Wine, Words & Wednesday, No. 128

Dom PerignonI’m starting to think I should rename this column, Wine, Words & Whenever I Get Around to It.  Earlier this week, I started the next unit of my WSET Diploma — Sparkling Wines of the World.  So, I’ve got bubbles on my brain . . .

Dom Pérignon did not invent Champagne.  Let’s just get that right out of the way.  Technically, nobody invented Champagne.  The bubbles occur naturally as a byproduct of fermentation, specifically a second fermentation, which happens in the bottle.  Who first tasted bubbles in wine?  Impossible to know for sure.  Who was the first to figure out how to put bubbles in a bottle deliberately?  There isn’t enough Excedrin to sort it all out.

Both the Greeks and Romans wrote about bubbles in their wine, attributing them to good and evil spirits (not sure how you were supposed to tell which bubbles were good and which were bad), but they certainly didn’t put bubbles in their wine on purpose.

In the southern French region of Languedoc, Limoux claims to have produced the first sparkling wine (Blanquette de Limoux).  Records kept by the Benedictine monks of the local Abbey of Saint Hilaire, document making just such a wine, in 1531 — over 100 years before Dom Pérignon was born.

And, in 1632, English scientist, Christopher Merret, actually documented the process of adding sugar to a finished wine to create a deliberate secondary fermentation.  And it’s probably not a coincidence that Merret’s discoveries paralleled the development of a glass bottle thick and strong enough to withstand the pressures of a carbonated wine.  Again, all this before Dom Pérignon made his earthly debut in 1638.

Dom Pierre Pérignon was born in Champagne.  His family owned several vineyards in the area, but since Pierre was the youngest of seven, his chances of inheriting land were zippy.  Plan B was to join the local monastery, the Abbey Saint Pierre d’Hautevillers.  There, he served as the cellar master until his death in 1715.

Dom Pérignon is often credited with “discovering” Champagne in 1697.  According to the abbreviated legend, one day, as he was tasting wines in the cellar, he “discovered” they had bubbles.  At which time, he got so excited, he shouted,

Come-quickly-I-am
Time out.

During Dom Pérignon’s time, bubbly wine wasn’t a discovery, it was a menace.  Bubbles in wine were considered a major faux pas.  Reportedly, part of Dom Pérignon’s job as cellar master was to keep bubbles out of the wine.  So, it’s more likely he whispered under his breath, “Merde!  How am I going to get these blasted bubbles out of the wine before the abbot tastes it?!?”

Also, the last time I checked, most monks live pretty quiet lives — shouting in a monastery is generally considered bad form.  Even if there was no strict vow of silence, I doubt the brothers went around shouting at each other.  This quote was first attributed to Dom Pérignon sometime in the late 19th century (about 200 years after he was reported to have shouted it).  If he had shouted these words, I’m pretty sure it would have been memorable enough for one of the other brothers to write it down.

Sketchy quote provenance aside, Dom Pérignon did establish many of the fundamental practices of modern viticulture —  picking only the best grapes, pruning vines to avoid overproduction, and picking grapes in the morning, when it’s cool, which preserves acidity and gives the winemaker more control over the process.

Sidebar:  Picking grapes in the wee hours of the morning also keeps bees and yellow jackets at a minimum.  Bees and yellow jackets looooooove ripe grapes.  And I’ve hung out in enough vineyards to have made peace with the bees.  But the yellow jackets?  Those guys can go directly to hell.

Dom Pérignon also figured out how to make a white wine out of red grapes (Pinot Noir), and how to mix different grapes to create a blend, which is the glorious bedrock of most Champagnes today.

So, even though Dom Pérignon didn’t invent Champagne, and almost assuredly never shouted these words, he did advance the cause of Champagne, and for that, I say merci!

Salud!

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