In 1168, a young, blind Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Perignon became the cellar master (and chief accountant) at the Abbey d’Hautvillers. The Champenois abbeys had already earned a reputation for producing not only the best roses, honey-colored wines, and whites, but also a dubious local specialty: vin blanc mousseux (sparkling white wine) which was produced in one of two ways. The first method was a process called methode champenoise (as documented by a British chemist name Christopher Merret in 1662). The second was a simpler procedure called methode ancestrale, which simply entailed bottling the wine while it still contained yeast and sugar. However, both were considered to be somewhat foolish winemaking practices because sparkling wines tended to explode in the cellars. In fact, most people referred to these early sparkling wines as vins diables (devil wines) or saute bouchons (cork poppers).
It’s been said that Champagne basically invented itself, and in many ways that statement is true. Champagne’s short growing seasons, cold temperatures, and late harvests combined to start vin blanc mousseux bubbling. Bottled in the late fall after cold temperatures halted the fermentation (so that the fermentation did not finish before bottling), the wine would begin to ferment again in the spring inside the bottle. The pressure and bubbles are produced because yeasts – little microorganisms – eat sugar, and in turn produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. If they do this in a sealed bottle, the carbon dioxide can’t escape, which creates natural carbonation.
Dom Perignon didn’t invent Champagne, but he did make Champagne better. When he gave up trying to rid the wine bubbles, Perignon learned that he could capture the effervescence (prevent it from exploding or escaping) by using strong British-made glass bottles that employed an iron-and-magnesium formula. The diligent Perignon also reintroduced the ancient art of sealing the bottles with Spanish cork plugs instead of the standard oil-soaked hemp and wood bottle stoppers used by local vin blanc mousseux producers of the time. (According to one legend, he was inspired by the cork stoppers used in the water bottles of visiting Spanish monks.) He then took on the task of improving the local wines by creating a cuvee (blend) of black grapes gathered from a selection of Champenois vineyards.