Fact or Folklore: The Legend of Dom Perignon and Champagneby Graeme Sutherland
The monk Dom Perignon was the first to make Champagne: Folklore!
In actual fact, Dom Perignon (1638-1715) hated bubbles. They were seen as a corruption in the wine. Since the 13th century, the wine being produced in Champagne was a light red wine, similar to that produced in Burgundy. It was only in 1668 that this wine began to gain popularity, and it was because of Dom Perignon, the newly appointed procureur of the abbey of Hautvilliers. Rather than thanking him for Champagne as we know it today, we should be thanking him for revolutionizing the wine-making process that allows all modern day wine to be as sophisticated as it has now become. And you can learn all about this revolutionary process on our Champagne bike tour!
Dom Pierre Perignon came from a fairly wealthy family, but made the decision to become a monk at the age of 18, entering the Benedictine monastery of Saint Vanne. Saint Vanne had recently assumed control over the dilapidated abbey of Hautvillers, which had suffered a propitious decline in the past century. As part of its revitalization, Dom Perignon was put in charge of managing the abbey’s principle source of income; its vines. It was in this position that Dom Perignon excelled.
Over the course of his tenure as procureur and cellar master at Hautvillers, Dom Perignon established many of the fundamental practices of grape harvesting that remain important today. They include using only the best grapes and discarding those that are damaged, pruning vines in the spring to avoid overproduction, picking in the cool temperatures of the morning, and keeping the juices from each pressing separate. Along with his famed ability to mix grapes with delicacy and balance in order to create a more harmonious blend, these practices resulted in a sharp leap in quality in the red wine produced by Hautvillers.
This new red wine was so good that it became the favourite of Louis XIV (1638-1715), the Sun King himself. To bring France’s nobility under his heel, Louis XIV is famous for ritualizing his own day-to-day routines, such as waking up or going to bed. He made attendance at these rituals a social and cultural necessity for the nobility. If you did not attend, you were not considered part of the King’s court. If you did attend, your importance in the ritual became a direct reflection of your value to the King. As a result, anything and everything that the Sun King did became an immediate social trend in France, as nobles vied with each other to demonstrate who followed the King’s activities with the most attention.
So, when Louis XIV declared that Dom Perignon’s red wine was the best in France, French nobility followed suit, and thence begins the rise of Champagne’s reputation as a region of France renowned for its wine.
It was not until later in the 18th century, many decades after Dom Perignon worked at Hautvillers, that the wine in Champagne began its transformation into the effervescent wine we know it as today.
The big change occurred when bubbles were suddenly declared good for your health, which suddenly opened a large and eager market for this new sparkling wine. For the ambitious Champenois vignerons, who had recently been enjoying some success in finally harnessing those pesky bubbles, this change marked the beginning of a new era. Even though the real source of the bubbles- yeast- was not discovered until 1857 by Louis Pasteur, the first bottles of effervescent Champagne started dazzling the people of Europe by the early 1700s.
The evolution into champagne as we know it
So where does this leave Dom Perignon, the hard-working monk who first brought Champagne into the wine-light? Well, just as Champagne is sought out to mark special occasions and celebrations, so too was our pour monk sought out when a party was desperately needed; during the Great Depression.
In the 1930s, when misery was at an all-time low in Champagne, a group of creative Champenois got together and decided to throw a three-day party to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Dom Perignon’s invention of Champagne. Ignoring all of the glaring historical errors that laid at the foundation of this anniversary, the party served its purpose; Champagne sales went up! Not only that, but Dom Perignon himself also experienced a rise to stardom. Before this anniversary, he was scarcely known, but afterwards, he became a legend. So come explore this legend and enjoy the fruits of his labor on our bike tour in Champagne.