Thursday, 4 February 2016

Champagne myths: Dom Perignon

No other wine has developed a mythology around it in the same way as Champagne. It is a drink that is inextricably linked in our minds with celebration, marking important events, drunk by royalty and the aristocracy.

High prices account for some of the cachet – but how would you feel about Lewis Hamilton celebrating an F1 win by glugging from a magnum of Château Lafite on the podium, having first doused the runners up with some of it? All wrong; a bit loutish and binge drinky. But if it’s a jeroboam of Mumm (soon to be replaced by Moët & Chandon apparently) that’s perfectly normal.

Champagne has worked hard over the years to build up its myths – and foremost among them is the story of Dom Perignon.

Dom Perignon was a Benedictine monk who became cellar master of the Abbey of Hautvillers in Champagne in the late 17th century and he is credited with making the first sparkling Champagne. Up until this point, wine from Champagne was still, and either light red or “vin gris”, a pale onion-skin rosé.

The story goes that the blind Dom Perignon, having uncorked his first bottle of sparkling Champagne, summoned his fellow monks, saying “Come quickly, I am tasting the stars.” There is a statue depicting this very moment outside the headquarters of Moët & Chandon today.

A glass of the fizzy sort of Champagne

But if, as seems likely, Dom Perignon did produce sparkling Champagne, it was almost certainly unintentional and very probably viewed as a winemaking fault at the time.

Wines from the region sometimes failed to ferment all their sugar before the onset of cold winter weather, which caused the yeasts to shut down. This had been happening, albeit haphazardly, for many years. With the arrival of warmer weather in spring, the yeasts would start up again, fermentation would re-start and carbon dioxide was produced as a result. If the wine was still in cask, the gas would be able to dissipate before bottling, resulting in a normal still wine. 

Wine destined to become Champagne from every British drinker's favourite village - Bouzy

However, during the later 1600s, technological advances such as stronger glass from England and the use of corks to seal bottles meant that some wines would have been in bottle with some yeast and sugar in suspended animation. Come spring, the renewed fermentation would lead to the carbon dioxide produced being forced into the wine, making it effervescent.

So the process of making sparkling wine in Champagne was neither controlled nor understood, and was largely unwelcome - and Dom Perignon certainly didn’t “invent” it. In fact he may have been actively trying to prevent it. Ironic, then, that this is what he is honoured for now.

However, he did contribute many beneficial advances in wine-making. Amongst other things, he is credited with important innovations such as making a completely white wine from the region’s red grapes, rather than the pale “vin gris” by, for example, inventing the shallow basket press and treating the grapes with care, pressing them quickly but gently to avoid any skin colour tainting the juice. All things which are still important in Champagne making today.

But all that “tasting the stars” stuff? It’s a bit of Champagne spin. 

Oh – and he wasn’t blind either.

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