J OURNEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DISCOVERY
Joan DeJean toasts the Benedictine abbey birth of the most celebrated bubbles of all
IN 1669, champagne did not yet exist. By 1674, it was already being talked about in the earliest guides to good food and wine. From then on, champagne’s rise to prominence was unstoppable. By the turn of the 18th century, it had become the wine that was served at all the grandest, most memorable occasions of public and private life. From the late 17th century, no ceremony or celebration was considered perfect if champagne was not poured.
The bubbly new wine had become an integral part of the dazzling new image of France and the French that Louis XIV had set out to create. ‘‘ The sparkling foam of this frosty wine,’’ Voltaire wrote, ‘‘ is the brilliant image of our Frenchmen.’’
The new French national wine was the creation of one man, a Benedictine monk with no desire for personal fame.
In the late 1660s, Dom (father) Pierre Perignon became cellarmaster at the Abbey of Hautvillers, near Rheims. He remained there until his death, in 1715; his reign and that of Louis XIV were conterminous. Champagne was invented just in time to become the shimmering wine for a glittering age.
Before the late 1660s, when people spoke of vin de Champagne, they were referring to all wine from the Champagne region, most of which was still and light red or pink, made from pinot noir grapes.
During Dom Perignon’s time at Hautvillers, the region was already moving toward white wine, and in particular to an unusual white wine, known as vin gris, or gray wine.
The winds of change do not blow often through the most venerable wine-producing regions in France. This was one of those rare moments when centuries-old techniques and habits were being transformed. By the time that revolution was complete, it had become customary to speak simply of ‘‘ champagne’’ when referring to a special category of the new gray wine, and that was the small part of the production that had been made effervescent. It was this product that put the Champagne region on the international trade map and quickly became responsible for a wildly disproportionate share of its revenue.
Dom Perignon’s name was at first a brand name, synonymous with sparkling wine, which was often called simply ‘‘ Perignon’s wine’’. Early in the 18th century Dom Thierry Ruinart, another Benedictine who had frequented Hautvillers, shared the abbey’s secrets with his family of winemakers, who in 1729 founded the first firm — known as a maison — devoted exclusively to the production of champagne. The Maison Ruinart still produces champagne today.
Dom Perignon was a proponent of a then revolutionary practice: he blended grapes from different vineyards, grapes of different quality and of different degrees of ripeness. If grapes were picked when not quite ripe, the wine they produced was more likely to sparkle, he realised. He was also perhaps the