Friday, August 12, 2011

An Early History of Champagne: Part 3

Dom Pierre Perignon

Though Part 2 of this series ended with the start of the 17th century, we need to once again reach back in time, to the 7th century, but focused on a single location, a monastery which is of great significance to our story.

The Hautvillers Abbey was established in 650 A.D. by Archbishop Nivard of Reims, who was later made a saint and his feast day is September 1. Saint Bercharius of Moûtier-en-Der, who had urged Nivard to establish Hautvillers, became its first abbot. Bercharius would later found two cloisters, but was stabbed by a monk he admonished, dying two days later. But one of the most fascinating moments in the early history of the abbey involved a theft, a corpse and a few miracles. It sounds almost like the plot for a horror novel but it is not. 

In 841 A.D., Teutgise, a monk from the abbey, made the long trek to Rome, approximately 900 miles. It was likely a long and dangerous trek.  For a long time, Teutgise had been sick, and all of his previous prayers had yet to lead to a cure. So, while in Rome, he chose to pray before the remains of St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine who also was said to have discovered the location of the True Cross, the cross upon which Jesus was said to have been crucified.

Teutgise's illness was suddenly cured and he was joyous at this seeming miracle, but then a bizarre, and rather non-Christian, idea took hold. He decided to steal the remains of St. Helena and bring them back to Hautvillers! I am not sure how much security they had around the remains, but Teutgise was successful in his theft. (I am still hunting for more details about this theft.) Obviously the Archbishop of Reims and the Abbot of Hautvillers were shocked and angry when Teutgise returned with the remains. They were probably worried of the Pope's reaction once he learned of the theft.

Yet the abbey had other problems at that moment, as it had not rained in months, and their crops desperately needed water. Teutgise told the peasants that they needed to fast for three days and pray to St. Helena, and she would provide deliverance. Miraculously, it did rain, and other miracles supposedly occurred as well, all attributed to St. Helena. At that point, the Archbishop and Abbot became more amenable to Teutgise's theft. They then contacted the Pope and were able to successfully negotiate keeping the remains. Now that sounds like some impressive negotiations, being able to keep a stolen corpse which caused miracles.

Now jump ahead seven hundred years. Around 1560 A.D., during the French Wars of Religion, which were generally fought between Catholics and Protestants, the Abbey of Hautvillers was destroyed. So the monks had to relocate temporarily to Reims and remained there for about forty years until Hautvillers was rebuilt. The region saw conflict once again during the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), which turned the region into a battleground, destroying some of the vineyards. Then the Fronde, a civil war from 1650-53 A.D., led to mercenaries occupying the region up to 1659 A.D. It was not an easy time for the abbey.

In 1661 A.D., the Abbot of Hautvillers commissioned the construction of a large vaulted cellar, to better store their wine. At this time, they only owned 25 acres of vineyards but also received numerous tithes of grapes from local farmers, in places such as Ay and Avenay. Pinot Noir, which may have been first planted in the region during the 15th century, was still one of the primary grapes during the 17th century. Part of the reason for the prominence of this grape was a rivalry between Champagne and Burgundy. The Champagne region tried to make red wines that could compete with Burgundy, though their wines tender to be lighter in color, but they sometimes made it darker using elderberries.

The man most credited with the invention of Champagne as the sparkling wine we now know is Dom Pierre Perignon, despite the fact that much of what is said about him is myth and falsehood. Perignon was born around 1638 A.D. and became a Benedictine monk at the age of 19. In 1668 A.D., he transferred to the Abbey of Hautvillers and was appointed as its Treasurer and Cellar Master. Despite the Abbot having commissioned a new cellar only seven years before, much of the abbey was rundown and in need to restoration. Even the vineyards were suffering, so, from the beginning, Perignon faced a number of obstacles.

Numerous myths have spread about Dom Perignon, and part of it may be due to Dom Grossard, who worked in the Abbey until the French Revolution. The Revolution led to the closure of the abbey, and the archives vanished or were destroyed at that time. As most of the records were lost, this allowed Grossard to embellish the legend of Dom Perignon. Other myths have been propagated by champagne houses and marketers, trying to create a compelling image for champagne. It was actually in the 1880s that many of the legends of Dom Perignon became wide spread and prominent.

For example, Dom Perignon was not blind his entire life, only losing his sight when he got older. He never stated "I am drinking stars" and his palate was not so exceptional that he could determine the identity of the vineyard from merely tasting a grape.  And he did not invent champagne, and in fact worked for much of his life trying to remove the bubbles from the wines he produced. None of that should diminish his actual contributions though to wine making.  

As mentioned previously, the seconday fermentation of wines in the Champagne region was a natural occurrence for centuries. That was generally not a problem for wines kept in casks but those that were bottled could potentially explode in the spring.  Approximately 20%-90% of a vintage might be lost in this way, requiring monks to wear iron masks or other protection in the cellars to prevent serious injury.  This is why these wines were sometimes known as "cork-popper" or "devil wine." 

In 1662, before Dom Perignon became the Cellar Master of Hautvillers, the English had already started discussing the creation of sparkling wine. In that year, Christopher Merrett, an English physician and scientist, presented a paper to the Royal Society of London, noting that adding sugar and/or molasses can cause a secondary fermentation that creates sparkling wine. The wines of the Champagne region had often been exported from France to England in casks during the autumn. At this point, it was a still, sweet drink, often a gold-tinted red color. In the spring, the wine in those casks would often undergo a natural secondary fermentation, becoming effervescent.

These sparkling wines became popular in England, and Marquis de St. Evremond, a soldier, courtier and satirist, helped popularize it. He belonged to a group known as the Epicureans, or Ordre des Coteaux, because they refused to drink any wine except those from Ay, Hautvillers and Avenay. It also helped that a couple English innovations made it easier to keep sparkling wine.

First, Sir Kenelm Digby, a scholar, traveler, pirate and pioneer archaeologist, discovered a method to produce inexpensive, strong glass bottles. These bottles were square and colored either translucent green or brown. Prior to this innovation, the thinner glass bottles were suspectible to breakage as well as explosions due to the pressure of the bubbles. Second, they began to seal the new bottles with corks, rather than wooden plugs. This too made it safer and allowed the wines to last longer. Both of these innovations would eventually spread to France.

Dom Perignon desired to create a white wine that people would prefer to the red wines of Burgundy, and he did not want any bubbles in his wines. Yet many of his wines ended up with bubbles. Part of the reason was that he disliked storing wine in casks, as he felt they caused his wines to lose their aroma. So, he preferred to bottle them as soon as possible. He realized that white grapes tended to produce the most bubbly wines, so he preferred to use black grapes, and especially Pinot Noir. In addition, white wines seemed to last for only a year or so, but wine made from black grapes could last up to ten years. The famous white wines of Ay were not true whites, ranging in color from grey to light pink, and Perignon wanted to make a true white wine.

Perignon would eventually begin using British glass bottles and corks for his wines, as well as double the size of the abbey's vineyards. Though the blending of wines was commonplace, Perignon innovated by blending grapes from different vineyards before they were pressed, rather than afterwards as was the usual case. In addition, he created a series of rules for viticulture and viniculture, set forth in 1718 by Canon Godinot, and many of those rules are still used today because they were very wise advice.

First, Perignon preferred to only use Pinot Noir grapes, even though his vineyards were also planted with Pinot Meunier, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Chasselas and maybe Chardonnay. Second, he recommended pruning the vines so that they would grow no higher than three feet and produce a small yield. Third, he advised that you should carefully harvest, trying to keep the grapes whole on the stalks as well as cool as possible. Fourth, he recommended that no one tread on the grapes or allow maceration of the skins in the juice. What was necessary was a fast working press, and Perignon had access to three press houses. There were a number of other precautions and measures that he also devised.

By the time Perignon died in 1715 A.D., the popularity of sparkling wine from Champagne had spread throughout France, and was even popular in Paris. Though England might have dabbled in sparkling wine, it did not become a significant industry or garner much publicity.  France became the center of the sparkling wine movement.  The 18th century would see a great surge in both the production and popularity of Champagne, with the founding of numerous great Champagne houses. Yet that history is more familiar and has been covered well in a number of books and articles. So my own exploration of the early history of Champagne is finished.

Just remember that the history of Champagne did not begin with Dom Perignon.

An Early History of Champagne: Part 1
An Early History of Champagne: Part 2


Lisa said...

Fun post-thanks. My husband's from Champagne so I love learning more about the region where we spend our holidays. Interesting about Perignon's harvest practices (whole grape clusters, kept cool). While you certainly see deviation from this today, that early in the winemaking process is where a certain quality standard is established. I wonder if he also hand-sorted (bunch rot, bird damage, raisins)?

Richard Auffrey said...

Welcome! I will be traveling to Reims in a couple weeks. Any recommendations for interesting places to visit?

Bianca @ Confessions of a Chocoholic said...

Richard, what an interesting article! Very well written, and I could tell that you put a lot of work and research into this. Congratulations, I think you did a great job. I am by no means a wine/champagne expert nor a history buff but I truly enjoyed reading this!

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks very much Bianca. It was very fun to write, and I look forward to visiting Champagne in a couple weeks. Will be great to see a place I have only read and written about before.

Wining Ways said...

Well researched Richard. I enjoy this kind of information. You have quite a bit of material to sift through on your blog but I plan to spend more time getting to know it. Enjoy your trip to Rheims.

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