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Statue of Dom Pérignon

Who was Dom Pérignon

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Who was Dom Pérignon – Introduction

One of history’s less understood famous figures, Dom Pérignon’s legacy is both endlessly fascinating and an abundant source of erroneous claims about the invention of the champagne method (méthode champenoise). Was he a person or is it a brand? Did the man invent the cork, the bottle, the bubbles???
 
Before we start, it’s useful to distinguish two things:
 
1) Dom Pérignon was a French Benedictine monk born in Champagne in the 17th century who produced wines as part of his job as the manager of the abbey of Hautvillers;
 
2) Dom Pérignon is a contemporary brand of French sparkling champagne wine produced by Moët & Chandon from the LVMH group, created after WW1, because the family Moët et Chandon had ties to the abbey.
 
With the important matters already laid out in front of us, and against my better judgement, I will hereby try to help untangle the facts from the myth, as to unveil his lasting contributions to the glory of Champagne.
 

Dom Pérignon – the Man

In early January 1639 little Pierre Pérignon was born in the city of Saint Menehould, son of a local public servant, Monsieur Pierre Pérignon (his father) and Madame Marguerite Le Roy. The family owned some vineyards, so it’s fair to assume little Pierre learned a few things about the trade during his peaceful childhood. At 13 years old, he started school at Châlons-en-Champagne. At 18, instead of following dad’s steps into a civil career, young Pérignon chose to abandon the life of a layman to join the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Vanne at Verdun.
 
Statue of Dom Pérignon at Saint-Menehould – Argonne / Champagne / France
 
Ten years follow, of godly apprenticeship and earthly submission. In 1668, Pierre was ordained Priest, and received the moniker reserved in France for Benedictine monks: Dom Pérignon. A legend was ready to be written.
 

Dom Pérignon – the Administrator

Between Reims and Epernay, in the village of Hautvillers, the venerable Abbey of Saint-Peter was in need of a new manager. This monastery overlooking the lush valley of the Marne river had been founded 1000 years before, and was thrice victim to destruction by invaders: the vikings in 882, English brigands in 1449/1450 and the huguenots in 1564. Epernay and the surrounding villages were also burned and pillaged that last time, so the abbey was only restored and fully reoccupied in 1603.
 
Abbaye Saint Peter of Hautvillers – church and vineyards
 
By 1668, the monastery was regaining its lost prestige, but lacking in order and managerial skills, since the old superintendent had recently succumbed to old age. The head Prior wrote to the mother abbey at Verdun to ask if they could send someone to help. The young Pierre had just been ordained as a priest, and seemed clever and eager enough for the task ahead. Dom Pérignon became the cellarer of Hautvillers’ old monastery, a role he wouldn’t vacate until he was laid to rest in the grounds of the same church, 47 years later, in the year of the Lord 1715.
 
Dom Perignon’s tomb at Hautvillers
 
It was no small feat. In the words of Abbot Manceaux, Hautviller’s historian in the 19th century, the brother cellarer was, under the authority of the abbot, managing the financial administration of the abbey, the agricultural operations, overseeing the condition of the buildings and repairs, the purchase of food supplies, the sale and cutting of wood, authorizing alms, reductions and increases in leases; he was to practical matters what the prior was to spiritual direction. The cellarer had under his orders the people in charge of the refectory, a granary keeper, a rentier (collector of tithes), a treasurer, a chamberlain, and a pittancer.
 
During his tenure, numerous things got built: a press for the abbot and a press for the monks, rebuilding the mill, the storage and the cloister; digging new cellars; expanding the refectory; building new outer walls and the main monastery door; restoring the organ; buying new bells and all the big paintings we see today in the church. When he arrived, the abbey owned 10 hectares of vines; by the time of his death, this had expanded to 24 hectares.
 
Church Saint-Syndulphe of Hautvillers
 
On top of all that, Dom Pérignon was responsible for the most important external source of revenue: wine. He was on a quest to produce, in his own words, “the best wines in the world”.
 
Signed letter to the Syndic of Epernay in 1694, where Dom Pérignon writes “I sent 26 bottles of wine, the best in the world…” – Bibliothèque d’Epernay
 

Monasteries as wine industries

Since Julius Cesar conquered Gaul, vines were becoming more and more important in what would become France, and would eventually compete with Celtic beer as the drink of choice in the country. Entire villages increasingly dedicated themselves to grape growing, but farmers didn’t have enough capital to produce wines, and this role fell to lords and monasteries. Monks were a natural choice: they had large grounds, large buildings and financial resources. In their schools and libraries they had access to the best knowledge about viticulture, wine making and business practices. Time was not a problem, their complex system of tithes, revenues and storage sustained them during the winter. And finally, monasteries were an integral part of the country’s aristocratic and religious network, finding customers was a matter of effort.
 
Old press in Clos de Vougeot / Burgundy / France
 
In the time Dom Pérignon arrived at Hautvillers, the local wines in specific and Champagne wines in general were already famous for its refinement. The 17th century was a golden age of wine improvement, that saw Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux become the pinacle of wine tradition that we still see today. Champagne wines were ripen for changes in wine making that would change the world forever. And Dom Pérignon was in its forefront, as the man in charge of the wines of the most prestigious monastery producing the most prestigious wine in the region.
 

Champagne wines – finding its own identity

Before we proceed to explain Dom Pérignon’s invaluable contributions, let’s understand how wines were produced. Until Renaissance, red and almost red wines were favored in western Europe, because grapes are generally easier to grow in warmer areas, which favor red grapes with high sugar and tannin.
 
It wasn’t until the 16th century, when society was becoming richer, more peaceful, technological and prosperous, that white wines became a symbol of refinement to be pursued by the aristocrats, to differentiate themselves. Red wines, by its nourishing virtues, were deemed more appropriate for the physical labourers, so the enlightened gentleman would prefer it light red, or clairet. In the turn of the 17th century, red and white wines from Ay, Avenay, Hautvillers near Epernay, and Sillery and Verzenay near Reims were gaining increasing renown among the aristocracy. Within a century, the clairet in Champagne turned increasingly more clear, to the point of becoming a white wine made from red grapes: the vin gris.
 
White wines made from red and white grapes – Champagne Telmont / Damery / France
 

It remains unclear why, when, and by whom, but at some point, Champagne’s winemakers discovered that red grapes could be used to make white wines by putting them in the press instead of stepping on them, and the result brought complexity from red grapes while avoiding the sourness of the tannic skins. As ferment comes from the skins, and white grapes naturally possess more of it, while being even easier to grow, many producers would press the two kinds of grapes together to receive the advantages of each one. Eventually, the vin gris would become the flagship of the region, and it still is today, although sold sparkling in a bottle.

Must from red grapes during press in Champagne Dom Caudron / Passy-Grigny / France

Sparkling wines – the English bottle

Some years ago, English sommelier Tom Stevenson brought back to public knowledge that English Doctor Christopher Merrett published a book in 1662 detailing the way that “our wine coopers of later times use vast quantities of sugar & molasses to all sorts of wines to make the drink brisk & sparkling & to give them spirit as also to mend their bad tastes, all of which raisins & cute & stum perform.” This discovery set the world of champagne afire, because of local pride, and also because of Mr Stevenson’s flamboyant personality.
 
Passage in Christopher Merrett’s 1662 book Of the Mysterie of Vintners
 
 
Although Tom is right to say that the English invented the sparkling wine in general, and the second fermentation in a bottle in practice, he’s wrong to say they invented the méthode champenoise. I don’t want to spend precious time in this question, suffice to say that the method is not the same as it was in London, and it’s not ONLY about the second fermentation anyway.
 
English bottle samples, from the 17th century on – Sir Digby was an early precursor to the English bottle
 

In fact, the numerous accounts by which we can read about Dom Pérignon during his lifetime and immediate legacy, nobody ever mention Dom Pérignon ever producing or selling sparkling wines. It is therefore reasonable to assume that he never procuded nor sold sparkling wines.

It’s important to emphasize that wines could always be tasted semi-sparkling in fermenting barrels. However, it was only after the English invented the industrial glass bottle in the 1630s that the process of second fermentation in the bottle turned possible. The bottle technology would later make its way into France, becoming the logical choice of wine makers for long storage of high quality wine. As we can see, it would have been impossible for Dom Pérignon to have invented sparkling wines in bottles in 1668.

The cork – the stopper

Another recurring myth is that Dom Pérignon would have received the cork knowledge from monks in pilgrimage from Spain. As George Taber recounts in his book ‘To Cork or Not to Cork,’ Robert Hooke, a fellow member of the London Royal Society, made an important advancement in 1665. In his publication ‘Micrographia,’ Hooke detailed observations made with the microscope, an instrument he invented. Observation number 18 is a slice of cork, with millions of minuscule pockets of air surrounded by chambers that resembled cells where monks lived in abbeys, so he called them “cells”, coining the name of one of life’s basic blocks.
 
Different stages of cork making – Champagne Daniel Etienne / Cumières / France
 
Even before that, Shakespeare writes in his play As you like it a phrase uttered by character Rosalind: “I pray thee, take the cork out of thy mouth, that I may drink thy tidings.” Be that as it may, cork stoppers benefited greatly from the invention of industrial glass bottles, as they provided an inexpensive, hygienic, and effective solution. Another instance of an invention for which Dom Pérignon could not have been responsible.
 

Dom Pérignon – the Wine Maker

If he didn’t invent the vin gris, nor the bottle, nor the sparkling, nor the cork, what is he even good for??? Don’t worry, dear reader, if you were able to bear with me so far this long article, because Dom Pérignon was simply one of the best wine makers of France, and a very famous one at that.
 
Sculpture of Dom Pérignon inside LVMH property – Hautvillers / France
 
Uncovering receipts and price from contemporary sources and comparing them, as expected, we can see how Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne were the leading industries in France at the time. But the barrels of wine from Hautvillers, produced by Dom Pérignon, were the most expensive of all of them. They sold for 4 to 5 times more than a typical local wine, exported to fine tables across Europe, and sold to Paris and Versailles to be included at the King’s cellar.
 
Louis XIV was born and died only weeks from Dom Pérignon, with the same age. They became two emblems of the Golden Age of France. We know that the Sun King inherited the love for champagne (still wines) from his father Louis XIII, and his grandfather Henry IV of France. Henry had visited the vineyards of Champagne in 1592 during his fight against the Ligue, and fell in love with the wines of Ay, which was approved by his doctor Nicolas de la Framboisière to whom the champagne wines, particularly the whites, were the healthiest and “favored by the greats of this world”.
 
Grand cru vineyards of Champagne Pierre Morlet at Ay / France
 
Louis XIV later heeded his doctor’s unscientific advice to stop drinking champagne and start taking Burgundy with quinine. According to the doctor Fagon, champagne was the source of his constant fevers. His majesty begrudgingly accepted, and a century of scholarly fights between doctors would proceed, each side proclaiming champagne or burgundy to be the most fine and sane of wines, in what became known as the Quarrel of the Wines.
 
Many customers went out their way to praise Dom Pérignon’s wines. The Marquis of Puisieulx wrote in 1690: “I would very much like to have two excellent barrels of river wine. I believe it would be better to have them from Hautvillers than from any other place. I ask you to request them on my behalf from Father Prior of Hautvillers and Dom Pierre Perignon, superintendent of the aforementioned monastery, and please give them my compliments.” In 1715, the Marshal of Montesquieu, nephew of the famous musketeer d’Artagnan, signed a letter in which we can read : “Marquis de Puisieulx, who arrived yesterday, told me that Father Pérignon has died, a man who made quite a name for himself during his life. […] Regarding the first wines of this abbey, think of me because frankly, they are the best.”
 
Marshal of Montesquiou, nephew of famous musketeer d’Artagnan – painting by Sophie Rochard / Château de Versailles
 

Dom Pérignon’s secret – Obssession with Perfection

What made Dom Pérignon’s wines so special? Many different things, but the defining reason was his obsession with perfection. No small step was unimportant, every part of his wine making technique was subject to analysis and improvements, something that was in the spirit of the times. Reading the book written by his apprentice, a certain Father Pierre, we learn about some of those steps. He took extreme care in vine growing, removing the old vines, planting new ones, labouring and fertilizing at the right moment and never too much. Cow dung was best than horse manure. Pruning was only after mid February, and never under frost or rain.
 
Approaching the harvest, the good superintendent would carefully prepare by regularly visiting the vineyards to assess the quantity and quality of the grapes. He didn’t taste the grapes directly in the vineyard. Instead, he had grapes brought to him from selected vines destined for the first cuvée. He would taste them the next morning on an empty stomach after leaving them overnight in the air on his window. Dom Pérignon’s meticulous selection of vineyard parcels for his cuvées was influenced by a deep understanding of the interplay between leaves, weather, and soil. Quantity and health of leaves impacted grape ripeness and quality. Sunlight and moisture were crucial factors in determining the optimal harvest time. Soil composition also played a pivotal role, where mixing grapes from chalky, stoney and sandy soil gave better characteristics to the grapes. By integrating these elements into his selection process, Dom Pérignon ensured that each cuvée expressed the distinctive qualities of its terroir.
 
Dom Pérignon has grapes brought to him – painting by José Frappa, property of Moët et Chandon
 
A careful harvest was essential. Father Pérignon preferred hiring women than men for the delicate task of cutting the bunches with a curved knife, removing the dried or rotten berries. They should be offered a good meal, but never to eat near the baskets to avoid having bread crumbs in the press. If caught eating berries, they should be dispensed of service, for not being serious enough. Best time was 30 minutes after dawn, and best weather was cloudy and drizzle. Baskets should be covered and not too full during transport by horse. If the day got too hot, pressing should start fast to avoid the coloring of juice. Baskets awaiting transportation should be under trees and covered in wet blankets. All that was to ensure firm and fresh bunches. Parcels were harvested in order from white to red, the best ones first, and then passing a second or a third time to form different levels of quality batches.
 
Harvest in Hautvillers / France
 
Pressing white wines from red grapes was another crucial moment, it was a job for strong men following a press master abled to make himself obeyed. Lazy or hungry pressers, or worse, a drunk one, could taint a whole batch, there was no room for mistakes. The content of the heavy baskets was thrown in the press, and Dom Pérignon would be very attentive looking for any imperfect grapes in their midst. Dischargers would unavoidably step on grapes with dirty feet while preparing the load, so the juices of loading should be discarded. The batch needed to be pressed once, collecting the juice called cuvée, released, turned with wooden shovels, pressed twice, collecting the second cuvée, released, cut through and turned, and pressed a third time, collecting the first taille. If the weather was good and the process was done correctly, the second cuvée and even the taille could rejoin the first cuvée, otherwise they were separated according to how clear they were.
 
Pneumatic basket press at Champagne Dom Caudron – Passy-Grigny / France
 
For his excellent red wines, he focused on selecting the best possible grapes and carefully managing the fermentation process, including the stirring of the marc and the strategic use of only the initial press juice for higher quality wine. In cold years, he meticulously warmed up the vat and used careful timing in fermentation, emphasizing the importance of temperature control and the judicious handling of the grape skins for optimal color extraction.
 
Finally, the production of white wines from white grapes necessitated gentle pressing, careful removal of foam during fermentation to avoid discoloration, and thorough stirring to maintain clarity. This resulted in a high-quality white wine reputed for its medicinal benefits and exceptional clarity, capable of maintaining its quality for up to six years if kept in tightly shut bottles.
 
After pressing, it was crucial to fill barrels carefully to a specific level, leaving space for bubbling to prevent wine wastage. After the fermenting, barrels needed to be perfectly aligned so that no air would be left inside leading to mold. White wines would be rolled or have its lies mixed so the wine would become more complex and filtered. Finally they would be racked three weeks after fining, to prevent these sediments from reappearing in the final wine.
 
Oak barrels at Champagne Henri Giraud – Ay / France
 
As you can see, even trying to be brief, it’s exhausting to even DESCRIBE the amount of care and knowledge that went into producing wines in that famous monastery. Of course there were other good producers in Champagne and elsewhere, but clearly the kid from Saint Menehould was in another league, he belonged to a Pantheon of epicureans along with few people like Arnaud de Pontac and the monks of Vougeot.
 

Dom Pérignon – the Legacy

When the hero of our article were already approaching his later years, sparkling champagne wine was increasingly becoming a demanded product among a select elite in England, and soon it would also become a novelty in France. Both him and Louis XIV died in 1715, but Louis XV was his young great-grandson and wouldn’t be crowned in Notre-Dame Reims until 1722, when for the first time sparkling champagne was served in a royal coronation feast in the Archbishop’s palace. By that time, everybody had all but forgotten about the contribution of the English bottles.
 
Bottle served during Louis XV coronation – Palais du Tau / France – picture by Terre de Vins
 
Dom Pérignon’s memory survived first for what he was known in life: being the superb composer of the best cuvées of exquisite wines sold in barrels from Hautvillers monastery. In the 19th century, however, the last superintendent of the same abbey, Dom Grossard, wrote a letter in which he claimed that the old Dom Pérignon had discovered the art of clearing the vin gris and of producing sparkling wine. From then on, many started comfortably attributing the invention to this recognizable figure of the local wine industry.
 
In its June 14th, 1914 edition, the popular Parisian magazine Petit Journal published a drawing on its Sunday cover depicting Dom Pérignon discovering sparkling wine. This would cement the myth in everybody’s mind, and a very difficult one to undo. Another persisting misconception is about the brand of champagne using the good Benedictine’s name.
 
Petit Journal cover on June 1914
 

Dom Pérignon – the Brand

Like all church property in revolutionary France, the monastery of Hautvillers was confiscated by the governement in 1790, with all its monks expelled, disolving the thousand years old institution that had survived vikings and wars. Little by little, Paul Chandon de Briailles, who ingrained his name in the company by marrying into the family and becoming a successful director, bought the old properties of the abbey and lived in it until his death, legating it to his family. The church was given to the municipality in 1905, and the rest entered LVMH property when the company went public. Moët et Chandon has been using it for private receptions and entertaining VIP guests, but recently started a big renewal which will make it into a hotel, restaurant and tasting facilities.
 
Champagne Dom Pérignon P2 2003 – Moët et Chandon Epernay / France
 
Famous champagne entrepreneur Eugène Mercier had patented the name Dom Pérignon for future use, and it was ceded as a gift for the wedding of Paul Marie Bernard Chandon-Moët with Francine Durand-Mercier, his grand-daughter, in 1927. It wasn’t until 1935, during the economic downturn, that Robert-Jean de Vogüé of Moët & Chandon, inspired by journalist Laurence Venn’s idea, launched the luxury bottles of 1926 vintage specifically for the British market to honor the distributor Simon Brothers & Co’s centenary. The success of this approach led him to produce in 1936 the first bottles of Dom Pérignon with its distinctive shield, carrying the emblematic 1921 vintage, considered by many the best year for white wines in France. This move to target high-end clientele with an exclusive product was a strategic pivot from the traditional approach of maintaining high prices for top-tier customers.
 
Book about Robert-Jean de Voguë – higly recommended
 
From there, the brand went on to become the most popular prestige champagne in the world. It was Marilin Monroe‘s favorite champagne. James Bond was fond of Dom Pérignon before Bollinger became the staple in the movies. The 1961 vintage was made into special edition magnums and shipped for Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s marriage in 1981. In the 1990’s, Dom Pérignon surfed the coattails of hip-hop infatuation with champagne in the nightclubs. Star Trek’s 1994 film called Generations starts with a bottle of fictional Dom Pérignon 2265 vintage floating in space that finally breaks into the hull of USS Enterprise-B and christens it.
 
 
More recently, Dom Pérignon’s became a brand that stands to slowly separate itself from Moët et Chandon. They are always vintages, using only stainless steel, with grapes of Pinot noir and Chardonnay from Premier and Grand Cru vineyards in Champagne.
 
So the monk becomes legend, becomes brand, becomes a luxury symbol. And it’s good. As Talleyrand would say to Jean-Remy Moët: “My dear Mr. Jean-Rémy Moët, you are a man predestined for the future. I declare that, thanks to this glass and its contents, your name will sparkle longer and much better than ours.”
 
Engraving showing Napoleon visiting Jean-Remy Moët in the 19th century
 

Closing remarks

I find it very interesting that champagne became such a recognizable wine in the world, and at the same time the average person won’t register champagne as WINE. The instant image in our brain is of a celebration filled with well dressed people joyfully chatting and laughing, popping a bottle and filling flutes with foaming sparkling. When we talk about Château Margaux, you’ll think about terroir, old vines and muddy boots instead. The history of champagne is so intertwined with technological and societal turns that marketing and tradition are inseparable, as to create one lasting impression in us, the ultimate symbol of elegant celebration, the reward that represents party itself. And we are richer for that.
 
But let’s not forget from where all of that came and comes from: the radiant light of a small star, the chalky soils of this time beaten land, the moisture from the Marne river and the Parisian basin, the twisted trunks of Vitis vinifera plants, the sacrificed lives of the countless vinegrowers new and old, the unwavering dedication of wise men of religion and letters and science.
 
 
 
 
 
I hope you had fun reading this article. Now go pay hommage to Dom, open a nice bottle of champagne.
 
Main Bibliography:
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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