Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Origin of Champagne

On the picturesque slopes of the Marne, about fifteen miles from Reims, and some four or five miles from Epernay, stands the little hamlet of Hautvillers, which, in pre-revolutionary days, was a mere dependency upon a spacious abbey dedicated to St. Peter. Here the worthy monks of the order of St. Benedict had lived in peace and prosperity for several hundred years, carefully cultivating the acres of vineland extending around the abbey, and religiously exacting a tithe of all the other wine pressed in their district. The revenue of the community thus depending in no small degree upon the vintage, it was natural that the post of “celerer” should be one of importance. It happened that about the year 1688 this office was conferred upon a worthy monk named Perignon. Poets and roasters, we know, are born, and not made; and the monk in question seems to have been a heaven-born cellarman, with a 13 strong head and a discriminating palate. The wine exacted from the neighbouring cultivators was of all qualities—good, bad, and indifferent; and with the spirit of a true Benedictine, Dom Perignon hit upon the idea of “marrying” the produce of one vineyard with that of another. He had noted that one kind of soil imparted fragrance and another generosity, and discovered that a white wine could be made from the blackest grapes, which would keep good, instead of turning yellow and degenerating like the wine obtained from white ones. Moreover, the happy thought occurred to him that a piece of cork was a much more suitable stopper for a bottle than the flax dipped in oil which had heretofore served that purpose.

The white, or, as it was sometimes styled, the grey wine of the Champagne grew famous, and the manufacture spread throughout the province, but that of Hautvillers held the predominance. To Dom Perignon the abbey’s well-stocked cellar was a far cheerfuller place than the cell. Nothing delighted him more than


“To come down among this brotherhood
Dwelling for ever underground,
Silent, contemplative, round and sound,
Each one old and brown with mould,
But filled to the lips with the ardour of youth,
With the latent power and love of truth,
And with virtues fervent and manifold.”

Ever busy among his vats and presses, barrels and bottles, Perignon alighted upon a discovery destined to be most important in its results. He found out the way of making an effervescent wine—a wine that burst out of the bottle and overflowed the glass, that was twice as dainty to the taste, and twice as exhilarating in its effects. It was at the close of the seventeenth century that this discovery was made—when the glory of the Roi Soleil was on the wane, and with it the splendour of the Court of Versailles. Louis XIV., for whose especial benefit liqueurs had been invented, recovered a gleam of his youthful energy as he sipped the creamy foaming vintage that enlivened his dreary têtes-à-têtes with the widow of Scarron. It found its chief patrons 14 however, amongst the bands of gay young roysterers, the future roues of the Regency, whom the Duc d’Orléans and the Duc de Vendôme had gathered round them, at the Palais Royal and at Anet. It was at one of the famous soupers d’Anet that the Marquis de Sillery—who had turned his sword into a pruning-knife, and applied himself to the cultivation of his paternal vineyards on the principles inculcated by the celerer of St. Peter’s—first introduced the sparkling wine bearing his name. The flower-wreathed bottles, which, at a given signal, a dozen of blooming young damsels scantily draped in the guise of Bacchanals placed upon the table, were hailed with rapture, and thenceforth sparkling wine was an indispensable adjunct at all the petits soupers of the period. In the highest circles the popping of champagne-corks seemed to ring the knell of sadness, and the victories of Marlborough were in a measure compensated for by this happy discovery.

Why the wine foamed and sparkled was a mystery even to the very makers themselves; for as yet Baume’s aerometer was unknown, and the connection between sugar and carbonic acid undreamt of. The general belief was that the degree of effervescence depended upon the time of year at which the wine was bottled, and that the rising of the sap in the vine had everything to do with it. Certain wiseacres held that it was influenced by the age of the moon at the time of bottling; whilst others thought the effervescence could be best secured by the addition of spirit, alum, and various nastinesses. It was this belief in the use and efficacy of drugs that led to a temporary reaction against the wine about 1715, in which year Dom Perignon departed this life. In his latter days he had grown blind, but his discriminating taste enabled him to discharge his duties with unabated efficiency to the end. Many of the tall tapering glasses invented by him have been emptied to the memory of the old Benedictine, whose remains repose beneath a black marble slab in the chancel of the archaic abbey church of Hautvillers.

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