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Daily Column

                Come join the editor Jennifer Barnick as she searches for the Champagne Life....

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Sparkling Wine

Interview with Alison Schneider, Jepson's wine maker
by Paul Donaldson

Feature Dr. Timothy Smith writes about the birth of champagne

Sparkling Wine Review Mark Kernaghan savors rosés for the holidays

Arts & Sciences how does temperature affect sparkling wine?

First Person

HelloGoodbye Suzie Sims-Fletcher says hello and David Sirois says goodbye.

Passion Forum Dr. James Smith speaks about his passion for opera

Under the Goldlight—True Tales of Drinking Champagne Our newest column...Dave Brown takes us on one heck of a night

Art & Literature

The Marcia Reed Virtual Gallery Painter Anthony Lobosco

Drinker's Poetry J. Blake Gordon & Slattery

Fiction Anna Luciano tackles coming home for the holidays

Other Goodies

Founder's Page Greeting from Dr. Timothy Smith

Letters to the Editor click for full list

Photo Gallery Click for Pics

by Dr. Timothy Smith


     The holiday season ushers in a time of celebration-the celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas and the birth of the New Year.   It seemed appropriate for The Better Drink to also celebrate the birth of the méthod champenoise.   The méthod champenoise produces the star bright sparkling wine that is known all over the world in any language as simply champagne.   Toussaint-Samat referred to champagne simply as "liquid laughter".   Dom Pérignon, whose name is so well known due to it being given to the flagship champagne of Moet & Chandon, played a central role in the development of champagne.   Many texts strenuously attempt to point out that Dom Pérignon was not the sole inventor of champagne but rather a contributor in the evolution of champagne.   The wines of champagne had the reputation of levity long before Dom Pérignon's great work, and certainly nature helped put bubbles in this wine. However, only the unparalleled achievements of this monk from the Abbey at Hautvillers brought champagne to the world following a long and uncertain gestation.   Following the work of Dom Pérignon, champagne moved out into the world and gained favor with nobles and rogues and ladies and artists, developing into the great wine that that is so synonymous with celebration today.

            Before Dom Pérignon the region of Champagne already possessed a rich cultural and spiritual history.   Known today as the Champagne viticole where all champagne grapes are grown, this region encompasses a land at the northern limit of economically viable wine growing land in France. Champagne lies in one of the great, ancient trade corridors of Europe.   It touches Belgium to the north and Burgundy to the south near   the vineyards of Chablis.   To the west of Champagne is Paris and to the east Alsace and Germany.   This location in such an important trade route has brought economic prosperity to
Champagne but many invading armies as well.   Reims has been sacked, pillaged and burned many times. The town of Eperney in Champagne has been destroyed over 25 times in the past 1300 years.

            Reims in the north of Champagne became the spiritual center of France following the coronation of Clovis King of the Franks in AD 496 by St. Rémi, the Bishop of Reims.   Many successive kings were coroneted in Reims, the last being Charles X in 1825.   All their coronations and royal festivities served to introduce Europe to the wines of Champagne.

            Fossil evidence of grape vines found at Vindey served as evidence that Champagne has provided an environment amenable to grapes for millennia.   However, before the Romans came to the Marne and planted vines the region was covered with trees and filled with game. Quickly following the Roman introduction of vines, wine production took off in Champagne only to be abruptly halted in AD 92 following a very poor cereal crop and subsequent destruction of all the vines in Gaul by decree of Roman Emperor Domitian. Two hundred years later the Romans permitted grape growing in Gaul again with Roman soldiers planting vines in Reims and Châlons.   The Montagne de Reims, home of some of the best vineyards of Champagne came under vine about the 6 th century.

Before Dom Pérignon

            For many years kings and noble travelers delighted in the wines of Champagne.   In 1397, Wenceslas King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor traveled to Reims to make peace with Charles IV and repair a growing division in the Church.   Legend has it that he really went to try the famous wine. After copious consumption, the wines of Champagne induced King Wenceslas to sign a number of unadvisable treaties.   Louis XIV, the Sun King, of France apparently loved Champagne wines so much that he eventually got the gout, and his physician, Fagon, insisted that the king in his final years drink only Beaune to alleviate his condition.   Henry V, beloved among the vingnerons of Champagne, was the first to introduce the wines of Champagne at court.

            Many abbeys took part in the production of wine in France.   In AD 300, the monks of the Abbey of St. Basles near Verzy produced notable wine, which was used in religious festivals.   The Abbey at Hautvillers, which was founded in AD 650, in Champagne was a provincial Abbey in the north of the kingdom of France.   The abbeys served crucial functions in their communities including the care of the sick and the poor.   Hautvillers also was the destination of pilgrims coming to see the relic of St Helena, which was stolen from Rome in AD 841.   The gifts from pilgrims and wealthy patrons helped Hautvillers expand its wine production, which in turn allowed the abbey to more effectively minister to those in need.   This is the abbey in which Dom Pérignon served his god and people for over 50 years.

Dom Pérignon

            Dom Pérignon displayed many attributes including intelligent business manager, innovative scientist, and artist.   Born Pierre Pérignon in 1638 to a wealthy family at Saint-Menehould, Dom Pérignon at the age of 20 took vows in the Benedictine monastery at Verdun.   He quickly distinguished

Photo courtesy of FinestWine.com

himself with his learning and scientific, methodical mind.   His already weak eyesight gave way to blindness, but this did not prevent him from being appointed Cellerar at the Abbey of Hautvillers, near Epernay in Champagne.   The Cellerar managed the monastery including the production of its wines.   With the help of Brother Philippe, Dom Pérignon administered a very successful property and winery for 45 years until his death in 1715.   During this tenure he made many technological advances in the production of wine and developed the méthod champenoise.

            Dom Pérignon made an important observation that the summers with abundant sunshine produced the highest quality white wines, blanc de blancs, which were fashionable at the time and commanded the highest prices.   He also noted that the black skinned grapes were less susceptible to the weather conditions and would ripen with less sunshine.   He figured out a méthod for crushing the black skinned that would extract the white juice but leave the dark pigment in the grape skins behind.   The first press extracts the whitest, highest quality juice and is called cuvee.   By pressing the grapes gently and lightly with increasing pressure in a grape press that allowed the juice to immediately run off into a collector, Dom Pérignon created a steady supply of white wine from black grapes-blanc de noirs.   This produced a more steady supply of white wine less dependent on the weather.   The black grapes used were mostly Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which still comprise the bulk of champagne today.

            The short growing season in Champagne due to its northern location often forced a late harvest in order for the grapes to ripen.   The falling temperatures after harvest would often cool the fermenting wine before the fermentation was complete, effectively putting the fermentation into hibernation for the winter.   Only when the weather would warm in the spring would a second fermentation begin again in the bottled wine.   The sealed bottles would not let out the carbon dioxide released from the fermentation process resulting in lightly bubbly wine or in more extreme cases exploding bottles.   This natural effervescent quality of the northern wines was not unusual but undesirable when wine was lost to exploding bottles. This natural, light effervescence formed the basis for what is known as champagne today.

            To prevent the loss of wine from second fermentation explosions, Dom Pérignon reintroduced, for the first time since the Romans, cork stoppers replacing the oil soaked linen and pitch sealed stoppers then in use.   He developed a system to retrain the cork with string.   This increased the amount of pressure on the wine making it bubblier.   Innovation in glass blowing produced stronger bottles that would not explode with the pressure achievable with the cork stopper secured to the bottle.   This resulted in even greater bubbles.

            Estimates indicate the Dom Pérignon produced his first intentionally sparkling wine in the early 1690s.   He first sold his sparkling as a novelty but also at a much higher price.   Fermentation in the bottle leaves yeast deposits and other solids that cloud the wine if not removed.   Dom Pérignon contributed to advances in clarifying the wine called remuage , which concentrates the sediments at the cork.   Popping the cork briefly expels the sediments- disgorgement.   This clarification produced a star bright sparkling wine we know today as champagne.

            The many winemaking innovations of Dom Pérignon underscore his keen intelligence and strong sense of innovation.   His work was at the leading edge of winemaking technology for his time.   The three hundred years since Dom Pérignon introduced the méthod champenoise may give the impression that the production of champagne is earthy and natural, it really came as a result of great innovation.

            Dom Pérignon not only innovated the production of champagne but was renowned for the quality of his winemaking.   He pioneered the blending of grapes from different vineyards-cuvee-to produce wines of complexity and structure unattainable from a single vineyard.   Andre L. Simon provides a great translation of a letter written by Dom Gossard, a successor of Dom Pérignon at Hautvillers that highlights the genius of Dom Pérignon's pallet.

            "It was to the "marriage" [blending] of our wines that they owed their goodness.   When the vintage was near Dom Peringnon would say to one of the brothers: Go and bring me some grapes from Prières, Côtes-à-Bras, Barillets, Quartiers du Clos Ste-Hélène, etc' Without being told which were the grapes before him, he would tell the brother: 'These are from such and such a vineyard and they must be "married" to those of such and such another vineyard.' And he made no mistake."   His wines were renowned.   A.L. Simon noted that a wine critic in paris refered to the wines of Dom Pérignon in the context of great wine growing regions as simply Pérignon; no other individual producer was afforded this compliment. The method developed by Dom Pérignon of cuvée continues today in champagne production. Producers blend wine from different vineyards and different vintages to produce the consistent and distinctive styles of champagne. Some of the most jealously guarded secrets in Champagne are which particular vinyards go into the production of champagne by the great houses. Dom Pérignon died in 1715 and was buried among the vines at Hautvillers.  

After Dom Pérignon

            Once introduced to the world, the sparkling champagne became popular with nobles such as the Duc d'Orleans, Regent of France, and Louis XV and Mademoiselle de Navarre his mistress and drew the attention of other vineyard proprietors.   The mention of champagne has found its way into song, poetry, and letters.

From Doctors and Patients
One day to call 'em all together
And one by one he asked 'em whether
It were not better, by good diet,
To keep the blood and humors quiet.
With toast and ale to cool the brain,
Then nightly fire 'em with Champagne

The diligent work and innovation of Dom Pérignon delivered champagne to the world.   The century following his death would witness the rise of great champagne houses such as Moët & Chandon and Clicquot.   And soon the popularity of champagne grew and it became the wine of celebration.   Those that followed Dom Pérignon would improve on his techniques and tirelessly work to popularize champagne, but he gave the world a truly unique gift-champagne.


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