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Dom Perignon


by Jeremy Josephs
(The main Web site of freelance writer Jeremy Josephs is at Please check there if you might be interested in engaging him as a writer)

Dom who? Why, Dom Pérignon, of course, the 17th-century Benedictine monk generally credited with putting the bubbles into champagne. Full marks if you got that right. If your reply was Dom Pérignon, but referring to Moët & Chandon’s expensive top of the range cuvée, or blend, then you I am obliged to put a school-teacherish could do better on the grounds that you have come up with the answer to the question Dom what rather than Dom who. Needless to say that the who and the what are inextricably bound up with one another - but to find out more about their relationship you need to step inside a time machine and travel back through the centuries. Just before you do, though, here’s another question: what is the difference between le champagne and la Champagne? Answer: le champagne is the world’s favourite tipple, la Champagne is the region in France in which it is produced. Oops, a slip up myself there. Champagne is not made or produced. Perish the thought. No, created is the word.

We are high up in the Valley of the Marne, not far from the cathedral town of Reims, where each and every King of France has been crowned. The story begins at the Abbey of Hautvillers, one of the oldest Benedictine Abbeys in the world. Although the monks there established a reputation for manuscript illumination which became admired towards the end of the first millenium, the Abbey became still more famous once our hero, then an energetic 29 year old Benedictine monk, had been appointed as procureur there. He was a kind of finance minister, you could say, whose role was to generate income for the ecclesiastical authorities (pre-revolution, remember) - funds generated in part from the surrounding vineyards.

Dom Pierre Perignon - to give him his full name - might well have been a deeply religious man, but he also happened to be the mother of all marketing men too. Dom Pragmatic Perginon you might well call him too. Because he had no difficulty whatsoever in embracing the French equivalent of that well-known realists’ rallying call of if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. For in an age when Bordeaux wines had yet to fully establish themselves, Parisian high-society had a choice between wines coming from the regions of Champagne and Burgundy. Burgundy wines seemed to have the edge in terms of demand, largely because of the reputation of the Champagne area for providing slightly sparkling wine - definitely a no-no in those days. This sparkling effect was coming from the entirely natural process of fermentation - the mysteries of which Louis Pasteur would only unravel one hundred and fifty years later. Dom Pérignon spent a good many years doing his utmost to get rid of those unwanted bubbles before embarking upon a radical rethink. Might it not be possible, he wondered, to make something positive out of something negative? Or, as the American pop-psychologist Murray Banks would put it many years later, ‘when you are dealt a lemon, make lemonade’. Which is precisely what the cunning DPP did. For he was the first to notice that if you kept this fermenting wine in good bottles, using good corks - then it was possible to keep the wretched bubbles in rather than out. The rest was down to marketing - he knew how to make good wine and how to sell it - hyping it up as le meilleur vin du monde. He must have been doing something right - for it was not too long before his wines were in demand at the court of Versailles. Within no time at all champagne had established itself at le vin des rois et le roi des vins. And the rest, as they say, is history, champagne having long since lodged itself firmly in our collective consciousness as the only wine to drink when it comes to the twin issues of celebration and success in whatever shape or form.

But there was much more to Dom Pérignon than his work in relation to bottling. For he also embarked on a programme of making his wines clearer and less murky (and thus more marketable) - in addition to showing that the secret behind a good champagne is the concept of complexity. Its precisely the opposite of what happens in relation to a good Bordeaux, where one particular terroir is all-important. No, when it comes to champagne, he demonstrated with startling effect, the key issue is one of blending. And since the Abbey happened to own just about every single vineyard within sight, he was well-placed to be able to exploit his new theory. In fact he seemed to be well-placed to exploit almost anything. Discovering the existence of cork from a group of Spanish pilgrims who happened to be passing by, Dom Pérignon realized that here was a material infinitely more suited to his bottles than the pieces of wood (chestnut, to be precise) surrounded with cloth and oil and tied on with string.

His bottles? Well, not quite. Enter the English, whose contribution to the invention of champagne is not to be under-estimated. For it was only the English at that time who were able to produce bottles strong enough to maintain the pressure of the sparkling wine inside. Technology, of sorts, which Dom Pérignon immediately seized upon and used to his advantage. Fermenting, blending, bottling, corking - the man was a genius - and recognized as such in his own lifetime, as demand for the wines of Champagne soared and those from Burgundy went into decline.

One hundred and one years after Dom Perignon’s death, in 1816, a number of properties that had been confiscated during the French revolution were put back on the market, Louis XVIII’s priority being to restore some semblance of order to the fragile finances of France. Among them was the Abbey of Hautvillers, which was soon snapped up by a member of the Chandon family, who acquired not just the property itself (much of it had been desecrated) but the adjoining vineyards too. Monsieur Chandon fell in love with a certain Mademoiselle Moet - romance and business merging to create the company of Moet & Chandon, one of the great companies of France to this day. The largest vigneron in Champagne, by the early 1990s Moet & Chandon had reached a production figure of 25 million bottles a year, the company’s produce sold in no less than 150 countries. Every minute of every day bottles of their corks are popping and flying around the world.

Today Dom Pérignon lives on in the form of Moët & Chandon’s special blend, which retails for at least 3 times the price of its Brut Imperial. Launched in 1936, the Cuvée Dom Pérignon was the first prestige champagne to appear on the market. Taste it and you will see what all the fuss is about - for it is the very quintessence of champagne - which is why demand far exceeds supply, echoing the achievements of Dom Pérignon himself almost 200 years earlier.

Dom Pérignon actually made it to the age of 77 - a ripe old age for the beginning of the eighteenth century. Now, with the approach of the new millenium, a number of jeraboam of Dom Pérignon are being prepared (a double magnum and thus the equivalent of 4 bottles) - a first in the history of Moët and Chandon. With grapes hand-picked from the harvest of 1993, they will be ready for consumption in 1999 - a couple of months before the great event. Be warned, though, they do not come cheap, so place your orders and start saving now.

Visit the headquarters of Moët & Chandon today and you will be greeted by a large bronze statue of the legendary bursar and cellar-master of Hautvillers. The company has painstakingly converted a building attached to the old Abbey into a private museum to commemorate and celebrate his remarkable life. There is even a wax model of this most unusual of Benedictine monks at Madame Tussaud’s in London. Today champagne is more popular than ever before. In this century alone its sparkle has added to the luster of coronations, including those of Edward VII and Queen Elizabeth II, and a whole host of other major events which have shaped our times - including the inaugural flight of Concorde, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the 200th anniversary of American Independence. So there you have it. Dom who? The man. Dom what? The bubbly itself. Together they have created the defining drink of our times.

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La publicación del artículo en este web site fue permitida por el autor Jeremy Josephs el día 4 de febrero de 2005.
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