines that makes Champagne so singular, but it was his work with Pinot Noir that really paved the way.
Noting that the white grapes tended towards re-fermentation in bottle, he planted this hardier and better-suited red varietal on a large scale, farming it with only natural processes. Meticulously pruning to ensure a smaller crop of the best fruit, he harvested only in cool, damp conditions, discarding any overly large or rotten grapes. Taking care not to bruise or break them, he transported this precarious payload for immediate processing where, instead of the grapes being trodden, he insisted that they be pressed gently with multiple presses, minimizing maceration of the juice and skins. The resulting wine not only drastically improved the abbey’s product, but it formed the basis of how we incorporate red varietals and extract their delicate white juice today, following the process outlined by Dom Pierre Pérignon over three centuries ago.
Sharing his invaluable knowledge with the world revolutionized Champagne, and sparkling wine as a whole. And though his successors may have falsely attributed more to his name in order to garner prestige and historical significance to the church, his actual achievements stand testament to a humble yet brilliant winemaker.
Dom Pierre Pérignon's name is truly deserving of being immortalized by one of the greatest wines in the world, just like the ones he set out to create in the first place.
A dazzling bouquet, softer-than-silk texture and enthralling fruit notes cascade into saline minerality on every stunning finish. This is the ultimate tribute to a man without whom Champagne might not shine with such spectacular radiance.