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Champagne may not be a French invention….

Nothing to do with Dom Pérignon

According to The Book of General Ignorance by Lloyd, Mitchinson & Fry, contrary to legend and popular belief, Dom Pérignon, the XVII century Benedictine monk, did not invent sparkling wine and French winemakers did not invent Champagne.

Around the late XVII century, Dom Pérignon did work on the wine from the later-identified Champagne region to improve it, but that wine was not comparable to the today’s Champagne (the current form of Champagne was designed a couple of centuries later!). But, above all, he cannot be the inventor of sparkling wine, given that he worked hard to try to eliminate the bubbles! The bubbles were a problem at the time: the gas they hold was increasing the pressure inside the bottle and would occasionally break them….

Though it is true that Dom Pérignon did not invent nor sparkling wine neither Champagne, the question is still debatable because it depends on when we start identifying “Champagne”.

The oldest record of sparkling wine intentional creation is French, indeed: it belongs to the Benedictine monks (again!) of the Saint-Hilaire Abbey near Carcassone, France, in 1531. Because bubbles are the result of a fermentation that happens in the bottle – as opposed to the one that happens in the barrel – the monks bottled the wine before the fermentation finished. It’s important to specify that this was intentional because spontaneous secondary fermentation had occurred in still wines since antiquity, but it was unintentional….

The “English claim”

According to The Book of General Ignorance by Lloyd, Mitchinson & Fry, Champagne is an English invention because, in 1662 – i.e. decades before Dom Pérignon’s work – the English scientist and physician Christopher Merret presented to the Royal Society a study on British winemakers adding sugar to a finished wine to create a second fermentation. Merret’s interests and discoveries incidentally coincided: he translated Antonio Neri’s The Art of Glass (1611) and added his own work to it; this happened while English glass-makers were putting in place technical developments to produce bottles that could withstand the internal pressures, one thing that was not available in France at the time.

The evolution

In France, bottles exploded or corks jolted away; and the first sparkling Champagne was called Le Vin du Diable (the Devil’s Wine). The bottles were corked with pieces of wood with oil-sponged cloth, and then plunged in wax: it was still not sufficient to sustain the pressure and avoid the bottles to leak. In 1844, Adolphe Jaquesson invented the muselet to prevent the corks from blowing out:  the idea was to use corks with cords, with the safety add-on of one or two twisted wires of iron, using a grip shears. But this metal fixing presented difficulties to emerge the bottles, and it was necessary to use a special grip, or a small hook to cut the wire.In order to facilitate the bottles clearing without grips or hooks – and especially without being wounded – the idea came to make a small ring on the wire be tied up, sometimes provided with a lead pastille on which was engraved word “Champagne” or the name of the trader. Despite Merret’s work, even when it was intentionally produced as a sparkling wine, Champagne was for a very long time made by the Benedictine méthode rurale, where the wine was bottled before the only fermentation had finished. The use of a second fermentation, as prescribed by the méthode champenoise, started only in the XIX century, at the same time as its explosive production growth.

This is for the bubbles. It needs to be noticed that, in the XIX century, Champagne was much sweeter than  today. In 1846, Perrier-Jouët decided not to sweeten his 1846 vintage prior to exporting it to London and the designation Champagne Brut (the modern Champagne) was created by the French for the British in 1876.

Protecting the Champagne name

Only from 1891, the Treaty of Madrid started protecting the name Champagne, which is reserved for the wine produced in the Champagne region and adhering to the relevant standards. But several nations – in particular the UK, the United States and Japan – did not sign it. The protection was reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I (this time the UK signed it!). Whilst similar legal protection has been adopted by over 70 countries, only recently Canada, Australia and Chile signed agreements to limit the use of the term “champagne” to only those products produced in the Champagne region. The United States did not sign the Treaty of Versailles (World War I officially ended in 1921 for the USA with the Knox-Porter Resolution) and only in 2006 the ban for the use of “Champagne” (and other non-US wine names) came into play! In reality, those that had approval to use the term on labels before 2006 may continue to use it and only when it is accompanied by the wine’s actual origin (e.g. California)!

Who invented it then?

So, in a nutshell, the Saint-Hilaire Benedictine monks did produce the first recorded intentional production of sparkling wine, but the grapes were local and the intention was limited to the choice of when to bottle the wine! Is this enough to grant the title? In 1662, Christopher Merret reported about a more sophisticated method, which ends up delivering a product which is much closer to what we now call “Champagne”. Who wins then?

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Inspired by The Book of General Ignorance by Lloyd, Mitchinson & Fry

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