There’s no question that wines have been produced as far back as biblical times. So it’s no wonder that sparkling wines would have also been created whether accidentally or purposefully. But trying to determine who deserves first rights to claim “inventing” the bubbly stuff may not be quite as clear. I recently read a fascinating article in the Sotheby’s wine encyclopedia which explores reasons why some may not be giving Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon all of the credit as the father of Champagne.
What’s in a name?
We now know that a sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it is produced in the Champagne region and follows a very specific wine-making method (méthode champenoise) which involves adding yeasts and sugars to the wine causing a secondary fermentation which gives champagne its fizzyness. But before it became known for bubbles in its wines, Champagne created regular still (non-bubbly) wines. Prior to sparkling wine’s rise in popularity if you found bubbles in your wine this was typically considered a fault rather than a virtue.
Timing is everything
First, let’s look at timing. In 1718, a memoir was written on cultivating wines in the Champagne region that would indicate that sparkling wines were popular as early as 1697. Yet there is no mention of Dom Perignon who joined the abbey as cellar master in 1668 and claimed to invent Champagne in the late 1690s. The first documented claim to fame for Dom was made in 1821 after his death.
Now if we look at English literature, in the 1670s there are references to “sparkling champaign.” Does this mean that the English invented Champagne? Let’s keep exploring…
It is said that France could not have been producing sparkling wine significantly earlier than the 1690s because they did not have the technology to do so. Wine was not bottled in glass strong enough to contain the pressure of a bubbly wine. French glass bottles were wood fired, which did not create the required strength. Keeping bottles airtight may also be questionable since France did not rediscover cork after the fall of the Roman Empire until nearly 1690. Prior to using corks again, bottles were closed with wood stoppers wrapped in cloth or hemp.
While France may not have had the technology to make or preserve sparkling wine, England may have. English glass was coal-fired, so bottles were much stronger than French bottles. England also lost the cork after the fall of the Roman Empire but they rediscovered its use around 130 years earlier than the French; thus, possibly having the proper means to preserve bubbly wine in England.
England may have a claim
Technology aside, there is evidence that the creation of sparkling wine was probably not uncommon in England. Therefore, it is possible that the English could have been making sparkling Champagne before France (accidental or otherwise).
The accidental theory is that as still wines from Champagne, France – where cold winters could have stopped any fermentation – were shipped to England – where the wines were then stored in tavern cellars – it is possible that the warmth of the English taverns could have caused a second fermentation and created some bubbly (albeit not by the méthode champenoise).
But going back to documentation, there are accounts in 1662 where English wine coopers regularly used sugar to start a second fermentation to create sparkling wines. There’s no doubt that methods of wine making including fermentation techniques on all kinds of wines were happening throughout the old world (whether wines were from Champagne or not).
What all this means is that sparkling wines were likely created at various times throughout history and rose or fell in popularity for centuries. Documenting wine production and who did it first may never be unequivocally proven since wine production – bubbly or otherwise – is a naturally occuring part of our world history.
That said Dom Perignon is truly the “big poppa” of marketing luxury in its brand throughout history. Still getting fantastic marketing mileage out of being “the” sparkling wine served to and loved by the sun king, Louis XIV, today this champagne has an established reputation built upon centuries in the making.
Though I still find it interesting to ponder whether England invented sparkling Champagne before Dom Perignon. (mon dieu!)