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Origins of Sparkling Wines

The transition of the wine of Champagne from still to sparkling constituted an oenological revolution. William Younger wrote that, the invention of sparkling champagne resulted in one of the major differences in drinking habits that separate modern times from all previous history [1]. A new type of wine was created. It gained a following and the making of sparkling wines, of champagne and wines from elsewhere, gradually spread throughout the world, to reach, by the end of the twentieth century, an annual production that largely exceeded one billion bottles.

When it comes to the issue of who should be credited with the invention of champagne, most people think immediately of that famous lay brother of the abbey of Hautvillers, and indeed it would wonderful if we could say without any reservations, as Boileau did of Malherbe, At last Pérignon came, and he was the first in France... but unfortunately things are not quite that simple. While Dom Grossard did write in his letter to M. d’Herbès, that It was the famous Dom Pérignon who discovered the secret of how to make white wine sparkling or not; before him only ’vin paillé’ or ’vin gris’ were made. It is probable that he was repeating the views on the subject that were circulating at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and which were refuted by Grégoire, who wrote in 1804, Others have been equally mistaken in citing Pérignon as the one to whom champagne owes its reputation.

It is surprising that the Dom Grossard’s claims are not corroborated by the opinions of contemporaries or Dom Pérignon’s direct successors. When in 1865, Louis-Perrier made them public [2], a hundred and fifty years after the latter’s death, he kept his distance from these late revelations, writing, If the excellence of the wines of Hautvillers consisted only in skilful marriage or blending, then all that would remain of Père Grossard’s assertion would be that which concerns the art of clarifying wines (370). But authors and journalists immediately seized on Dom Grossard’s allegation without questioning it. The illustrated supplement of the Petit Journal of the 14 June 1914 presents, in colour, a triumphant picture of Dom Pérignon popping a bottle of champagne with the caption, It is exactly two hundred years ago that Dom Pérignon discovered the art of making the sparkling wine of Champagne. Dom Pérignon thus became for many the father of champagne and Hautvillers the birthplace of champagne. By association champagne was called the vin de Pérignon, even though in the eighteenth century this was the name given to the still wine blended in Hautvillers according to the principals of the good father, as Dom François seems to be implying when he wrote, In his time, when a fine bottle of the wine of Hautvillers was drunk, it was called the wine of Pérignon.

What is to be made of this? Given that Dom Pérignon’s oenological reputation was well-established during his lifetime it is surprising that for one and a half centuries no link of any kind was made in all the various dictionaries, biographies, technical and literary works on the wines of Champagne, between Dom Pérignon, who is nevertheless mentioned, and the beginnings of sparkling wines. Urbain and Juron were fully justified when they wrote that, No name is handed down to us to which we can attach this discovery and the comparatively short space of time that has passed is not sufficient, if our forefathers ever knew it, for it to have been lost. The gratitude of the whole of Champagne would be unlikely to forget the man that rendered such a service [3]. It is a fact that with the exception of Dom Grossard, and of Grégoire who who refutes him, there is no mention of the matter in the writings of brother Pierre, his disciple, nor those of Canon Godinot, the Bertin du Rocheret, Nicolas Bidet, Abbot Pluche, Sir Edward Barry, Abbot Rozier, Legrand d’Aussy, Chaptal, Jullien, Cavoleau, Redding, and still in 1845, Maizière and Sutaine3. Dom François, the biographer of Dom Pérignon, is equally silent on this point, as is the Géographie historique du département de la Marne in 1839 and the Nouvelle Biographie Générale published by Firmin-Didot in 1862. One might also note that in 1780, in a dispute between the owners of vines and the monks of Hautvillers, Dudoyer de Vauventrier, the court reporter, refers in his statement of the case to Père Pérignon, the inventor of the method in the Champagne region of mixing the grapes of different wines in the press, it seems more than likely that he would have credited Dom Pérignon with the invention of sparkling champagne had this been a current idea in Champagne at the time.

The position of modern authors also merits examination. Roger Dion, Professor at the Collège de France, spoke in 1959 of the error which consists of recognizing Dom Pérignon as the inventor of sparkling wine, and is followed in 1962 by André Simon, a native of Champagne, founder of the Wine & Food Society, and a personality in the British world of wine, who wrote, The international reputation that Dom Pérignon enjoys today is not due to the fact that he made good wine but to the fiction that he put the bubbles in champagne. He had nothing to do with it. What he did was to use, for the first time in Champagne, stoppers made of cork which made it possible at the beginning of spring to draw off the previous year’s wine and then to put on hermetic stoppers. He was thus able to offer a sparkling champagne at a higher price than the abbey’s still wines (589). René Gandilhon, in 1968, concludes at the end of a work devoted entirely to the lay brother of Hautvillers, He did not invent "champagne", but it is thanks to him more than to any other, that one of the wines of Champagne, the sparkling "vin gris" of the Marne River, became the typical wine of Champagne, and that Champagne itself became the land of champagne.

One might at least imagine that Dom Pérignon, an excellent practitioner, contributed to the development of the techniques involved in the making of sparkling champagne, but some hold that he never made any, pointing out that, if he had, he would very likely have left written records of his experiments and their results, given their unusual nature. Dom François clearly states that he left dissertations on the way to choose vines that suit the soil, on the way to propagate them, prune them, blend the grapes, to make and to develop wines, but does not mention the sparkling aspect, and in fact, as we have already noted, does not mention it anywhere in his biography. It has also been suggested that all the documents and quotations put forward in order to link Dom Pérignon with sparkling wine could just as well apply to still wines, since none of them, except of course the controversial text of Dom Grossart, explicitly mentions sparkling champagne.

It also has to be said that no accounting documents were drawn up during Dom Pérignon’s lifetime that describe the abbey’s wines as other than still. The Inventory List of the Wines of the Parish of Hautvillers that can be found in the archives of the Marne (H1071), dated 24 September 1713, and the last known before the famous brother died, only distinguishes between vins nouveaux and vins vieux (old wines and new wines), which, in the absence of further detail, could not be considered as definitely being sparkling wines. In Epernay’s town archives (CC19 and 20), there are two of Dom Pérignon’s letters mentioning wine in bottles, I will send you today the wine in bottles... (November 1692); I gave twenty-six bottles of wine, the best in the world... (September 1694). But since it has been proven that it was common at that time to put still wine in bottles, one cannot deduce that he was referring to sparkling wine, and no mention of the sparkling nature of any wines is made in the letters in question.

Brother Pierre, Dom Pérignon’s student, explains methods for making white and red wines in his treatise, but nowhere does he explain how to make sparkling wine and, while he does make three brief allusions to sparkling wine, he never associates it with his master. This could lead us to believe that Dom Pérignon, as a lover and producer of good wines, usually red and sometimes white, an upholder of the traditions of Champagne and having already reached the age of sixty, could have been unimpressed by sparkling wines which, as we shall see, were very slow to be accepted by true connoisseurs. Raymond Dumay goes as far as to say, The idea that Dom Pérignon could have been partisan to sparkling wine would seem to lack psychological plausibility (647).

So what in conclusion can be said about Dom Pérignon’s real role in the creation of champagne? The fact is that the matter remains uncertain. While there is nothing to prove that he was the father of champagne, there are equally no documents of the period that formally confirm the opposite. As René Gandilhon wrote, the case of Pérignon in fact remains to be judged. Whatever the truth is there is no doubt that Dom Pérignon is closely associated with champagne, which has benefited and will continue to benefit from the aura surrounding the good father; we should perhaps recall the beautiful eulogy that Dom François wrote in 1778, in which he said that Dom Pérignon would always be precious and dear to Champagne for having created wines of delicacy, of credit, and that are today acclaimed.

As for the date, or at least the period, when champagne can be said to have appeared in France, a valuable indication is given by Canon Godinot when he wrote in1718, that the French taste for sparkling wine has been established for more than twenty years [4]. This would mean that the wines of Champagne had begun to sparkle in around 1695. It was however not until the early eighteenth century that they begin to be mentioned. In 1694 the Dictionnaire de l’Académie, and in 1721, Furetière’s Dictionnaire Universel, both only list bubbles in connection with beer, chocolate and soapy water. But in the 1724 edition of the Dictionnaire Universel, a new adjective, "mousseux", (foaming or sparkling) appears which is hardly ever used except to describe the wine of Champagne which makes a lot of "mousse" (foam). In the nineteenth century Dictionnaire Larousse, it is recorded that Champagne discovered the secret of its sparkling wines around 1700. It was not until towards 1710 that accounts books began to identify among the wines of Champagne, vins pour mousser and then soon afterwards, vins mousseux [5]. As for the poets, the first to write of the sparkling wine of Champagne was probably the Abbot of Chaulieu, in 1700, in an invitation in verse addressed to the Duchesse de Bouillon [6]:

Come, Phylis, spend the evening with me.
See how this wine sparkles, envious of your eyes.
Pour some, my Phylis, drown with thy hand,
In the sparkling foam,
The worries of tomorrow.

It can thus be said that wines that had been made intentionally sparkling appeared in Champagne in the last years of the seventeenth century and began to be spoken of in France from about 1700 and more generally from around 1725. But the wines of Champagne, paradox of paradoxes, had for a long time been popping their corks... in England, where they were imported in barrels and then bottled! The best source of information on this subject is the English literature of the period, in which a reference can be found as early as 1663 when Hudibras, a heroic-comical poem by Samuel Butler with illustrations by Hogarth, was published in London. At the end of a declaration of love, Hudibras, a wandering knight, in the genre of Don Quixote, proclaims that he will drink to the health of his mistress as many times as there are letters in her name and that the wine will be a brisk champagne. Brisk, at the time meant lively or gay; one might question its precise meaning in this context, but it certainly evokes an exuberant wine, and in 1821 John Macculoch used it expressly to mean sparkling wine. André Simon is unreserved in considering this the first printed reference to sparkling champagne in England, and cites as another important reference an entry in the accounting books of Woburn Abbey, the residence of the Duke of Bedford, on 25 March 1664, for wine of Champagne accompanied by two dozen glass bottles and corks, apparently in preparation for bottling, perhaps in the spring, which is, as we shall see, the best time for the prise de mousse (process by which it becomes sparkling).

Proof was provided on the 11 March 1676, with The Man of Mode by Sir George Etheredge. Floping calls for the "new" drinking song and sings with his companions in praise of the sparkling champagne which quickly restores languishing lovers, making them joyous and gay, and drowning all their sorrows. Five years later in a piece called The Soldiers’ Fortune, Otway has two exiles returning to England during the Restoration and combating the heat of the day with some champagne which sparkles. Etheredge and Otway use the word "sparkling" which leaves little room for ambiguity. In the eighteenth century A New English Dictionary gives as the definition of the verb "to sparkle", to knit in a glass, and send forth small bubbles. Finally in 1698, in Farquhar’s Love and a Bottle, Mockmode, a young man fresh from university, anxious to do what should be done and drink what should be drunk, asks his landlady, Mrs. Bullfinch, "What is the fashionable drink?" To which she replies, "It is champagne, a great wine which brings spirit". Mockmode declares that he wishes to have spirit and so orders some champagne. His valet, Club, brings a bottle, opens it, fills a glass and cries, "See Master how it puns and quibbles in the glass!" This could be interpreted in various ways, but certainly implies movement, and the image that the valet suggests, of a wine amusing itself in the glass, corresponds well with the sparkling champagne that was very fashionable in England the last decade of the century, but which in France was still waiting in the wings, where it would stay until 1700, as we have seen, before figuring in literary texts.

There were in fact perfectly good reasons behind this seemingly odd state of affairs. The English had been buying the wines of Champagne by the barrel for many years, but with the Restoration (1660-1702) everything French became the height of fashion. Charles II, having returned to England, kept his taste for the wines of Champagne that he had appreciated during his exile in France. From 1662, Saint-Evremond joined his court, himself now an exile, but in London. He was known to be a great lover of the wines of Champagne, and could not be without them, he even wrote that, To exchange the flavour of oysters and champagne, /For the faint glow of a feeble sun, /And the damp beauty of a green countryside,/ Seems far from good fortune to me. (Perdre le goût de l’huître et du vin de Champagne, / Pour revoir la lueur d’un débile soleil, / Et l’humide beauté d’une verte campagne, / N’est pas, à mon avis, un bonheur sans pareil) [7]. He furthered and maintained the fashion for champagne in English society, with the help of his close friends the Duke of Buckingham, the Earl of Arlington, Lord Crofts, and others, not forgetting the Duchesse de Mazarin, one of Charles II’s mistresses. The volume of imports of the wines of Champagne thus increased, despite the irregularity of the supply due to the difficulties in trade between France and England. In 1664 the Earl of Bedford ordered three barrels of Sillery for his cellars in Woburn, and continued to order in the following years. The English cellars were thus well stocked with sparkling wines.

The transformation of a still wine into a sparkling one was in fact a comparatively old custom in England. Patrick Forbes cites a report of 1662 in which Doctor Morret shares his observations on this subject with the Royal Society, and it would appear that the addition of sugar and molasses to all kinds of wines was common practice, the aim being to make them sparkling and more alcoholic [8]. Furthermore it was necessary to have bottles and corks that could stand up to the increase in pressure that inevitably resulted. But the English, who already had corks, managed to produce thick glass bottles from about 1660 onwards, of such solidity that the glass-makers on the continent took a long time to match them. The design for bottles with large bodies and long necks was established in 1662 in a patent held by Henry Holden and John Colenet, who mass produced them [9]. Everything would thus seem to suggest that a type of sparkling champagne existed in England at the end of seventeenth century. We have yet to explore the technical reasons for the formation of the bubbles remain, and how the production of sparkling champagne was actively developed in its country of origin.


[1YOUNGER (William). Gods, men and wine. London, 1966.

[2However five years previously, perhaps on the basis of information supplied by Louis-Perrier, the Champagne poet Gonzalle wrote, But ten centuries later, the monk P�rignon / Invented Champagne and gave it its name

[3URBAIN (Paul) and Léon JOURON. The Vines of Champagne, their Cultivation and Products, from the Fifth century to the present day. Neufchâtel-en-Bray, 1873

[4GODINOT (Attributed to Canon Jean). The Manner of Cultivating Vines and Making Wine in Champagne and what may be imitated in other regions to improve their wines. Avignon, 1719. - Second edition enlarged with some secrets for rectifying wines and the boards of various engraved presses. Rheims, 1722.

[5CHANDON de BRIAILLES (Raoul) and BERTAL. Municipal archives of Epernay. Paris, 1906.

[6CHAULIEU (Abbot of). Works of the Abbot of Chaulieu by M. de Saint Marc. Paris, 1757.

[7Saint-Evremond. Works of Monsieur de Saint-Evremond, and the Life of the Author, published by Des Maizeaux. Amsterdam, 1726.

[8FORBES (Patrick). Champagne. The Wine, the Land and the People. London, 1967.

[9ENJALDERT (Henri). History of Vines and Wines. Paris, 1975.