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Sep 14 Dom Perignon and monastic wine making

Today in 1715 the Benedictine monk and cellar Master Dom Pierre Perignon died at the age of 77. He did not invent the sparkling white wine known as Champagne as popular mythology supposes but he did make important contributions to the production and quality of Champagne wine in an era when the region's wines were predominantly still red.


The importance of his work is acknowledged by the winery Moët & Chandon, who named their most famous Champagne Dom Pérignon in his memory. Moët & Chandon holds a royal warrant as supplier of champagne to Queen Elizabeth II and Dom Perignon is a vintage champagne, meaning that it is only made in the best years, and all grapes used to make the wine are harvested in the same year. Most champagnes are non-vintage, meaning they are made from grapes harvested in various years.

Pierre Pérignon was born in the town of Sainte-Menehould in the Province of Champagne and was the youngest of his parents' seven children. His father's family owned several vineyards in the region. It was often a custom that the youngest child of big families would enter religioys life. He was educated by Benedictines and Jesuits and when he was 17 he entered the Benedictine Order near the town of Verdun at the Abbey of Saint-Vanne, the leading monastery of the Congregation of St. Vanne. The congregation was a reform movement of the Benedictines, and he followed a regimen of prayer, study and manual labour, as prescribed in the Rule of St. Benedict. Pierre was moved to the Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers, where he served as cellarer for the rest of his life at a time when the abbey flourished and doubled the size of its vineyard holdings, and he dedicated his life to improving their product with the help of Dom Thierry Ruinart, a noted scholar of the abbey.

The earliest evidence of grape vine cultivation and winemaking dates back 8,000 years with some of the earliest domestication of grape vines in Georgia and Armenia. Knowledge of winemaking slowly spread over Europe as centuries passed but Viticulture started to flourished largely due to monks in the medieval period. The Cistercians were the most prominent viticulturists of the Middle Ages. The prendeurs were given flexibility in selecting their crop and developing their own vineyard practice. However In northern Europe, the weather and climate posed difficulties for grape cultivation, so certain species were selected that better suited the environment. Most vineyards grew white varieties of grape, which are more resistant to the damp and cold climates. The concept of terroir emerged as wines from particular places began to develop a reputation for uniqueness and Cistercians developed the idea of pruning for quality over quantity. In Burgundy, the Cistercian monks developed the concept of cru vineyards as homogeneous pieces of land that consistently produce wines each vintage that are similar. As Europe grew familiar with the art of winemaking, with knowledge spreading from monastery to monastery, wine became a staple in the European diet. Mixed with water, the alcohol content assisting in the killing of harmful bacteria and therefore wine frequently accompanied not only meals but was used as purification.

In Pierre Perignon's era, the in-bottle refermentation which is now used to give sparkling wine its sparkle was an enormous problem for winemakers. When the weather cooled off in the autumn, fermentation would stop prematurely. If the wine was bottled in this state, it could explode in the spring when the weather warmed up. Nearby bottles could be damaged in a chain reaction if they were stored closer together which was a hazard to the monks and to that year's production. Dom Pérignon thus tried to avoid refermentation. He established a tradition that fine wine should only be made from Pinot noir, a red grape as he was not fond of white grapes because of their tendency to enter re-fermentation. He aggressively pruned vines so that they grow no higher than three feet and produce a smaller crop. He also made sure that harvesting should be done in cool, damp conditions (such as early morning) with every precaution being taken to ensure that the grapes don't bruise or break. Pérignon did not allow grapes to be trodden, a common practice at the time and favoured the use of multiple presses to help minimize maceration of the juice and the skins. He was also an early advocate of wine-making using only natural processes, without the addition of foreign substances. When he died today in 1715, as a sign of honour and respect, he was buried in a section of the abbey cemetery traditionally reserved only for abbots.


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