Dom Pérignon: Fact & Fiction

Dom Pérignon (1638?–1715), the famous Benedictine monk from the Abbey of Hautvillers, did not invent sparkling Champagne as persistent myths suggest, but he was a pivotal figure in its early development. It is important, therefore, to examine the man and sift fact from fiction—not to debunk a legend, but to ensure that Dom Pérignon is properly credited for what he actually did achieve. 

Family & Beginnings

Dom Pérignon was born Pierre Pérignon to Pierre and Marguerite (née Le Roy) Pérignon. His upper-middle-class family lived at Sainte-Menehould, close to the Champagne-Lorraine border. His precise date of birth is uncertain, as only his certificate of baptism survives, but that is dated January 5, 1639. Thus, most historians believe he was probably born sometime in December of the preceding year, although others have pointed out that because infancy deaths were so high, some parents baptized their newborns immediately for fear of not saving the soul should the child die.

And, in fact, Pierre's brother and sister died in infancy, and his mother died in 1640. His father, a judge's clerk like his father before him, remarried on February 15, 1642. His second wife, Cathérine Beauvillon, was a wealthy widow with three children of her own (Marguerite, Jean, and Jeanne). The two families had known each other for several generations and were connected by marriage through multiple cousins.

Little is known about Pérignon's early childhood, other than that he lived in a house given to the family by his grandmother, Tristane Guyot, and that his father and stepmother had a further three children (Marie, who was born in 1642; Suzanne, born in 1645; and Madelaine, born in 1647). Thus, he was brought up in a large family of five stepsisters and one stepbrother. Despite the status of the Pérignon family and the small fortune brought into it by Cathérine Beauvillon, the Guyot house was a modest dwelling. This might be how Pérignon got his taste for the Spartan life of a Benedictine monk. However, although his home was not elaborate by the standards of other privileged families, it was very close to the Place d'Armes where the great fairs were held. While the young Pérignon might have had a relatively austere upbringing, he did not live a sheltered life, with one of Europe's greatest annual trade fairs on his doorstep.

The next documented reference of Pérignon is in October 1652, when he was almost 14 years old and enrolled in the Jesuit College at Châlons-sur-Marne. This manuscript lists him under his Latin name of Pétrus Pérignon: an apt designation for the person who would inspire what many consider to be the greatest of deluxe Champagnes. We know absolutely nothing about his life at the Jesuit College, but something influenced him during his five years there because, upon his return home in 1657, he gave a testament to the notary of Sainte-Menehould of his desire to become a priest and join the order of the Benedictine monks at the Abbey of Saint-Vanne at Verdun.

Religious Life

On July 3, 1658, Pierre Pérignon entered the Abbey of Saint-Vanne, a congregation founded by Dom Didier de la Cour (1550–1623), a strict monk who insisted on a high degree of learning and intellectual activity, an example built upon by his successors as the esteem of the abbey grew. The careful selection of monks applying to Saint-Vanne and the abbey's high standards provide an early insight into Pérignon's own capabilities. At Saint-Vanne, he lived in a bare cell, and his average day consisted of nine hours of prayer, seven hours of manual labor, and two hours of reading. He lived on one meal a day and was taught not to be sad or frown, speak too much, raise his voice, speak through clenched teeth, contradict others, or make impertinent remarks.

Pérignon obviously excelled under these harsh conditions, because within just 10 years, he was elevated to the honorific status of "Dom" and sent to the Abbey of Hautvillers, where he took up the post of procureur and cellar master, ranking second only to the abbot himself. During his 47 years at Hautvillers, Dom Pérignon earned the reputation of being a generous, intelligent, and meticulously minded man. He was also a powerful and dynamic businessman. The job of procureur was that of an administrator, and Pérignon's appointment to Hautvillers coincided with the need to generate a hitherto unheard-of level of income to fund the most important phase of the abbey's reconstruction and renovation. Hautvillers had been sacked numerous times and was barely more than a burnt-out shell when it was ceded to the fathers of Saint-Vanne in 1634. The early work to make the abbey habitable was of a basic nature, which was easily achieved by the seven novices sent from Verdun in May 1635. The scope of the work, however, quickly increased. By the time Dom Pérignon arrived, restoration of the abbey's library and infirmary was well underway. Hautvillers required an innovative administrator to oversee this vast, expanding project and to devise means of meeting its escalating costs. As it turned out, Dom Pérignon was well suited for the job.

The Wines & Vines of Hautvillers

Within a year of Pérignon’s arrival, the wine presses had been repaired, and by 1673, work was underway to construct Champagne's first purpose-built, underground wine cellar. Called Cave Thomas, it was hewn out of solid chalk on the slope immediately beneath Hautvillers, some 800 meters south of the abbey itself. A substantial facility, the main gallery was 34 by 6 meters and could easily accommodate 500 casks of wine. The storage of wine at cool, regular temperature is taken so much for granted nowadays that it is easy to neglect to ask the simple question: why? Why did Dom Pérignon think it was necessary to go to such unprecedented lengths to store his wines? Did he know that the temperature would be constant, and if he did, what gave him the idea that it would make any difference to the quality of the wine? Was he, after just five years, already contemplating experimenting with long-term storage to discern its effect on the quality of Champagne? If so, this presupposes that he had already considered the previous questions and had ingeniously come to the right conclusion. This demonstrates the inquisitiveness of Dom Pérignon's mind and the thoroughness with which he applied himself to all of his tasks.

For confirmation, we must rely on the words of his immediate successor, Frère Pierre, whose Traité de la culture des vignes de Champagne puts the great man's winemaking achievements into perspective. In many ways, this provides a more reliable account than if it were written by Pérignon himself. The treatise was finished sometime after 1724, the last vintage mentioned in the text, which was approximately 10 years after Dom Pérignon's death. It is the most authoritative contemporary account of the state of viticulture and vinification in Champagne in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. On the first page, Frère Pierre describes himself as elève et successeur, or “apprentice and successor,” of Dom Pérignon. The treatise specifically refers to the abbey's vineyards at Hautvillers, Cumières, Aÿ, Épernay, Pierry, and Vinay. It encompasses the planting and uprooting of vines; their pruning, fertilizing, and optimum crop levels; harvesting procedures; and every aspect of winemaking.

The first thing that Frère Pierre tells us about Dom Pérignon is that he "scrupulously concerned himself with details that to others appeared insignificant.” This point is reiterated later in the text, when Pierre stresses that Dom Pérignon insisted on various practices that other winegrowers considered "impossible, even ridiculous,” thereby confirming the meticulousness of the man.

Sorting Fact & Fiction

When Dom Pérignon arrived at the Abbey of Hautvillers, four years had passed since Christopher Merret read his famous paper to the Royal Society in London. The idea that Dom Pérignon discovered the secret of how to convert Champagne into a fully sparkling wine is widely discredited today, even in France, although it is still repeated by a few authors. It is based on two claims, one dubious at best (Manière de cultiver la vigne et de faire le vin de en Champagne), the other simply untrue (a letter from Dom Grossard to the deputy mayor of Aÿ).

Although the Manière de cultiver la vigne et de faire le vin de en Champagne is, indeed, dubious at best, there is nothing uncertain about its existence, only what it purportedly claims. This document was published in 1718, and it certainly does contain the earliest reference in French to sparkling wine, stating, “For more than twenty years the French taste has been for sparkling wine, a love for its fury, so as to speak, although this passion has started to regress over the last three years.”

This document tells us that sparkling Champagne existed in France prior to its publication, but it is equally clear that we must question exactly when it emerged and just how popular it actually was. Merely stating that something happened long ago does not necessarily mean that it did. We also need to ask if Dom Pérignon, unmentioned in this document, was the inventor of sparkling Champagne.

Thanks to the patronage of Champagne by Louis XIV and the widespread respect that Dom Pérignon achieved as a winemaker in his lifetime, there is such a wealth of contemporaneous references concerning the world’s most famous Benedictine monk that we are spoiled for choice. But there is no mention of Dom Pérignon ever producing sparkling wine in any public or private documentation. He was a methodical note-writer and not shy in beating his own drum, claiming in 1694 to have made “the best wine in the world,” yet he never mentioned sparkling Champagne, let alone claimed to have made any. In fact, all the evidence suggests that he spent his life trying to avoid the unwelcome fault that destroyed so many bottles of his wine.

It was Dom Jean-Baptiste Grossard who started the rumor that Dom Pérignon had invented Champagne. In a letter dated October 25, 1821, to M. d’Herbes, Deputy Mayor of Aÿ, he wrote, “As you know, Sir, it was the celebrated Dom Pérignon . . . who found the secret of making sparkling and non-sparkling white wine, and how to remove the sediment from the bottles.”

At the time of writing, Grossard was merely a village priest. Until the French Revolution, he had been the cellar master at Hautvillers. This obviously gave his claim some credence, but he was also the very last cellar master at Hautvillers and had never met Dom Pérignon, who had died more than a century earlier. Even François Bonal, the great Champagne historian, acknowledged Grossard’s claims to be “unfounded and even manifestly erroneous.”

Grossard had no firsthand knowledge of Dom Pérignon’s work processes, but one person who did was Frère Pierre. If any document should contain the details of Dom Pérignon’s supposed sparkling wine, it is Pierre’s Traité de la culture des vignes de Champagne. And yet it does not, leaving just one rational conclusion: Pérignon did not intentionally make sparkling wine.

So, what did he achieve? According to Frère Pierre, Dom Pérignon was a pioneer in a number of ways, engaging in the following practices: 

  • Pruning to favor quality and avoid overproduction
  • Harvesting in the coolest hours of the morning
  • Harvesting in two or three tries, or sweeps of the vineyard, days apart, to select the ripest, healthiest grapes
  • Sorting in the vineyard to remove rotten grapes
  • Using small harvesting baskets to avoid crushing grapes
  • Building press houses in various villages to reduce the distance the grapes were transported
  • Making white wine from black grapes (the first known example)
  • Creating the concept of assemblage, blending different varieties and growths
  • Tasting and blending grapes, not wines, to decide the assemblage

There are a few other things that, contrary to popular myth, Dom Pérignon did not do. He did not invent the Coquard press. Coquard was and still is a proprietary name for traditional Champagne presses made by a company established in 1924 at Châlons-sur-Marne (now called Châlons-sur-Champagne), which closed down in 1996 but reopened as a workers’ cooperative in Bezannes, just south of Reims. Dom Pérignon used a basket press, but that was common practice throughout France and elsewhere in Europe at the time.

However, it is legitimate to ask whether Dom Pérignon took the basic design and developed a much wider, shallower basket, because such a press become synonymous with the traditional Champagne press and was commonly found throughout the region by the 19th century (as reflected in the 1882 illustration below), long before Coquard was established. Furthermore, the wider, shallower basket press seems to be tailormade for extracting the clearest juice from black grapes, one of Dom Pérignon’s most famous achievements. Unfortunately, this is a question that remains unanswered, because there is no compelling evidence of any wide, shallow basket press existing in the 17th century.

There is also no evidence that Dom Pérignon was responsible for reintroducing cork stoppers to France. It is generally accepted that cork stoppers reemerged in this country sometime between 1685 and 1690, which would have made them available to Dom Pérignon. But the idea that he discovered cork stoppers during a pilgrimage to Spain or from Spanish monks who stopped off at Hautvillers on their way to Sweden, or simply that he was the first in France to use cork stoppers since the concept was lost following the decline of the Roman Empire, has never been substantiated.

Another Dom Pérignon myth has him dabbling with a homemade furnace to produce his own bottles from verre anglais (coal-fired, strong glass). Although a fiscal order issued on February 15, 1676, made it illegal to transport Champagne in bottles, monastic vineyards often did precisely that. A 1705 letter from Adam Bertin du Rocheret, a famous vineyard owner and wine merchant in Épernay, to Marshal de Montesquieu d’Artagnan, the lieutenant-general of the King's armies, suggests that religious institutions avoided the ban on bottles by exchanging vouchers rather than money. However Dom Pérignon and others managed to get around the fiscal order, there are many invoices and letters confirming that he often shipped his wine in bottles protected by straw—yet no documentation that gives the slightest clue that he might have actually made the bottles himself. Nor is it likely, considering that it took professional French verriers—with generations of experience and fully equipped glassworks—most of the 18th century to achieve the quality and strength of verre anglais that had been commonplace in English bottle factories 150 earlier. Dom Pérignon certainly did not have the means to produce thousands of bottles every year, let alone any invoices for the regular purchase of tons of sand and other materials such a feat would require.

It is more likely that he worked with local verriers. There were many in the dense forest of Argonne during Dom Pérignon’s time, the nearest to Hautvillers being at Châtrices, just five miles south of Sainte-Menehould, his birthplace. Châtrices was operated by so-called gentilhomme-verriers or “gentleman-glassmakers,” whose roots go back to the fourth century according to Claude Buirrette, who wrote Histoire de la Ville de Sainte-Ménehould et de ses environs. They had been producing wood-fired glass bottles since at least 1518. No one can prove that Dom Pérignon did not experiment with verre anglais, but it would seem to be highly unlikely.

The Legend of Dom Pérignon

In 1663, upon his appointment as cellar master of the Abbey of Hautvillers, Dom Pérignon inherited 21 arpents (7.2 hectares) of badly kept vineyards from his immediate predecessor. By 1712, he had increased this to 48 arpents (16.4 hectares), all meticulously cultivated, according to Frère Pierre, who revealed an average annual production of 300 hectoliters (approximately 18.3 hectoliters per hectare). In a letter dated November 9, 1715, to Bertin du Rocheret, d’Artagnan wrote, “Monsieur the Marquis of Pizieux [sic], who arrived yesterday, told me that Father Pérignon has died. He was highly regarded during his life. I would like you to bear me in mind for the Abbey’s first wines, which, frankly, are the best.” In a letter from Bertin du Rocheret to d’Artagnan dated November 13, 1700, he advised, “The good and more excellent wines are sold for 400, 450, 500, and 550 livres a queue. The mediocre good wines, which are good nevertheless, can be purchased for 300 livres down to 150 livres. I omitted to tell you that those made by the monks at Hautvillers and Pierry are priced at between 800 and 900 livres.” In 1694, Dom Pérignon sold his wine for 1,000 livres for a queue. 

And so, while Dom Pérignon did not invent Champagne, and while his claim to have made “the best wine in the world” might not have demonstrated the sort of humility expected of a Benedictine monk, he was genuinely a legend in his own lifetime.

Bibliography

Bonal, François. Dom Pérignon: vérité et legende. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Buirette, Claude. Histoire de la Ville de Sainte-Ménehould et de ses environs. London: Forgotten Books, 2018.

Godinot, Jean. Manière de cultiver la vigne et de faire le vin de en Champagne. Paris: Hachette Livre, 2012.

Merret, Christopher. Some Observations concerning the Ordering of Wines. University of Michigan. Accessed May 29, 2019. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A32715.0001.001/1:7?rgn=div1;view=fulltext.

Vizetelly, Henry. A History of Champagne. London: Vizetelly & Co., 1882.

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  • Well done as always, Tom. Thank you! You didn’t mention the claim that Pérignon learned  how to make sparkling wine while on a visit to the Saint-Hilaire abbey near Limoux and his subsequent collaboration with Don Thiery Ruinart to further refine the process. I would be interested to read any comments you might have on this oft-referenced claim, especially by the producers of Limoux.

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