This was read at Laborastory on October 4, 2017. It is written as a script, so the spelling errors and grammar don’t matter. I haven’t bothered to fix them either ’cause I don’t have time and this is unpaid anyway. For more on Laborastory visit https://thelaborastory.com/
Imagine you’re in the French wine region of Champagne. Surrounded by decadence a vineyard owner holds a glass of wine, and they mutter, as all Champagne owners did in the early 1600s, (now I don’t know much French but I’ll use one word here, see if you can pick what it means).
“Where the merde did these bubbles come from, and how the merde do I get rid of them!?” (merde is french for shit)
Of all the massive embarrassments in wine, none are matched for reversal of fortune as the story of Champagne.
For hundreds of years Champagne was a framing area. Then someone got the big idea that they could compete with Burgundy and takeover the table wine market. They’re closer to Paris, and being only a little bit further north shouldn’t make much difference to growing conditions. As a result, Champagne was planted to pinot noir and chardonnay, the main grapes of Burgundy, and production was set to increase.
Things were going okay. The bubbles that Champagne is famous for today were not quite evident early on. Oxidative handling was releasing the Co2 gas, as wine was stored and transported in drums and vessels that were sealed by loose rags and irregular cork plugs.
Then bottles started to get used as a quality control, and these weren’t great bottles. Have you seen wicker baskets around bottles of Chianti, the Italian wine? That’s how they used to hold fragile glass together, and with better corks, gas was now being trapped inside and bottles began to explode.
This was an OH&S disaster.
In one year up to 50% of wine was lost to exploding bottles, and if this wasn’t bad enough, bubbles were a known sign of poor wine making. Something had gone terribly wrong and needed to be fixed.
Enter Dom Perignon.
Born Perrie Perignon (1638), and as far as names go it’s better than Tom Tomlinson, but not as funny as Neville Neville. Perrie’s father was a local town clerk who’s family owned vineyards. At the age of eighteen Perrie joined an Abby to begin life as a Benedictine monk. Those are the ones that wear hooded robes, don’t talk much, work long hours, and are self-sufficient.
The self-sufficient part is very important. It is why the monks ran a vineyard, and why the quality of their wine was crucial to their survival. In 1668, when Perrie was 30, he was sent to manage Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers. He had to oversee everything, the other monks, land renters, and wine production. He was the general manager. The Dominus. The Dom.
He got the job “on account of the purity of his taste and the soundness of his head”, which translates that he could drink a lot of booze and not go whooo. You know, he was a keg on legs, and knew plenty about the drink.
And he really did.
Each vineyard is different, and Dom Perignon could identify the farm of each grape from the quality of the fruit. He would also blend fruit from different vineyards to make a seamless wine. A process now known as assemblage, to produce a cuvee.
The Dom had his favourite vineyards, and to make his wine better, Perrie implemented stringent protocols on harvesting and pruning. Apparently he was stressful to work for. Perrie Perignon was exacting. The kind of boss you wouldn’t work for unless you had to. And yes, the monks in the Abby had to work there.
One of the things the Dom did was to remove foot treading. Now, the purpose of foot-treading is to softly break grape skins and mix the must. You get in a big tub with your mates, have a smoke, a glass of wine, and walk along in a row singing songs. Smoke, drink, sing, smoke, drink, sing. It’s romantic, communal and modern day winemakers hate it. You can imagine all the impurities. Fermentation gets rid of harmful bacteria, but it’s not a good starting point.
Either the Dom stopped this to prevent his monks having fun, or because he didn’t want his sweaty and dirty monks mixing in the juice. Regardless, the exacting Dom devised a paddled press to split the grapes in a more sterile environment, and this practice has been modified and adopted the world over. This is the 1670s, by the way. He’s reducing staff long before automated checkouts.
With improvements in harvest, blending, and wine purity, Perrie Perignon was able to double the sale price of Champagne wine. His name became surnomous with excellence, mistaken as an exceptional vineyard rather than a winemaker, and his wine was favoured in the court of Louis the Fourteenth, King of France. Importantly he had reduced the bubbles. Almost eradicated them.
But the problem Perignon was working against was this. Yeast eats sugar, breaking it into alcohol and carbon dioxide – this is fermentation. To be fair it wasn’t understood until 1857 when Louis Pasteur discovered yeast. Before this it was even considered a magical gift of gods. What’s important here, is that yeast likes temperatures of around 20 digress centigrade, and it goes dormant in cold weather.
Since Champagne is to the north of Burgundy, and gets colder earlier, what was happening, was during vintage the yeast on grape skins were eating the grape sugar, making carbon dioxide, and then going dormant as the weather got cold, the vat of wine would stop bubbling, assumed to be finished, get bottled, shipped, and in a warmer temperature the yeast would wake up and start to eat again.
This second fermentation was happening within a trapped vessel, and causing problems. Dom Perignon didn’t fully understand this. What he did was devise ways around it, trying to minimise a natural process, even avoid it.
Well, not avoid. What he did was find ways to limit/control the bubbles and make a better drink. People didn’t mind the fizz so much. The big issue was bottles exploding in their hands and corks flying into their eye sockets.
If you wanted fizz, there was already a bonified scientist for that. Dom Perignon started work in 1668, but in 1662 Christopher Merrett, a founding member of the Royal Society in England, a bottle making enthusiast, and a very stubborn academic, presented a paper on how to purposefully put bubbles into wine. Merrett showed that adding sugar to wine and closing the seal could make bubbles. It is a process called capitalisation. It is what Champagne houses do today to ensure a fizz.
Perignon would have been aware of this, but he didn’t want to add bubbles, he wanted to remove them. What made matters worse was that glass production was improving. In the early 1700s stronger bottles that Merret was involved in were available. These could withstand the pressure of the secondary fermentation, and since The Dom had developed a capsule to prevent cork firing out (which is the metal cage you see today), if you add the two, you get wine with more uncontrollable fizz.
In 1715 Dom Perignon died, a blind man still making wine by taste. Random extra fizzy wine were getting to the market, and soon a revolution came to overthrow the King. Champagne was once again on the outer. It went though some lean times.
By 1821 the Abby that the Dom had worked in was near financial ruin. Because the fizz was too hard to fight against they used it as a marking difference, and the Abby promoted the Dom as an inventor (which he was), and a discover of making better wine (which he was), and created the quote “Come quickly, I’m drinking the stars” (which he never said) as a tribute to the local legend, and to help sell some of the bubbling merde.
It wasn’t until the late 1880s that sparkling Champagne was being produced with intended consistency, and the myth of the Dom was used again. Mineral baths and a gin with tonic water could be seen as healthy at the time, why not Champagne with its bubbles. After all it is an “all-round remedy, good against depression, appendicitis, and typhoid.” And it followed logically that the French would use Champagne to improve the courage of troops in World War One.
Because nothing says courage like drunk men firing guns (cheese eating surrender monkeys).
Later the Dom was used to promote fizz in America at the end of prohibition. This time there was a claim of a 250th anniversary of the Champagne invention, highlighting the historic link with French Royalty, and Dom Perignon’s name became the brand of a high price wine. All this advanced Champagne as a luxury item devised by a pious monk that makes you happy.
Today bubbles are sprayed at celebrations. You don’t hold back on the stuff. Who cares if you break a few bottles. Let’s party.
In fact you could imagine a modern Champagne owner, surrounded by decadence, holding up a glass and saying, “We love the merde out of these bubbles. Bless this merde for Dom Perignon.”