Me and Dom Perignon
I remember when my ex husband and I signed our first screenplay contract together. To celebrate this achievement, we ceremoniously opened a bottle of very expensive Dom Perignon, the champagne which James Caan, playing a famous writer, Paul Sheldon drinks in « Misery, » one of our cult movies at the time. Though we did not end as dramatically as him with broken ankles and tortured by Kathie Bates, we were quite disappointed by the taste of the beverage. But we imagined that we had at least achieved some historical gesture back to the roots of French culture.
Time flies and many boyfriends later, my fiancé who lives in Champagne region drove me to Hautvillers, near Epernay, where the foam is supposed to have started in the first place.
Of course I knelt down on Dom Perignon's grave. The remains of the French monk, who is supposed to have invented champagne in the XVIIth century rests in the abbey Church up the hill. Black engraved marble.
There I met with a very enthusiastic keeper who after singing beautifully for us, explained how the benedictine mischievously created it all. I did not want to spoil his dream and listened patiently. But I knew the real story.
Though Dom Perignon may rest in peace, for he took part in the original creative process, in blending the 3 different wine varieties to make champagne (Pinot meunier, Pinot noir et Chardonnay) I am now going to unveil for you the true story of the divine champagne. I am afraid, the English invented it…
The true story
Lets go back to the XIIth century. France is not yet France, but the gathering of feudal lords. On the English side, in 1188, the dynasty of the Plantagenêts has settled on the Atlantic coast, near Bordeaux and colonized the Duchy of Guyenne. The English are growing wine which they are exporting to England. Alas all good things have an end and Guyenne becomes French again in1472 under Louis XI.
The bottle matters as much as the drunkeness
Even if the English were chased from our douce (sweet) France, they had established themselves in the wine business. And it is not a chance that it is a London wine merchant, Sir Kenelm Digby, who invents the bottle. Made of a thick green glass protecting from the day light and strong enough for transport, his invention is going to replace tin and wooden containers. And as we all know the bottle matters very much. For it is with the contact of glass that a chemical reaction was to produce the first sparkling wine.
The turn of the (cork) screw
But so far nobody knew how to keep the bubbles, which vanished with the contact of oxygen. Unfortunately, the glass stopper or the wood stopper with linen used at the time did not retain the gas.
Because the French King Louis XIV and his finance minister Colbert decided on heavy taxes for foreign products, as a retalliory action, the British stopped buying French wines and grew very fond of Portuguese sweet wines. Since they have always been keen on borrowing the best from every nation, they were also prepared to make great use the cork used to keep Port. Cork was already used by the Greeks and the Romans with amphoras, and was given up for it is very expensive but it was used again in the Mediterraean and North Africa. Among the 2,2 millions of hectares of cork oak, 33% are still grown in Portugal because of its mild climate.
Then the English started to import cane sugar from the colonies, which accelerates the fermentation and intensifies the gas.
And here comes the sparkling wine, the king’s beverage served very cold at the court of England, under the reign of Charles II of England. In France, Louis XIV prefers Burgundy wines which will remain undisputable until Louis XV’s mistress, famous Madame de Pompadour imposes champagne to cheer up her depressed lover. She will become champagne’s top ambassadress : « Champagne, is the only wine that leaves a woman beautiful after drinking it." Hence the legend that the first glass of champagne would have been moulded by her sensuous breast.