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The real history of Champagne and its bubbles

Champagne, the sparkling beverage that pops its bubbles at parties, is named for the region in northeast France that it’s made. Champagne cannot be called Champagne as Champagne wine can only be made in Champagne. The same is true for the process that gives rise to those trademark bubbles. It’s called the méthode champenoise. Champagne-makers are the only ones who can claim this use. But who was the original inventor of this method?

France’s people believed that they had the answer to their problem when Dom Groussard a Benedictine monk shared a marvelous story in 1821.

Dom Perignon placed the bubbles inside the Bubbly.

He talked about Dom Perignon (a monk who had lived in the Abbey of Hautvillers for over 100 years). Dom Perignon, he explained, had experienced a happy incident when he opened an unfermented bottle of wine. The wine continued its fermentation in the bottle. The monk opened the cork to see that the cork had popped out. Dom Perignon tried a glass. He was amazed by the smell and the little bubbles that tickled his nose. Dom Perignon was thrilled with the taste and the little bubbles that he could smell.

It’s a beautiful legend that many French believed for a long time. One would expect a monk to be a reliable source. However, this one wasn’t. He was fond of exaggerating. Part of what was said was true. Dom Perignon did exist, and he did serve as cellar-master at Abbey of Hautvillers most of the rest of his life. He was responsible in acquiring additional vineyards as well as improving the Abbey’s non-sparkling varieties. His work was documented. He was not mentioned as making sparkling wine intentionally or inadvertently.

Champagne and how the bubbles got there

Dom Perignon thought wine with bubbles had to be avoided. It could occur from time to time, but it was called “devil’s wines” or “pop up wine” (vin au diable, sautebouchon). Wine that was not fermented before it was bottled would produce bubbles. The bottle would expand and become compressed, which could lead to the cork popping or the bottle exploding. Other bottles could be hit by the debris and it would set off a chain reaction, popping and breaking more bottles. The damage to wine could be severe, as well the potential for serious injury to monks working in the cellar. Even though Dom Perignon did a lot for the Abbey’s wine-making, he never attempted sparkling wine. In fact, he tried it to avoid it.

Dom Groussard might have invented the story and other embellished tales in order to give the abbey an historical boost. He also claimed Dom Perignon was first to use the cork. Also, he said he could simply taste a grape and identify where it came from (both of which are false). France believed his story but embraced the star-sipping monk who was the inventor Champagne.

Dom Perignon Champagne

It was a compelling story that French business associations used to promote Champagne. The legend helped establish the fizzy drink’s status, which was previously associated with royalty. Because everyone now knows that the fizzy drink was created by a monk of low rank, it will be accessible to everyone. Moet Chandon and Chandon created Dom Perignon Champagne in 1921 after the monk that invented it.

The first French sparkling wine created for the joy of it?

Dom Perignon’s new status as the inventor Champagne-making processes prompted another Carcassonne abbey (southern France), raise their hand to say, “No. we were not the first.” Carcassonne Benedictine monks have been known to make sparkling wine since 1531. Blanquette de Limoux (their version) is bottled before the wine has been fermented. Although they may be the originators of modern Champagne-making, the Carcassonne Abbey does not claim to have created sparkling wine. Carcassonne’s claim has led to another legend. According to it, Dom Perignon visited their abbey, observed their wine-making process and stole their recipe.

Champagne from England

In the 1990s there was news from England that made French Champagne pop its cork. Documents were found that showed the English used modern Champagne-making techniques long before Dom Perignon stepped into the abbey. England seems to have imported large quantities of Champagne non-sparkling wine during the seventeenthcentury. The Brits purchased the wine by the barrel and bottle it themselves. They enjoyed the occasional bubbley barrels and created a method for making their wine bubble and sparkle.

Christopher Merret in 1662, an English scientist, wrote that “our wine co-ops of recent times add vast amounts sugar and molasses wines to make them drink sparkling and brisk.” Their glass was stronger and thicker than normal, so it could withstand the pressure of secondary in-bottle growth.

Double fermentation is known as the methode Champenoise and was first used in England around the 17th century. It was only the Champagne region that began using it in the nineteenth-century. Nonetheless, the term “method champenoise” cannot be used to describe any sparkling wine other than Champagne wines since 1994.

Champagne-making has evolved from a natural process that occurs occasionally over the centuries. However, sparkling wine was not a common phenomenon until the advent of modern Champagne-making technology. (Oh my!)