If you are a champagne and sparkling wine lover, you’ve probably heard a tarted-up story of how Dom Pérignon invented Champagne. It goes something like this: Discovering that some of the wine he made had fermented a second time in the bottle, he christened it “Champagne” and was quoted as saying “I see stars” when he tasted it. Hogwash!
17th century life in the Benedictine Abbey of Hautvillers, France, was no picnic. Dom Pérignon was the cellar master there. Wine production was as primitive as the plumbing. Grapes were harvested, crushed, fermented in barrels and bottled, but hygiene and temperatures weren’t as controlled as they are now.
Fermenting yeast creates carbon dioxide as well as the alcohol needed to make wine – well – wine.
Over the winter the yeast would go dormant, and the bottled wines were “still”. Often, the same yeast would begin to ferment after the winter’s cooler temperatures eased. This created a build up of carbon dioxide that could cause wooden plugs to pop and bottles to explode. In extreme cases, a whole roomful of bottles could explode, endangering the workers and ruining an entire year’s production.
Enter Dom Pérignon. It was his recognition of these winemaking problems and his attempts at solving them that brought him the renown he enjoys today. That and some good PR! He is credited with beginning the practice of storing wines in a cool even temperature, using corks as bottle stoppers, and using thicker bottles to reduce explosions.
You see, Dom Pérignon spent his whole life not perfecting champagne; rather, he spent it trying to get the bubbles out of his wine!
That he was an excellent winemaker is acknowledged by the fact that he doubled the Abbey’s production during his tenure as cellar master. He perfected the still wines they produced and brought praise to the Abbey. But, to him, the second fermentation that sometimes occurred in the bottle created the “wine of the Devil”, called that because the Devil must have caused the wine to go “bad”. At some point, one of those bottles didn’t explode and made it to his table. He may not have even known that it had undergone a second fermentation. What he did realize, and what subsequent cellar masters built his reputation upon, was that this new wine, his “champagne” if you will, was very tasty. The rest, as they say, is history. Hmm, maybe he did see stars, afterall.
Moët & Chandon produce many champagnes including their premium named in honor of Dom Perignon. The Brut ($150) is a delightfully dry entry from the acknowledged father of the Methode Champenoise. Dom Perignon is credited with this poem, which makes a great toast:
Give me health for a long time
Give me work sometime
Give me love from time to time
But give me champagne all the time.