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The Wine Palate

Zev Rovine, Record contributing writer

Champagne is certainly one of the finest expressions of wine and gets due credit.

People will spend enormous amounts of cash for a bottle of a "Prestige Cuvee" and many of the great names have become household (At least in fun households).

Roederer’s Cristal, Salon, Bollinger’s Grande Annee, Krug, and Cliqout’s La Grande Dame are all names that any Champagne lover knows and jumps at the chance to try, but no wine has received celebrity status like Dom Perignon.

The name immediately produces an image of a bald monk in a brown robe held together by nothing more than a simple rope, for anything else might get in the way of his ability to develop man’s greatest invention, Champagne.

There are a lot of myths surrounding the history of this character, but only some of it can be proven true. Here is what I could dig up.

First, here are a few of the myths:

It is said that he was blind and that when he tasted his first production of sparkling wine, he screamed something to the effect of, "I am drinking the stars!" It is also said that he could taste a grape and correctly identify its vineyard. I have read that it was Dom Perignon’s life quest to eradicate the bubble from Champagne.

These are all things that are somewhat difficult to prove wrong beyond a shadow of a doubt, but they come off a little fantastical at times.

Following are things that are known for sure. Dom Pierre Perignon was a Benedictine monk who in 1668 began acting as treasurer for the Abbey of Hautvillers. Up until then, it had been the ambition of the Champenoise to compete in the industry with its neighbor Burgundy by producing wines made of Pinot Noir.

One of Dom Perignon’s first successes was to begin making white wine in the region. Considering the climate wasn’t really ideal for reds, to make them, many wines had to be colored with elderberries.

Dom Perignon did feel that Pinot Noir was the best grape for making even white wine as it had better aging capabilities and also had fewer tendencies to go into a second jolt of fermentation. Eventually, it was realized that this second jolt is what made Champagne sparkle.

In Champagne, the climate was cool and if the grapes had a lot of acid, they wouldn’t fully ferment before the temperature dropped in the fall. The wines would then be bottled throughout the winter.

When spring came around and the temperature rose, the wine would go into another phase of fermentation, often breaking the bottles because the CO2 had nowhere to go and the bottles were still wood-blown and thus too weak to withstand the pressure.

In fact, for many years, people would wear an iron mask when walking through a Champagne cellar. When it became clear that this process would make bubbles if the bottles were to withstand the pressure, production of what we know as Champagne began.

It took almost another 100 years before the system of Methode Champenoise was solidly defined and the production techniques we understand today were put into place.

While there are many people that developed the industry over the years, it is the good Father Perignon that we credit with the Eureka moment and for that I say drink up.

Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in N.Y.C. and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at zev@spottedfrogbooks.com .


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