Half a century to standardize the renowned bubbles

Dom Pérignon (Sainte-Menehould, December 1638 or January 1639 – Hautvillers, 24 September 1715)

It is a myth that champagne was invented by Dom Pérignon. Before its birth, there is already talk of a foaming wine, un vin mousseux, in both England and France.

What the Benedictine monk did do was standardize its production, making a series of improvements regarding the grapes to be used, the pressing, the quality of the bottles and the closure. For forty-seven years he worked on those improvements.

He is the man who helped champagne take a decisive leap forward in centuries of development. And rightly so, he has been given a statue in Epernay, in the heart of the Champagne region.

Dom Pérignon was born as Pierre Pérignon in the town of Sainte-Menehould, near Châlons-sur-Marne, in the east of the Champagne region. He studied well and so his family sent him to the Benedictine abbey of Verdun, where he did his novitiate.

In 1668 he arrived at the abbey of Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers, just north of Epernay, where he was appointed 'procureur', meaning procurator, the manager of all material affairs of the monastery. Those material issues also included the vineyards.

The Benedictines were known for the many scholars they had produced and they were regarded as hard workers. The Benedictine liqueur also comes from their monasteries. From 1510 onwards, the liqueur was 'a tonic to help tired monks get back on their feet'.

In any case, they had a reputation to uphold, and Pierre Pérignon, who had meanwhile been given the title Dom because of his high position, wanted to contribute to that. In addition to his administrative tasks, he devoted himself to wine production in his spare time.

He thought there could be a connection between the speed at which the grapes were pressed and the quality. The monks pressed too slowly and for too long. He devised a way of pressing quickly, and in stages, to extract a juice as white as crystal from the blue grapes.

One year the wine was good, the next year bad. He started mixing different wines – called 'assembly' – to achieve consistent quality. He arrived at the mixing of blue grapes pinot noir and pinot meunier with the white chardonnay grapes.

The only three grape varieties that can be used for champagne today.

Despite these efforts, the wine of Hautvillers Abbey remained only a flat wine. Nothing special. The grapes that Pérignon had chosen showed the ability to ferment a second time in the spring after the first fermentation.

The winegrowers in the area heard the whizzing in their barrels and tilted the bungs to let the gas escape. Dom Pérignon thought that this gas might give the wine a special taste. And he bottled a few bottles, even before the second fermentation started.

As a result, the carbon dioxide no longer had the chance to volatilize and remained behind in the bottle. A sparkling champagne was the result.

The next problem was that the bottles broke due to the pressure of the second fermentation. So Dom Pérignon had special bottles blown in the glass factories of the Argonne. That is why those empty champagne bottles are still so heavy today.

The second new problem was the sealing of the bottle. Until then, these were oil-soaked plugs of hemp. And they just popped out of the bottle under pressure.

Until the day when a fellow monk, returning from a pilgrimage to Compostela, brought with him so-called 'Spanish plugs' made of cork. From then on Pérignon used cork, tied with a rope, today the 'agraffes' of metal.

To be on the safe side, he often also soaked the corks in sealing wax.
This is how the French Benedictine learned to make the perfect champagne in the course of his 47-year procuratorship.

When he died at Hautvillers at the age of 77, his drink was already known at the court of Louis XIV as 'the wine of Father Pérignon', the 'devil's wine' or the 'wine whose cork pops out'. He died in 1715, the year that the Sun King also died.

Almost three hundred years later, the village of Hautvillers, the cradle of champagne wine, is still a wine region. In the middle of 700 hectares of forest lies the village with its 860 inhabitants, 140 winegrowers and 287 hectares of vineyards. The tomb of Dom Pérignon can still be seen in the abbey church.

And the old Champagne house Moët et Chandon to this day names its most exclusive champagne after the inventive monk, the procurator of Hautvillers Abbey, boss of all material
common issues.

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