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

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence -

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

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