Many legends surround the famous monk, Dom Perignon, who is oft credited for perfecting the sparkling wine process in Champagne. But, truth be told, Champagne was not the first to capture the bubble in the bottle.
The Benedictine monks of Saint Hilairein the Languedoc region of Limoux, France, had discovered a way to trap effervescence some 100 years earlier ,and the residents of Saint Hilaire do not speak kindly of the monk whose fame has superseded their own.
Legend tells us that Dom Perignon visited the monastery of Saint Hilaire and, as a winemaker, was given the professional courtesy of a lesson in sparkling winemaking.
As the monks of Saint Hilaire explained, the fermenting juice fell quiet during the cold of the winter months, but resuscitated as spring warmed the liquid in the bottle. The wine finished its fermentation in a closed environment. As carbon dioxide gas is a by-product of the fermentation process, the gas was trapped inside the bottle and created a sparkling wine.
Trouble was, the sparkling wine produced by the monks of Saint Hilaire was cloudy and gritty because the dead yeasts were also captured inside the bottle along with the sparkle. Moreover, there was no way to guarantee a consistent amount of sparkle each vintage.
The creation of bubbles was completely dependent on how much sugar the yeast had to work with in the spring after the wine was bottled. Sometimes, the fermentation was fast and furious in the fall and left little sugar for the yeast to convert into bubbles come spring. Other times, fermentation had just started in autumn when the winter chill set in, and the yeast had an abundance of sugar to ferment in the new year.
Legend tells us that Dom Perignon took this rudimentary sparkling process back to Champagne and perfected it. The residents of Limoux tell a different story.
They claim that Dom Perignon stole the "recipe," that he was staying at the Abbey and was sent away for wrong-doing, that he embezzled (or worse). They claim that there are official documents in the national archives that chronicle Dom Perignon's dishonesty. And, they are pretty adamant about it.
Dom Perignon a crook? Or could this simply be a case of sour grapes?
For sure Dom Perignon is credited for more than he actually did in Champagne. He may have created the "blend" and the size and shape of the champagne press, but Brother Jean Oudart invented the pivotal step in the methode champenoise that guaranteed a consistent amount of sparkle each vintage.
Brother Oudart advocated the addition of a specified amount of sugar and yeast (the liqueur de tirage) after the juice stopped fermenting in the fall in order to ensure a strong fermentation in the bottle come spring, in order to guarantee sparkle. And Veuve Cliquot is credited for developing the (riddling) process that effectively eliminated the cloud of gritty yeast from the wine, ensuring a clear and brilliant final product.
Both of these steps, the liqueur de tirage and ridding, are what make the champagne process unique and distinctly different from what the monks were doing in Saint Hilaire. But Dom Perignon can claim credit for neither.
Legend has made Dom Perignon larger than life…and that makes him a pretty big target, justified or unjustified. At least we can all rest assured that "in vino veritas" (in wine there is truth). It is the written record and the verbal history that is all suspect.
In that regard, there is nothing new under the stars.
In fact, Dom Perignon said he tasted them when he had his first sip of sparkling wine. Thief or visionary, he had a way with words.