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Who was Dom Perignon?

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Who was Dom Perignon?

Dom Perignon is of course the name of a vintage Champagne.

It’s also the name of a Benedictine monk who, according to popular belief, invented the Champagne method, a natural process that transforms still wine into sparkling wine.

Pierre Perignon (his birth name) was born late 1638 into a bourgeois family in the town of Sainte-Menehould.

Local registers show that from an early age he took part in the harvest and maintenance of the vines that his father, an officer of the court, owned.

This early initiation plays a capital role in his life!

He joins the Jesuits College in Châlons-sur-Marne in 1652.

He is 18 years old in 1658 when he gives up becoming a judicial officer to enter religion and is ordained in 1667.

On May 23, 1668 he becomes the administrator of the Benedictine Abbey of Hautvillers near Epernay in Champagne.

This important function earned him the honorary title Dom, which comes from the Latin Dominus meaning Lord.

He’s indeed in charge of the abbey’s vines, his area of expertise, and production of the sacramental wine.

Dom Pierre Perignon administers the abbey until his death on September 14, 1715; he was buried in the chancel of the abbey church.

Statue of the monk Dom Perignon at Moet&Chandon
Statue of the monk Dom Perignon at Moet&Chandon

Dom Perignon, a renowned oenologist with genius for wine-making

Dom Perignon’s expertise is not limited to the art of wine-making; he also excels as a wine-grower and wine-maker, but also merchant!

A genius oenologist, he carries out many experiments throughout his life to improve the quality of the wine, which until then was quite mediocre.

Indeed, he works tirelessly to improve the blend of the best grapes from different grape varieties and different harvests, and its conservation in bottle to produce a quality wine.

The outstanding wines the Hautvillers Abbey produce end up on the table of King Louis XIV.

This triggered the fortune of the abbey and village, which has since been considered the birthplace of Champagne wine.

It also enhanced the reputation of excellence of its sommelier, Dom Perignon.

Moet-Chandon vineyard - Champagne-Ardenne region

The 'inventor' of Champagne - Legend or fact?

History, or legend, attributes the invention of the Champagne method to Dom Perignon.

Skeptics say that he can’t have, as sparkling wine can’t be obtained without hermetically sealing bottles with a stopper.

They point out that the royal edict which granted the right to bottle Champagne wine dates from 1728, 13 years after Dom Perignon’s death.

Their opponents, nonetheless, claim that the monk would have used beeswax to seal bottles of white wine and added sugar to trigger a second fermentation to produce the effervescence and foam specific to Champagne wines.

Difficult to know the truth more than 3 centuries after his death, but we have to admit that neither Dom Perignon, nor any of his contemporaries, ever refer to any production of sparkling wine.

The only known documents refer only to the still wines of the Abbey of Hautvillers (in fact all Champagne wines produced at the time were still wines.)

That said, the Champagne method was already known during Dom Perignon’s lifetime.

So it's very plausible that this passionate oenologist, gifted with a strong spirit of observation and research, studied the natural phenomenon of fermentation and perhaps experimented on his wines?

However, would he have dared to launch out in the manufacture and marketing of sparkling wine, a technique then in its infancy?

Would he have dared, despite the irregular harvests which influence the quantity and quality of wine?

We also know that 120 years after his death, the production was still unreliable, making Champagne a rare and expensive product!

In fact, it was not until 1821 that the monk was considered the 'inventor' of sparkling Champagne wines, but by then there was still no document to accredit this theory.

Dom Perignon vintage 1999

Did the English invent sparkling Champagne?

This is an awful thought for any French person, but as I wrote above the Champagne method was already known when Dom Perignon was alive.

In fact documents dating from 1660 show that English wine merchants bought barrels of still wine produced in Champagne, added sugar to trigger its fermentation and bottled it, as industrial bottling was invented in England around 1625!

That said, we’re not sure how they hermetically sealed the bottles.

So the debate is still open!

Dom Perignon Champagne

All we know is that Dom Perignon is a prestige champagne from Moët&Chandon House, which owns part of the vineyard on the grounds of the former Abbey of Hautvillers.

The land originally belonged to the Champagne Mercier House, which Moët bought in 1970.

The vintage Champagne was first produced in 1921, but was not available for sale until 1936.

It's only produced  during the best years with the best grapes from the best vines harvested in the same year.

Each Dom Pérignon vintage is therefore a unique product obtained from a unique blend.

So champagne lovers, it's up to you to decide who invented sparkling Champagne… I’m chauvinistic, so I’ll go for Dom Perignon!

How to get to Hautvillers village in Champagne?

Department of Marne
Coordinates Hautvillers Abbey: Lat 49.082106 - Long 3.941119

By train - SNCF:
- CDG airport T2 (TGV station) to Epernay
- Paris Gare de l'Est to Epernay
- Then Epernay to Hautvillers: By Coach #160 or Taxi

By car:
- Paris to Hautvillers 142kms - A4 motorway - Take exit 21-Dormans towards Dormans/Épernay/Fismes - Take D23E5, D23, D1, D3 and D1
- CDG airport to Hautvillers 150kms: A3 in Roissy-en-France - Follow A104 and A4 to D980 in Villers-Agron-Aiguizy. Take exit 21-Dormans as above

Wikimedia Commons photos: Statue by Victor Grigas is CC BY-SA 4.0 - Vintage 1999 bottle is public domain
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