The Unreliable History of the Wine of Celebration

It has been said that history is written by the winners. When it comes to the history of sparkling wine, there have been multiple winners.

Through much of the 20th century, credit for “inventing” Champagne went to Dom Perignon, a Benedictine monk at the abbey in Hautvillers, a commune in the Marne department in northeastern France.

Indeed, Hautvillers is known as the “cradle of Champagne,” and the village still likes to cling to the Dom Perignon myth. Dom Perignon’s tomb is located in the chancel of the Saint-Sindulphe abbey church.

But while Dom Perignon definitely contributed to the advancement of Champagne-making techniques, there were bubbles in bottles long before he got involved in the process to any great extent.

In fact, other Benedictine monks at the Abbey of St-Hilaire in Limoux had inadvertently “created” a sparkling wine. At that time, it wasn’t unusual for the fermentation process to stall during the cool fall months, so the thirsty monks would go ahead and bottle the half-fermented juice.

But come spring, the yeasts in their non-consumed bottles would reawaken and begin feeding off residual grape sugars. That process produced the carbon dioxide responsible for sparkling wine’s bubbles.

(Today, that wine is known as Blanquette de Limoux.)

Some historic accounts indicate that Dom Perignon had visited the Abbey of St-Hilaire and observed the process, and used the knowledge gained there back home in Hautvillers.

But could there have been someone else experimenting with sparkling wine somewhere else — the details lost forever simply because they weren’t recorded?

There has been speculation that vintners in the Franciacorta region of Italy were making sparkling wine about the same time as Dom Perignon.

So who was first? Is there any way of knowing for sure?

Here’s what we do know: Whether it was Dom Perignon or a monk in Limoux or a winemaker in Franciacorta, sparkling wine has stood the test of time as the wine we turn to most often when we have something to celebrate.

More recently, it has become a go-to choice among sommeliers when selecting a bottle to serve with spicy Asian fare.

Whether for toasting a special occasion, serving as a reliable food-pairing partner, or simply sipping with friends, sparkling wine has a wonderful history — no matter whose version you choose to believe.

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Posted in Wine Buzz
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