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Statue of Dom Pérignon

Dom Pérignon: Epic Champagne Monk Life and Symbol of Luxury

Table of Contents

Who was Dom Pérignon – Introduction

If you want the long version of this article, click here.
 
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. 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.
 
Don’t forget to book my tour to really get to know Dom Pérignon.
 

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 starts 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
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.
 
Abbaye Saint Peter of Hautvillers where lived Dom Pérignon
Abbaye Saint Peter of Hautvillers where lived Dom Pérignon
 
By 1668, 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
Dom Perignon’s tomb at Hautvillers
 
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. The abbey owned 10 hectares of vines when he arrived, and when he died the property had expanded to 24 hectares.
 
Church Saint-Syndulphe of Hautvillers where lived Dom Pérignon
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
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

When the Romans conquered Gaul, they brought vine growing to the north of France, and entire villages became specialized in wine. But monasteries were better equipped, so they produced most of the high quality wine in France.
 
Old press in Clos de Vougeot / Burgundy / France
 
In the time Dom Pérignon arrived at Hautvillers, local wines were already famous for its refinement. The 17th century was a golden age of wine improvement, 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

In the turn of the 17th century, red and white wines from Ay, Avenay and Hautvillers near Epernay, and Sillery and Verzenay near Reims, were becoming increasingly well reputed 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
 

At some point people in Champagne figured that red grapes could be made into white wines by putting them in the press instead of stepping on them, and 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

The 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.”
 
Passage in Christopher Merrett’s 1662 book Of the Mysterie of Vintners
 

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.

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??? 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
Sculpture of Dom Pérignon inside LVMH property – Hautvillers / France
 
The barrels of wine from Hautvillers, produced by Dom Pérignon, were the most expensive of all wines in France. 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 King Louis XIV’s cellar.
 
Grand cru vineyards of Champagne Pierre Morlet at Ay / France
 
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. He took extreme care in vine growing and hiring good personnel. During the harvest he would taste the grapes from different parcels to decide how to balance each ones qualities resulting in an improved blend.
 
Dom Pérignon has grapes brought to him - painting by José Frappa, property of Moët et Chandon
Dom Pérignon has grapes brought to him – painting by José Frappa, property of Moët et Chandon
 
Grape picking and transporting was a very delicate moment, so the bunches wouldn’t break and start leaking.
 
Harvest in Hautvillers / France
 
Pressing was another crucial moment, it was a job for an effective team working around the clock to ensure the best juices, and they were separated according to how clear they were.
 
Pneumatic basket press at Champagne Dom Caudron – Passy-Grigny / France
 
After fermenting, barrels needed to be perfectly aligned so that no air would be left inside leading to mold and 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, there was an enormous amount of care and knowledge that went into producing wines in that famous monastery.
 

Dom Pérignon – the Legacy

When Dom Pérignon died in 1715, sparkling champagne wine was increasingly becoming an industry in France. Louis XV was crowned in Notre-Dame Reims in 1722, when for the first time sparkling champagne was served in a royal coronation feas. 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, many started comfortably attributing the invention of champagne to him.
 
On its June 14th 1914 edition , a popular magazine from Paris called Petit Journal, published a drawing of Dom Pérignon discovering the sparkling wine on its Sunday cover.
 
Petit Journal cover on June 1914 depicting Dom Pérignon
Petit Journal cover on June 1914
 

Dom Pérignon – the Brand

In the 19th century, Paul Chandon de Briailles, part of Moët et Chandon, 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 bottle - Moët et Chandon Epernay / France
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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