The Murky Origins of Sparkling Wine

The story of Dom Pérignon and champagne – the blind monk who accidentally made sparkling wine and cried, “Come quickly! I am drinking the stars!” – is well known, as are the problems with the story.  Although many wine drinkers accept it at face value, there’s no evidence that Dom Pérignon was blind, no evidence that he had a heightened sense of smell or taste, and – very important – no evidence that he was the first person to taste sparkling wine.

The problem with the history of sparkling wine is that it’s so murky – as murky as modern sparkling wines are limpid and bright. It’s easy to highlight the problems with the many claims to have made the first bubbly: the records are either incomplete, ambiguous or unclear, or they refer to one batch of wine that had bubbles or effervescence, but not to the continuous production of sparkling wine. 

What we can say is that sparkling wine began to be produced systematically some time in the 1500s or 1600s.  The method of production is a matter of debate, but we do know that it had to have happened as a result of a second or re-started (the distinction is important) fermentation in the bottle.  There was no equivalent of the cuvée close or other methods used today.  But there was a forerunner of the méthode champenoise, as we shall see.

 The generally accepted explanation of the bubbles that Dom Pérignon ‘discovered’ is that the wine he was drinking had been bottled and sealed in the mistaken belief that the fermentation was complete.  In fact, the explanation goes, the fermentation had merely stalled, because the cellar temperature in early winter dropped to the point that the yeasts stopped working.  In the spring, as the temperature rose, the fermentation started again, this time in a sealed bottle.  The carbon dioxide produced by this re-started fermentation dissolved in the wine, and became bubbles when the wine was opened.

There’s limited logic to that explanation, but not a lot of credibility when it comes to the role of Dom Pérignon. Yes, he existed, and he was cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvilliers. But there’s no evidence he was blind, and it’s unlikely he could have carried out his tasks if he were. Moreover, although some non-sighted people concentrate on using their other senses more carefully, there’s no automatic compensation for the loss of a sense by the enhancing of the others.

Other parts of the story just don’t ring true. It’s unlikely that a disciplined Benedictine monk, even if he were surprised by a mouthful of mousse, would shout, “I’m drinking the stars!” as if experiencing a divine revelation.  Although the Benedictine order did not follow a rule of silence, there were set times of strict silence, and at other times the monks were expected to be silent unless talking was necessary.

Moreover, if the wine Dom Pérignon made had not finished fermenting when it was bottled – and thus had some residual sugar – he ought to have noticed that it was unusually sweet when he tasted it before bottling. If there were enough residual sugar that the second fermentation produced such stellar bubbles, the wine might have been very sweet – and definitely perceptible to the cellar master.

We might also wonder why the temperature of the cellar at the Abbey of Hautvilliers fluctuated so much that yeasts would go dormant in winter and be reactivated in spring. Cellars generally have fairly constant cool temperatures, which is why they are preferred to above-ground facilities that reflect the greater ambient temperature range.

The Dom Pérignon story, with all its flaws, seems to have been written from scratch in the early 1820s, more than a century after he was supposed to have discovered the bubbles in wine. Around the 1820s, champagne was undergoing a revival. La Veuve Clicquot developed the technique of riddling sometime between 1810 and 1820, and the méthode champenoise was born.

At the very same time, the Catholic Church in France needed to rebuild its reputation. Its prestige and power had taken big hits from the French Revolution (1789-99) and Napoleon (1799-1815). What better way to help restore its reputation than to hitch itself to champagne, whose popularity among the rich and powerful of Europe was growing by leaps and bounds: in 1800, champagne production was about 300,000 bottles; by 1850 it was 20 million.

So the creation of the Dom Pérignon story in the 1820s was well timed. Dom Grossard, who had been a monk at Hautvilliers before the Revolution, wrote the story in 1821 as part of a general history of the abbey that was clearly designed to raise its status – and perhaps his own, as he was reduced to being a simple parish priest after the Revolution.

Dom Grossard might simply have fabricated the Dom Pérignon story, but it might equally well have been an account passed down from one generation of monks to the next, and embellished at each telling.  It’s easy to imagine that stories of Dom Pérignon doing a blind tasting (dégustation à l’aveugle) of grapes – it was said that he could tell which vineyard a grape came from, just by tasting it – evolved into a belief that Dom Pérignon was blind (aveugle).

The story was embraced by the champagne industry, which spent much of the nineteenth century inventing a history and traditions appropriate to its social status.  In 1889, the Syndicat de Commerce declared that Dom Pérignon was the father of champagne.  Seven years later, it published a pamphlet that declared, ambiguously, that Dom Pérignon had “discovered” champagne by following “ancient traditions.”

Over time, as the essential part of the story came into question, Dom Pérignon was credited with different, more limited contributions to champagne, such as insisting on low crop yields, and giving priority to pinot noir. He is also sometimes said, contradictorily, to have worked on ways of preventing a secondary fermentation in the bottle, and to have urged the production of stronger bottles for sparkling wine, as many of the ordinary bottles burst under the pressure of the carbon dioxide.

There’s a question mark about bottles themselves.  Bottles were rarely used for keeping wine in the late 1600s. Wine was not only stored in barrels, but shipped in barrels and kept in the same barrels until it was ready for drinking. The wine cellars of wealthy wine-consumers at this time were more likely to contain barrels than bottles, and the wine was decanted into bottles or other vessels, just before it was consumed. When well-off consumers purchased wine in small quantities, they would take their own bottles to their wine merchant to have them filled.  In the late 1600s, the English diarist, Samuel Pepys, wrote about his pleasure in getting monogrammed bottles for this purpose.

So why was Dom Pérignon bottling his wine?  This was intended to be still wine, so it didn’t need to be in a bottle.  Bottles were expensive, and it’s hard to see why Benedictine monks would go to the great expense of buying so many bottles for cellaring, when they needed only a few for serving at meals – and even then, many depictions of monks at table show wine and beer being served from pitchers.  An inventory of the Abbey’s wines from 1713, two years before Dom Pérignon died, not only shows that most of the wines were red, but that they were in barrels, not bottles.

It’s unlikely that we’ll ever understand Dom Pérignon’s role in the creation of champagne, but it’s clear he wasn’t the founding father of fizz.  It was a style that almost certainly existed elsewhere before his arrival at the Abbey of Hautvilliers, although it’s not easy to decide which of the contenders for the first sparkling wine has the most merit.

One is Limoux, in Languedoc.  As early as 1531 – almost a century and a half before Dom Pérignon arrived at Hautvilliers – Benedictine monks at the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, near Limoux, wrote about Blanquette de Limoux, which seems to have been a sparkling white wine that had undergone a re-started fermentation in a flask.

There are suggestions that Dom Pérignon visited the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire while on a pilgrimage, and learned the technique of making sparkling wine while there.  Perhaps he did, and these were the “ancient traditions” that enabled him to “discover” champagne.  But if Dom Pérignon had tasted sparkling wine at Saint-Hilaire, he should not have been so surprised when he tasted it again at Hautvilliers, that he had to shout about drinking the stars.

A little to the north, in Gaillac and in Die, wines were made that were effervescent, if not sparkling, although the imprecision of the records makes it impossible to distinguish between sparkling, pétillant, perlant, and the various other degrees of fizz we’re familiar with today.  Some regions, like Gaillac, are said to have produced sparkling wine as far back as the Middle Ages.  Some of the production methods are still known by names that give an impression of a long history, like methode ancestrale and methode rurale.  But it’s worth bearing in mind that the méthode champenoise was known as méthode traditionelle the moment it was developed, an excellent example of an instant tradition.

France is not the only claimant to being first with sparkling wine.  The Italian region of Franciacorta, which has DOCG status for its sparkling wines, claims to have produced sparkling wine in the 1500s.  If it did – and the evidence is very ambiguous – it wasn’t popular enough to last, and it disappeared until revived about 20 years ago.

But perhaps the origins of sparkling wine are even more banal.  In the 1660s, an English scientist, Christopher Merret, presented a paper on wine to the Royal Society, in London.  It included a demonstration that adding sugar to wine in a bottle, and then sealing it, produced a second fermentation in the bottle and resulted in bubbles when the wine was opened.  Merret’s scientific research areas and publications included glass-making (hence a link to bottles) and tree-bark (a link to cork).  This second fermentation in the bottle is essentially the méthode champenoise.

It’s possible that Merret’s was a chance finding.  Sugar was just becoming popular among wealthy Europeans in the 1600s, and they began to sweeten everything in sight – including coffee, tea and chocolate, which had not been sweetened where they were originally consumed outside Europe.  The English began to add sugar to wine, as Fynes Moryson observed in 1617: “Gentlemen carouse only with wine, with which many mix sugar... And because the taste of the English is thus delighted with sweetness, the wines in taverns (for I speak not of merchants’ or gentlemen’s cellars) are commonly mixed at the filling thereof, to make them pleasant.”

It’s conceivable that, instead of putting a teaspoon of sugar in each glass, as with tea and coffee, some gentlemen added it to the bottles they brought home from their wine merchants, then sealed them for drinking a week, a month, or several months later.  They might have found, when they opened the bottles, that their wine was dry and sparkling, rather than sweet and still.  

It’s possible then, that early sparkling wines – and perhaps the earliest made by the méthode  champenoise were made, not in the mysterious and romantic ambience of a monastery cellar, but in the cellars of London gentlemen who were simply trying to sugar up their wines to appeal to taste-preferences of the day.

Rod Phillips is a historian and wine writer who lives in Ottawa, Canada. He is a professor of history at Carleton University, where he teaches European history and the history of food, drink and alcohol. His books include A Short History of Wine (2000 and widely translated) and his book on the global history of alcohol will appear in 2012.  Rod has contributed entries on wine and alcohol to many encyclopedias, and he also writes on current wines for wine magazines, including The World of Fine Wine (UK). He writes a weekly wine column for Ottawa’s main daily newspaper, reviews wines, and judges in wine competitions in Canada and overseas.