A number of weeks ago I uploaded a village profile of Hautvillers in the Grande Vallée de la Marne, the village that calls itself the “the cradle of Champagne”. In that profile, I included some words about the most historically well-known inhabitant of this village, the Benedictine monk Pierre Pérignon who was active at the Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers Abbey. I did however not include everything worth mentioning about Dom Pérignon, as he’s generally known. That’s why I now return to the subject in a bit more detail.
Pierre Pérignon (born around the new year 1638/1639, only the exact date of his baptism is known, died 1715) was active at the abbey in Hautvillers from 1668. Let’s take the important things first, those that make it necessary to explain his work in a bit more detail: he did not invent sparkling wine, and he did not primarily deal with the production of sparkling Champagne but rather with reducing the risk of refermentation in his still Champagne wines. However, he did considerably increase the quality of the wines produced by the Hautvillers abbey, and we was a highly regarded winemaker in his time. His wines were highly coveted and noticeably higher prices were paid for them than for other wines from the region that were considered to be of “excellent quality”. He was therefore a forerunner for a general quality improvement of the wines in the Champagne region.
As it turns out, the job title of Pierre Pérignon at the abbey was treasurer. The wine production was a way of the abbeys of getting income, and when Pierre started, the Hautvillers abbey already had made plans to develop their winemaking. In 1661, they had started to build a new wine cellar.
What is important to know is that the standard style of the wines from Champagne was still wines, both white wines and light red wines in what we today might perceive as a “light Burgundian style”. The wines – and not just those from Champagne – were sold and transported in barrels, and if they ended up in bottles, the bottling was made by customers or local merchants, since it was very difficult to transport the fragile bottles of the time. Red wines were in demand in order to compete with Burgundy, but it seems that the Champenois themselves thought that the white wines turned out best, although they were primarily produced from red wine grapes. These wines were often called Aÿ wines, irrespective from which village they originated. Starting in the 15th century and continuing for a couple of centuries, the Champagne wines were more-or-less the most highly regarded wines in Paris, before they met more serious competition from their traditional rival Burgundy, thanks to improved overland transport possibilities. Unlike Champagne (and Chablis), the Burgundian heartland in Côte d’Or lacks the possibility of river transport to the Paris market. It was these Champagne wines that Dom Pérignon helped improving. The Champagne trade was also aided by simplified rules regarding commercial activities in 1691, under the reign of Louis XIV, so this was probably a good time to profit from improved quality.
Thee wines could sometimes be plagued by refermentation (after delivery). This should be due to the initial fermentation stopping before all sugar had been converted, caused by the cold (winter) temperature in this northern region. Presumably, the refermentation would occur in spring or possibly as late as summer, in case the wine was in contact with active yeast. This second fermentation naturally gave rise to bubbles, but happened uncontrolled, and was not something that serious winemaker strived for. This phenomenon existed before Dom Pérignon. It seems that wine merchants were the first to actively try to get bubbles in the wine, produced by adding sugar or molasses to the wine. A British description of this handling of wine from 1662 has been found. At this time, a number of things, such as spices, were regularly added to wines by merchants.
One of the things Dom Pérignon did to improve the quality was to organise harvest work to be able to produce really good wine, which wasn’t easy since the wine production was also based on grapes handed in to the abbey from different villages in the form of tithe. He instructed that the vines should be pruned hard, that yields should be kept low, that the grapes should be kept intact, on their bunch, and handled as cold as possibly, and that broken grapes should be discarded. When the grapes were pressed, this was done as quickly as possible, and the different pressings were kept apart. He was also careful with the selection of grape varieties, and preferred Pinot Noir. He did not like the white wine varieties, since they increased the risk of refermentation.
On the other hand, the French market started to like sparkling wines already during Dom Pérignon’s lifetime. Canon Godinot, who wrote in 1718, dates this trend to the 1690s. To me, it doesn’t seem completely established how the distribution and sales of these wines took place in practical terms, since it didn’t become allowed to sell and transport bottled wine in France until 1728. Were these sparkling wines bottled by local merchants? Were they sparkling from the barrel, which should mean very lightly sparkling, or “semi-sparkling” using a later term? Or were the rules frequently disobeyed by producers – even monastic producers – this long before the French (bourgeoisie) became known for a revolutionary spirit? I can’t recall having seen anything written that sheds light on this. Following the 1728 change of rules, it is easier to understand how customers of Champagne could get bubbles in their bottles, since they could be sold in bottles. In any case, sparkling Champagnes of the 18th century is likely to have had less bubbles than those of today, otherwise the bottles are likely to have exploded even more frequently than they did. They should also have been slightly cloudy since disgorgement (riddling) hadn’t been introduced yet.
In any case, the common view is that the majority of the Champagne wines in the 18th century were still wines. The sparkling style doesn’t seem to have taken over completely until the early 19th century. A number of inventions during the 19th century led to the reliable production of sparkling Champagne of the type we know today, with a consistent mousse, no cloudiness or yeast deposit, and so on.
The archive from his abbey seems to have been lost, so we primarily know about Dom Pérignon’s work from what others have written about him. Those primary sources that can be considered reliable are those written by those who lived in his time, and whose statements fit with what is known from other sources about the history of wine. For example, the rules for winemaking laid down by Dom Pérignon were carefully recorded in 1718, only three years after his death, by the above-mentioned Canon Godinot.
Already in the 18th century, his achievements were inflated in some stories, and many of the legends surrounding Dom Pérignon seem to have been created by the last treasurer of the abbey, Dom Grossard, who was active on this post until the French Revolution halted the activities of the abbey in 1789 (and probably led to the archives being destroyed or otherwise lost). This means that Grossard wasn’t a contemporary of Dom Pérignon, but rather his successor some 70 years later.
What I find even more ridiculous is when incorrect statement of the history of Champagne is combined with other myths. In Limoux in western Languedoc, the local history of producing sparkling wines is claimed to go back to 1531, when they were produced in the Benedictine Saint-Hilaire Abbey. The wine type produced was Blanquette, the traditional sparkling wine from this region, and not the most common type of today, Crémant de Limoux. In Limoux, it is often claimed that Dom Pérignon spent time at the Saint-Hilaire Abbey and learned how to produce sparkling wines, and then moved to Hautvillers and introduced this method there, by simply copying what was done in Limoux. As far as I know, there is no credible support for the claim that Pérignon (who was born in the eastern part of the Champagne-Ardennes region) would have visited Saint-Hilaire in Languedoc. If he did, he must have been put off by their sparkling wines, since he actually strived to produce high-quality still wines in Hautvillers!
The first vintage of the Champagne called Dom Pérignon, i.e., the prestige cuvée of Moët & Chandon, was the 1921 vintage. It was launched in 1936, which can be compared to recent vintages of Dom Pérignon, that are launched at about nine years of age. The first vintages actually consisted of regular Moët & Chandon vintage Champagne poured over (by means of “transvasage“) into the typical antique-shaped bottles, and sold later than the original launch of the vintage. The Dom Pérignon brand was originally the property of Mercier, but came into the ownership of Moët & Chandon in 1927.
The version of Dom Pérignon’s work sketched here is mostly based on a book by Hugh Johnson, The Story of Wine (new edition, 2005).