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Facts about the history of Champagne

Champagne is the bubbly beverage that pops out its cork during celebrations. Its name comes from the northeast France region it was produced. Champagne is the only sparkling wine that can be called Champagne, and Champagne is protected by law. The same applies to the method that produces those signature bubbles. It is called the methode Champenoise. Only Champagne-makers can claim its use. But who is the real inventor of this method to make wine sparkle?

France’s people believed they had solved the problem in 1821, when Dom Groussard, a Benedictine monk told a fascinating story…

Dom Perignon put bubbles in the Bubbly, or?

He described Dom Perignon as a monk, who lived at the Abbey de Hautvillers 100 years ago. Dom Perignon was a happy accident, he said. He opened a bottle that had been unfinished fermented wine and found it in the fridge. The wine continued fermenting in the bottle. But when the monk opened it, he saw the cork pop out. The wine began to fizze and sparkle. Dom Perignon took a sip and was intrigued. He was astonished by the wine’s taste and the little bubbles that were teasing his nose. Dom Perignon began to devise a way to ensure his wine was always fizzy.

It’s a wonderful legend that was held dear by the French for a long period. A monk should be a trustworthy source, right? It turned out that this monk was not reliable. He loved to exaggerate. Part of what he claimed was true: Dom Perignon actually existed, and he did for the most part work at the Abbey of Hautvillers as cellar-master. He was responsible both for expanding the Abbey’s vineyards and improving its non-sparkling grapes. His work was documented. However, there was no mention in the records of him ever making sparkling wines, either intentionally or accidentally.

Champagne: How does champagne get made?

Dom Perignon actually believed wine with bubbles was bad. This phenomenon did sometimes occur, and it was called “devil’s grape” or “poptop wine” (vin-du-diable or sautebouchon). It would occur when wine was bottled without the fermentation process having finished. The pressure inside the bottle would cause it to burst or explode. It would strike other bottles and cause a chain reaction that causes bottles to pop and break. The result could be devastating for wine production, and any monks that were in the cellar when the explosion occurred would suffer serious injury. It’s true that Dom Perignon helped the Abbey produce wine, but he never attempted to make sparkling wines. He actually tried to avoid it.

Dom Groussard was the one who invented this story. He also embellished it with other stories to make the abbey more historic. He also claimed that Dom Perignon used the cork first and that he could easily identify the vineyard from which a grape was sourced (both untrue). France believed his story, and welcomed the champagne-sipping monk into their ranks.

Dom Perignon Champagne

It was a wonderful story, and French business groups used it as a way to promote Champagne. The fizzy drink was once associated with royalty for a long time, and the legend helped it gain a reputation. People now know that the drink was invented by a lowly monk. Moet-Chandon and Chandon established Dom Perignon Champagne, a brand of Champagne named after the monk responsible for inventing the sparkling brew.

It’s the first French sparkling wine.

Dom Perignon’s new celebrity status as inventor of Champagne-making methods prompted another abbey to Carcassonne in southern France to raise its hand and declare, “No. We were first!” Benedictine monks from Carcassonne have been documented making sparkling wine since 1531. Blanquette de Limoux is the name of their version. It is bottled right after it has finished fermenting. Although the Carcassonne Abbey may be credited with making the first sparkling wine intentionally, they did nothing to invent modern Champagne-making. Carcassonne claims that Dom Perignon visited their abbey to observe their wine-making processes and took their recipe. This legend is not true.

Champagne from England

In the 1990s, news out of England made the French Champagne market explode. There were papers that proved that English Champagne-makers were using modern techniques before Dom Perignon was even allowed to enter the abbey. It appears that England imported large quantities non-sparkling Champagne wine from Champagne during the seventeenth century. The Brits bought it by barrel and bottled it. They liked it when it was occasionally bubbly and developed a method to ensure that the wine sparkled.

Christopher Merret, an English scientist in 1662 wrote that “our wine-coopers” had added large amounts of sugar and/or molasses to wines recently to make them more sparkling and sweet. The great thing about their glass was the strength and thickness of the glass, which could withstand the secondary in-bottle ferment.

The double fermentation known as the méthode champenoise has been used in England since the seventeenth-century. It was only in the nineteenth century that Champagne started to use it. The term method champenoise, however, is not used for sparkling wines that aren’t made in Champagne.

Although sparkling wine has been made naturally over time, it is not uncommon for Champagne to be made today. It seems that the modern method of Champagne-making originated across the Channel from England. (Oh my!)