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The (not) True Story About Champagne

A blind monk named Dom Perignon invented Champagne.

OK, not really, but that's the legend and it's a much better tale than the historical fact.  First - spoiler alert, it's kind of boring - let's talk about what really happened, and then I'll tell you how a brown-robed cleric discovered effervescent delight in a bottle.  

The first recorded sparkling wine was Blanquette de Limoux, created by monks in 1531 at the Abbey of Saint Hilaire, near the Pyrenees Mountains in the south of France.  They bottled wine before it finished fermenting, and the carbon dioxide that releases during fermentation became trapped in the bottle until uncorking, when it could scamper about in the form of tongue-tickling bubbles.  Fast forward to 1662, about 40 years before Dom Perignon purportedly invented Champagne.  In that year, a Brit scientist named Christopher Merret presented a paper to the Royal Society describing a new technique to produce sparkling wine.  Add sugar to finished wine and induce a second fermentation in a sealed bottle.  That technique came to be known as the methode champenoise, and it's how all top-notch sparkling wine is made to this day.  

Yawn.  Not nearly as romantic as the story of Dom Perignon.  In 1668, Perignon arrived at the Abbaye Saint-Pierre d' Hautvillers in France's Champagne region.  He became the Abbey's cellarer and during his lifetime he advanced the winemaking craft in many notables ways.  Wine production in the region flourished.  That much is true.

One day, Dom Perignon opened a bottle of wine which had accidentally undergone secondary fermentation, and after a sip he called out "Come quickly!  I'm tasting stars!"  He was so inspired, he worked at perfecting sparkling wine, and developed Champagne as we know it today.  Christening ships, toasting newlyweds, displaying excessive wealth by ordering overpriced beverages while out on the town... all made possible by a 17th century Benedictine monk and his chance encounter with an unintentional innovation.  

Well, that's the story, anyway.  

As you know, because I just told you in this blog, Champagne (aka sparkling wine) was around way before Perignon was.  Scholars (and by scholars, I mean nerdy people who use factual information to bore us) have suggested that even the famous "stars" quote was not uttered by Perignon, but rather attributed to him after it appeared in a late 19th century print ad.  Oh, and Perignon was not blind.  It was his practice to taste grapes to be used in blends without knowing which vineyard they came from, in order to avoid letting preconceptions skew his selections.  References to this so-called "blind tasting" led to the common misconception that he was sightless.  

So the story is a fanciful farce.  I don't care.  I like sparkling wine, and when I drink it, I silently toast a sightless French monk who put stars in my glass.

 

~ Kay Syrah

Wine Country Guru Gal

 

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