dom pérignon did not invent champagne -- 12/31/14

Today's selection -- from The Widow Clicquot by Tilar J. Mazzeo. An early Happy New Year to all of our readers. In honor of our favorite New Year's Eve beverage, an excerpt on Dom Pérignon and the invention of champagne.

"Dom Pérignon was justly famous for his superb skills as a blender -- but his legendary wines did not have bubbles. This is one of the great ironies -- we might even say great deceptions of wine history, for conventional wisdom tells us that Dom Pérignon was the delighted inventor of champagne. He is supposed to have quipped to one of his sandal-shod brothers, 'Come quickly! I am drinking the stars!' Yet it only made sense that Dom Pérignon wanted to rid champagne of its bubbles. There was no market for sparkling wines yet. In France, nobody wanted them. So, over the course of the next decade, Dom Pérignon dedicated himself to experimenting with ways to stop the development of bubbles.

Dom Pérignon

In fact, the idea that Dom Pérignon invented champagne was always just imaginative marketing. It was a brilliant but misleading sales pitch. The popular legend has its origins in a late-nineteenth-century advertising campaign, started at a time when sparkling wine was already big business. In her book When Champagne Became French, scholar Kolleen Guy shows how it wasn't until the 1889 World Exhibition in Paris that the region's champagne producers saw the marketing potential and started printing brochures about Dom Pérignon. From that point on, the role of the celebrated monk became a truism.

"The truth is that no one in the seventeenth or even the eighteenth century associated Dom Pérignon with the discovery of sparkling wine. His friend Dom François, writing the biography of the famous monk, never mentions bubbles, and even the abbey's lawyers in the nineteenth century -- looking for things to claim rights to -- didn't think they could convince anyone that Dom Pérignon had anything to do with making wine sparkle. As the lawyers knew, the monks at Hautvillers didn't even start bottling their wines until the 1750s.

"For those who enjoy the romance of the Dom Pérignon legend, there is even worse news. Wine historians now claim that champagne did not even originate in France. Champagne was first 'invented' in Great Britain, where there was already a small commercial market for sparkling champagne by the 1660s ...

"Monks like Dom Pérignon knew that local wines could sparkle, even if they considered it a nuisance. And scientific and historical records show that the climatic changes of the little ice age -- those decades of unusually cold weather that stalled the fermentation process in the winter and allowed for the natural and unwelcome springtime emergence of bubbles -- had been disrupting agriculture in Europe since the end of the sixteenth century. ...

"Even if Dom Pérignon and his predecessors did not discover champagne, by the end of the seventeenth century the royal court at the Palace of Versailles certainly had. King Louis XIV of France now wanted nothing more than bubbles in his wine. Suddenly winemakers on both sides of the English Channel were scrambling to find ways to make champagne sparkle, and in order to support his taste for bubbly, the king gave the city of Reims an exclusive license to sell their wines in bottles. It was the beginning of a regional monopoly that would survive, in one form or another, for centuries. ...


Tilar J. Mazzeo


The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2008 by Tilar Mazzeo


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