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Dom Pérignon: A Look at a Legend

© Gilles Bretin

Dom Pérignon: A Look at a Legend

March 14, 2013

Success, as the saying goes, has many fathers. So it’s not surprising that many claim to have “invented” champagne, the world’s most successful wine in terms of global recognition and popularity. Legend has it that back in the 17th century a French Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Pérignon first crafted this bubbly brew at the abbey of Saint Pierre d’Hautvillers, overlooking the town of Epernay in the region called Champagne. “Come quickly! I am drinking the stars,” were cellar master Pérignon’s supposed words when he first sipped the effervescent elixir we now know as champagne.

Agrandissez l’image
Dom Pérignon: A Look at a Legend

The abbey of Hautvillers

Agrandissez l’image
Dom Pérignon: A Look at a Legend

Dom Pérignon vineyards on the abbey hillside

Agrandissez l’image
Dom Pérignon: A Look at a Legend

Dom Pérignon's tombstone in the abbey church

It’s a charming but implausible story, probably created by the monastery’s 19th-century cellar master, Dom Groussard, in a bid to burnish the abbey’s reputation and, by extension, his own. Back in the 17th century the last thing Dom Pérignon would have wanted in his wines were bubbles from a primary or secondary fermentation, because bottles in those days—at least the ones available in France—would usually explode from the pressure. Cellar workers routinely wore metal masks to protect their faces from flying glass and accidentally fermented, whizz-bang wine was known as vin du diable—devil’s wine—even though it was made for the most part by monks.

But the star-sipping anecdote contributes to the mystique surrounding France’s most famous export, so if you really want to taunt a Champenois, try repeating the scurrilous story spread by winemakers in the southwest region of Limoux, in Languedoc, claiming that France’s first sparkling wine—known locally as blanquette—was invented by Benedictine monks at the abbey of Saint Hilaire near Carcassonne, more than a century before Dom Pérignon was born.

There is indeed evidence (from abbey records dating back to 1531) to support the claim that the good brothers of Saint Hilaire developed a technique to create bubbles in their wine—probably by bottling it before fermentation had been completed, a technique known today as the méthode rurale or ancestrale. The resulting wines, fizzed with pent-up carbon dioxide, would be kept in flasks stoppered with plugs made from the bark of cork trees found across the Pyrenees in Spain. But there is little to support the calumnious claim, still bandied about in Limoux, that Saint Hilaire was a victim of industrial espionage when the secret of sparkling wine was stolen by Dom Pérignon on a pilgrimage to the abbey in his youth.

Britfizz?

Even if Dom Pérignon had eloped with Saint Hilaire’s secrets it wouldn’t matter, because the process he is credited with inventing is the so-called méthode champenoise, in which a sparkling wine is created, not by capturing first fermentation bubbles, but by inducing a second fermentation once the wine has been bottled. So forget the Limoux gibe. The better way to ruffle French feathers is to claim that sparkling wine in the champagne style—the true méthode champenoise—was discovered by the English!

The evidence for that is fairly reliable, derived from a learned paper presented in December 1662 (six years before Dom Pérignon arrived in Hautvillers) to the recently founded Royal Society by English scientist and physician Dr. Christopher Merret. Although Merret’s paper (“Some Observations Concerning the Ordering of Wines”) sounds like a primer written by a snooty sommelier, it was more of a treatise on winemaking practices, in which he described the English custom of adding “sugar and molasses to all sorts of wine to make them brisk and sparkling”.

In other words, long before Dom Pérignon imbibed his stars, English vintners were deliberately provoking a second fermentation in the bottle that would add carbon dioxide—and thus bubbles—to their imported wine. By a happy coincidence, that same year of 1662 saw a related invention by diplomat and dilettante Sir Kenelm Digby, piggybacking on some technical breakthroughs made earlier by Englishman Sir Robert Mansell and Welshman James Howell, among others. Digby perfected a glass bottle that, when stoppered with corks tied down with string, was strong enough to withstand the pressure—greater than that inside a truck tire—created by a second fermentation. Thus technique and technology came together to make possible the sparkling wine we just happen to call champagne but which should—pace the monks of Limoux—probably be dubbed britfizz.

Napoleon and Churchill

Fortunately the French are capable of great sang-froid and forbearance, while the Champenois—for whom every vintage is a roll of the dice, given their region’s unpredictable and extreme growing conditions—are renowned for their imperturbability. So they don’t get too upset by the debate about who developed or invented what and when. For them it’s neither here nor there or, as they say, ici ou là-bas. What really matters to the producers of champagne is that the real-life Dom Pérignon (see below), if not the inventor of champagne, was a pioneer who helped ensure that champagne would become the benchmark for all other sparkling wine. So it’s appropriate that the champagne that is now the benchmark for the very best bubbly bears his name.

Launched in 1936 by leading champagne house Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon was the first so-called cuvée de prestige to hit the market. With most of the world including France still wallowing in the Great Depression, it was hardly the moment to introduce an ultra-luxurious brand of a product synonymous with gaiety and good times. But as both Napoleon and Winston Churchill have observed, champagne is a must for bad times as well as good. “I drink champagne when I win, to celebrate,” Bonaparte is alleged to have claimed, “and I drink champagne when I lose, to console myself.”

Dom Pérignon’s debut, featuring the superb 1921 vintage, was a great success—notably in Britain and the United States, where tobacco magnate James Buchanan Duke ordered 100 bottles for himself. Other champagne houses joined the party, including Roederer, which had previously produced a special cuvée called Cristal for Russia’s royal family. Cristal was made available to the general public in 1945, followed by Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne in 1952 and Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siècle in 1959.

These days all the big champagne houses have their own cuvées de prestige but Dom Pérignon remains for many the benchmark for great champagne. Much of that has to do with the raw material—the grapes—that go into making each vintage. Dom Pérignon himself is reputed to have selected the grapes that would be used to make his wine and could, it is said, match grapes with their particular vineyard even with his eyes closed—a form of “blind” tasting that gave rise to the erroneous legend that the cellar master was himself blind. Today’s Dom Pérignon is made exclusively from grapes—pinot noir and chardonnay—that are grown in vineyards that have earned grand cru status.

From plénitude to peak

These vineyards yield the best grapes the region can produce, but even so there are some years when the cellar master at Dom Pérignon deems them not good enough, and so no champagne is produced. Since Dom Pérignon was launched with the 1921 vintage there have been only 37 “releases”, including the latest one dating from 2003. A Dom Pérignon rosé made its debut in 1959 and has seen 21 vintages, with the most recent released in 2000. It is too soon to tell whether 2012 will merit vintage status. The year started out badly with too much rain until July, but even though the sun came out in late summer and allowed the grapes to ripen, cellar master Richard Geoffroy will not decide until next April whether it gets the nod.

Geoffroy, whose winemaking skills have been another component of the quality equation at Dom Pérignon since he took charge of production in 1990, monitors the domain’s wines by squirreling away a proportion of every vintage in an oenothèque—a kind of wine reference library created in 2000. “Each vintage is unique,” explains deputy cellar master Vincent Chaperon, “but like brothers and sisters you can see the family likeness, the genetic links.” According to Geoffroy, Dom Pérignon achieves three distinct peaks during its life cycle, the first (the so-called phase de plénitude) occurring around the seven-year mark when the wine is at its most vibrant (and most of it is bottled and sold); the second between 14 and 20 years, when the wine achieves greater depth and vigor; and the peak, from 30 years onward, when it reaches full maturity and greater complexity.

Fortunately for champagne lovers, Geoffroy and Chaperon do not keep the oenothèque wines for themselves but release small quantities onto the market from time to time when they are judged to have reached their best. Vintages released so far with the oenothèque badge include the 1996 white and the 1990 rosé.

Much has changed at the abbey since Dom Pérignon’s day. The abbey buildings have gone through hard times, notably during and after the Revolution, and little remains of the cloisters and the cellars. The abbey church, unlike the abbey itself, is open to the public; it guards the relics of Saint Helena, mother of the Roman Empire’s first Christian emperor Constantine, and was for centuries a pilgrimage destination. Today’s champagne pilgrims seeking a grand monument to Dom Pérignon, who died in 1715, are in for a disappointment—his final resting place is a simple grave under the church’s floor, in front of the altar, marked only by a stone inscribed in Latin: Hic Jacet Dom Petrus Perignon.

But in truth the old cellar master of Hautvillers needs no elaborate memorial, for the champagne that bears his name is eloquent testimony to his dedication and drive. Over the past three years Moët & Chandon, parent company to Dom Pérignon, has renovated the abbey and its outbuildings, and today the estate exudes an air of peace and tranquility that the Benedictine monks of yesteryear would have found familiar. Except, of course, when the silence is sundered by the sound of corks being popped. But the Dom surely would not mind that—it’s the precursor to drinking stars.

Dom Pérignon

An almost exact contemporary of Louis XIV, Dom Pierre Pérignon (1638–1715) may not have invented champagne, but if there were a hall of fame dedicated to the world’s most prestigious sparkling wine this pioneer monk would be a founding member. What the perfectionist Pérignon brought to his work as cellar master was an unrelenting quest for quality. He did not, as some believe, initiate champagne’s practice of assemblage—the mixing of still wines from various vineyards and reserve wines from earlier years to create a consistent mix, or cuvée, whose sum is greater than its parts. But he did mix different grape types to produce a superior, more balanced product that was admired far and wide and even graced the Sun King’s table at Versailles. “Dom Pérignon was the entrepreneur of champagne,” says current cellar master Richard Geoffroy. “He made it happen.”

Above all, Dom Pérignon left us his vast knowledge of viticulture, brought together in a 35-chapter treatise by his successor and pupil Brother Pierre. Much of his advice is still followed today. He was in favor of aggressive pruning, keeping yields low to improve quality. He urged the rejection of bruised or broken grapes and the use of “natural” processes. Most important, he also explained how white wine could be made from black grapes by ensuring that the pressed juices did not become colored by the grapes’ skins—a vital development for the region’s winemakers since the majority of the grapes used in champagne production, pinot noir and pinot meunier, are black.

Dom Pérignon champagne is a class act. It’s expensive. You need to pay attention when you’re drinking it. So would you want to be distracted by food? Pascal Tingaud, the chef at the Château de Saran, where Moët & Chandon and Dom Pérignon entertain corporate guests, has no doubt that food and champagne can come together in a way that enhances our appreciation of both.

Tingaud starts with the champagne and experiments with foods to create taste sensations that compliment and heighten the taste of the bubbly. “Our aim,” he says, “is to reveal every aspect of the champagne, in all its complexity.” He uses only very fresh ingredients, but they can be extremely simple—egg yolks, maple syrup and cream, spiked with a classic mix of quatre épices (black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves), for example, for a tasty dish called Oeufs Passard. Only slightly more complicated, here’s his recipe for Saffron Risotto:

SAFFRON RISOTTO

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for serving

100 g (3-1/2 oz) butter, plus extra

50 g (1-3/4 oz) shallots, chopped

350 g (12 oz) carnaroli rice (Acquarello brand if possible)

1/4 liter (1 cup) white wine

1-1/2 liters (6-1/3 cups) chicken stock, heated

2 strands saffron

Sea salt 60 g (2 oz)

Grated Parmesan 120 g (4 oz)

Parmesan shavings

4 sheets edible gold leaf (optional)

Sweat the chopped shallots in the olive oil and butter in a heavy pan.

Add the rice (without washing) and heat thoroughly, stirring constantly. Do not allow rice and shallots to color.

Add wine and cook mixture, stirring, until wine evaporates.

Next add hot chicken stock (4 ladles), and the saffron. Cook 15 to 20 minutes, stirring frequently and adding additional hot stock as necessary. Halfway through, season with sea salt.

When rice is cooked, remove from heat and incorporate grated Parmesan and some additional butter. Adjust seasoning and divide among four plates. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with Parmesan shavings and decorate with gold leaf, if using.

Serves 4

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of France Today

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