Dom Pérignon L'Abbaye de Hautvilliers
On August 4th, 1693, so the story goes, the Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon opened the first bottle of Champagne, tasted the fizzy wine and shouted, “Eureka!” or “Fiat lux!” or something appropriate. He then went on to invent the cork and establish the Champagne industry. That’s the story, anyway. It’s all nonsense, of course, but it sounds good.
There actually was a monk named Dom Pérignon, however, who was a member of the Order of St. Benedict and the vintner at the Abbey of Hautvillers in northeastern France. The problem with the story about him extolling the virtues of Champagne wine was that he was actually trying to get rid of the bubbles. Sparkling wine naturally occurs when wine is bottled before fermentation is complete; as the remainder of the sugars in the wine, a natural product of the pressed juice from grapes, continue to ferment (that is, convert into alcohol), carbon dioxide gas is produced. This builds up inside the sealed bottle and, if the pressure of the gas is too great, the bottle will burst. What’s worse, when one bottle bursts, others near it on the wine racks – also under pressure – will often be set off in a chain reaction.
With a cellar full of broken glass, the monk was anxious that this wasteful (and dangerous) catastrophe be stopped. Though Pérignon wasn’t able to solve the problem entirely, he did establish a set of rules for winemaking at the Abbey, which are still used as the basis for making Champagne to this day. The most important advance he made was to harvest grapes from the vineyards in several passes, selecting only the grapes at the peak of their maturity. He also used the black Pinot noir grape to make white wine, having found that wine from white-skinned grapes had a tendency to cause bottles to explode. Other varieties of grapes, including chardonnay and Pinot meunier, are also combined with Pinot noir to make modern champagne, the grapes being blended before pressing. The good monk also insisted that pressing be just that: The juice was extracted gently with presses and not by stamping.
Pérignon is often mistakenly credited with “inventing” the wine cork. In fact, cork had been used as far back as Roman times as a material for bottle stoppers, but over the centuries this practice had fallen into disuse. By the late 17th century, wooden stoppers wrapped in hemp fibers were often used, although they were not very satisfactory. It was the English wine merchants who reintroduced the cork, using material from Spanish trees. The English also advanced glassmaking, allowing them to make thicker, stronger bottles, which could better withstand the high pressures produced by Champagne. One can almost see Pérignon giving a Gallic shrug and adopting these English innovations.
Ironically, it was in the same year that Pérignon died, 1715, that Champagne – with the bubbles – became wildly popular. In that year, Phillippe II, Duke of Orleans, became Regent of France. Since he was a great admirer of Champagne, that particular type of wine became (ahem) the toast of France. The craze soon spread to England, where it has taken root (the British are still the top per capita consumers of Champagne in the world), and the tradition is now world-wide. Production of Champagne has risen from about 300,000 bottles in 1800 to over 330 million bottles in 2007, the most recent year for which there are statistics.
It’s a good thing to have a product that is in strong – and increasing – demand, but there are dangers, too. The vineyard owners in Champagne realized that they had to protect the name of their wine, otherwise any old sparkling wine would begin to call itself “Champagne” and undermine the special status of true Champagne. In 1891, the Treaty of Madrid established international organization, now called the World International Property Organization, to protect trademarks including, of course, Champagne. The French government went one step further by establishing the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) in 1905 to define and regulate the names of specific products grown or made in France, including wine, cheese, butter, even poultry (the Poulet de Bresse comes under their shield).
Even this was not considered protection enough. In 1927, the INAO defined the specific vineyards in the district of Champagne from which – and only from which – true Champagne can be produced. Regulations regarding growing, harvesting, pressing and aging were also established, all of which strictly controlled which bottles of wine can be labeled “Champagne.” Any bottles which use the name “Champagne” on their labels, but contain wine not from the defined area and not produced according to these strict conditions can be legally seized and destroyed under the authority of the Treaty of Madrid.
Naturally, the geographic restrictions and high quality standards limit the number of bottles of Champagne that can be produced in any given year. In response to the danger of a Champagne drought, the INAO announced in 2003 that it would consider expanding the number of vineyards within the Champagne-producing boundaries to begin using the appellation “Champagne.” With billions of euros at stake, you can imagine how currently authorized Champagne growers are still reacting to that news.
It seems fitting, somehow, that the history of Champagne is very much like the drink itself: Mysterious, bubbly, explosive, celebratory and awfully ticklish. À votre santé!