A statue of Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon, stands outside the Moët et Chandon cellars in Rheims, a tribute to his contribution to the invention of champagne. Although the monk is often incorrectly credited with inventing the drink, famously exclaiming "Come quickly, I am drinking the stars" when first he sampled the drink, he was actually more concerned with getting the bubbles out of his wine, than in. The Dom was intent on improving the fermentation of the still wines of the Champagne region. Often, the secondary fermentation or refermentation which occurred once the wine had already been bottled, could push the cork out of the bottle or cause a bottle to explode resulting in a chain reaction as the other bottles, similarly pressurised, did the same in response to the shock of the initial explosion. Pérignon avoided white grapes because of their tendency to re-ferment and established a set of rules for winemaking which insisted that only Pinot Noir be used to make fine wine. It was he who developed a technique for making white wine from red grapes, something which vintners had been attempting for years. The church’s desire for historical importance and prestige is the likely reason for the myth which so romantically links the monk to the invention of bubbly.
In 1821, Dom Groussard, one of Pérignon's successors at the Abbey of Hautvillers gave an account of the night of August 4, 1693 when Pérignon suppposedly made the discovery. Groussard's fabulous report also makes Pérignon the first to use corks in wine bottles. The story that Pérignon was blind comes from his documented habit of blind-tasting the grapes without knowledge of which vineyard they were from, to avoid having his perception clouded.
An article called "The night the Brits invented Champagne" on the Napa Valley website, napavalleyregister.com, quotes recent research by champagne expert, Tom Stevenson, which shows that it was the English who first began making sparkling wine. Wine production stopped in England in about 1350 when the warming Gulf Stream changed course and the island was faced with a cooler climate not suited to viticulture. So the British began importing their wine. In 1662, several decades before the French laid claim to "sparkling" champagne, the English added sugar and molasses to the wine while it was still in barrels. Also, the nature of champagne meant that bottling it required strong glass. It was an Englishman, Sir Robert Mansell, concerned that valuable wood was being used to make charcoal instead of building ships, who persuaded King James I, in 1615, to ban wood for heating. The sea coal used in its place produced higher temperatures and consequently produced stronger glass bottles able to withstand the pressure of the bubbles. Mansell retired from the navy and gained a monopoly over the very profitable manufacture of glass.
Napavalleyregister.com does end the article with a faint apology to the French: "Each generation in France contributed advances in the making of Champagne. So, let the debate continue, but let us not forget that while the French may not have invented this elegant elixir, they surely perfected it, and that, dear drinkers, is what really counts."
Photograph: Statue of Dom Pérignon at Moët et Chandon