A VINTAGE FIND
first winemaker in France to believe that wine should be stored in bottles rather than in casks. Bottling is important because wine ages more successfully in a bottle than in a cask. When making champagne, however, it is essential that the still wine be enclosed in a bottle for the bubbles to be contained.
Dom Perignon also promoted the ageing of bottled wine in good cellars: in 1673, he had new cellars dug in order to store champagne’s original vintages.
And Dom Perignon was the first to realise that a double fermentation process is essential to turn still wine into bubbly.
The Champagne region is among the coldest wine-producing areas anywhere. By late autumn, when the harvest and wine making are completed, the low temperatures in the region halt the wine’s natural fermen- tation before all the grape sugar has been processed. With warmer weather, generally shortly after Easter in this region, a second fermentation begins, a process that does not occur in wines from other regions in France.
Winemakers had to learn to control this phenomenon before still wine could be made frothy. Those who produce champagne today, following in Dom Perignon’s footsteps, make their wine in autumn but hold off the bottling until early spring, when warmer weather induces fermentation.
Dom Perignon waited longer, even until late summer, to allow the second fermentation to advance naturally as far as it could. He also realised that to guarantee effervescence, it was necessary to help nature along. Dom Perignon invented what is now the patented method for making champagne: he added a mixture of alcohol and sugar that assured the success of the second fermentation.
This was the most significant of all the winemaking techniques he developed, the single invention without which champagne could not have been produced.
In 1718, in the book that may well mark the beginning of wine literature in print, La Maniere de cultiver la vigne et de faire le vin en Champagne, How to Manage a Vineyard and Make Wine in the Champagne Region, the author, Canon Jean Godinot, another cleric from the Rheims region, divulged ‘‘ the secret of the famous Dom Perignon’’.
He claimed that on his deathbed, the cellar master of Hautvillers had asked one of his fellow Benedictines to write it down: To a bottle of wine, add a pound of sugar, 5-6 pitted peaches, powdered nutmeg and cinnamon. Once the ingredients are well mixed, add a half bottle of good brandy and bring the mixture to a boil. Strain the mixture through a fine cloth and bring it to a boil again.
Dom Perignon was the first to understand that a liqueurdetirage had to be added to the still wine to be certain that the essential second fermentation process would take place. In the Champagne region, just before bottling, winemakers still follow Dom Perignon’s example: they add to the vatted wine a liqueurdetirage , now a mixture of yeast and a blend of wine and sugar. They understand what Dom Perignon intuited: the liqueur helps the residual yeasts in the still wine to produce the second fermentation.
The added sugar in the liqueurde tirage is converted into alcohol and natural carbon dioxide gas. When these are trapped inside a bottle, the wine becomes effervescent. The process has since been patented as la methode champenoise and is officially recognised as the only means of making true champagne.
In 1674, The Art of Fine Entertaining pronounced champagne ‘‘ the hottest thing’’, and added that it was ‘‘ the most delicious of drinks, next to which all others taste like plonk’’. Small wonder that, in no time at all, people all over Europe began to share the conviction that a special occasion became truly special onlywith the pop of a cork. This is an edited extract from TheEssence ofStyle:HowtheFrenchInventedHigh Fashion,FineFood,ChicCafes,Style, SophisticationandGlamour by Joan DeJean (Free Press, $29.95).
Heavenly drop: Clockwise from top left, grape pickers at Verzenay in Champagne; the abbey of Hautvillers, birthplace of champagne; Dom Perignon 1995; an 1891 poster by Pierre Bonnard