Dom Perignon: How a French Monk Became the King of Champagne | History Hit

Dom Perignon: How a French Monk Became the King of Champagne

Statue of Dom Pérignon outside the cellars of Moët & Chandon in Epernay, Champagne, France.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As one of most sought-after, prestigious and historic champagnes available today, Dom Pérignon is regarded as the ‘prestige cuvée’ of Moët & Chandon. However, it is named after a man with humble origins: Dom Pierre Pérignon, a Benedictine monk who made important strides in the production and quality of champagne in an era when the region’s wines were still predominantly red.

Though many myths falsely credit him with the invention of sparkling champagne, he simply pioneered many methods which improved its manufacture. By the end of his life, Pérignon’s namesake champagne was prized across the world by monarchs such as the French King Louis XIV.

But who was Dom Pierre Pérignon, and how did he change the course of champagne making forever?

He was born in the Champagne region of France

Pérignon was born in 1638 in Saint-Menehould in the Champagne region of France. He was one of eight children, and his father, who was the clerk of a local judge, owned a few vineyards. When he was 19, he entered the Benedictine order, first being educated in and serving the Abbey of Saint-Vannes in Verdun.

In 1668, he transferred to the Abbey of Hautvillers close to the town of Épernay, where he served as cellar master of the Abbey until he died in 1715. Thanks to his sustained and enterprising work, over the course of his life the abbey doubled its vineyard size, and he elevated the wine-making reputation of the region into one that was highly-regarded for its white wines.

Pérignon was so well-respected that upon his death he was buried in a section of the abbey normally only reserved for abbots.

He vastly improved champagne-making methods

When Pérignon first arrived at the Abbey, the region’s wine was shunned by the French court since its wines were not as intense and colourful as others made in areas such as Burgundy and Bordeaux. In addition, the world was experiencing a Little Ice Age which made wine production even more difficult in the winter.

In spite of these obstacles, Pérignon made many improvements to the winemaking process. Particularly revolutionary developments included inventing a press which allowed him to make a clear white wine from black grapes, forging a better understanding of the impact of climate upon winemaking, reintroducing the cork as a more effective seal and using ‘verre anglais’ (English glass) which was stronger and better able to withstand pressure.

‘Dom Pérignon discovering the prize de mousse’, from an old postcard.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

However, it was for his vast improvements to the ‘méthode champenoise’ wine-production style that Pérignon became most well-known. This production style came about when winemakers realised that bubbles could be created through a secondary fermentation in the bottle, and that contrary to common belief, it was something that people enjoyed. However, issues arose every spring when the yeast was re-awakened, creating lots of CO2 and causing the bottles to explode.

Pérignon was instrumental in studying how to avoid the explosions by warding off re-fermentation. He became an advocate for harvesting in cool conditions, small crops and blending grapes before sending them to the press. He also popularised practicing winemaking methods using naturally occurring processes.

There was a cult of personality around his brand of champagne

Dom Pérignon initially undertook the development of the monastery’s wine production to help it with its financial difficulties. However, his technical understanding of wine making was matched by his business prowess: his white wines were sold in Paris and London, with barrels being quickly delivered to the French capital via the Marne River.

Rebecca Gibb has written a fascinating research paper on the riots that tore through the region of Champagne just before the First World War as the small wine growers rose up against the power of the big Champagne brands. This story has it all: invasive species, globalisation, climate crisis, superbrands, booze and artisanal production.
Listen Now

His fame quickly grew, and Pérignon had the sense to name his wares after his own name. In response, wines bearing his name sold for twice as much as other champagnes.

This personal branding was the first time that a wine had been identified with its maker rather than a region or religious order, and more broadly was one of the first times in economic history that an individual had successfully used their own name and personality as a marketing tool.

There are many myths about him

A pervasive myth about Pérignon is that he invented champagne. However, the golden-bubbly drink that we enjoy today was actually invented by a woman called Widow Clicquot, who, in the 1810s, developed a technique to balance the secondary fermentation process that is intrinsic to the white wines from the Champagne region of France.

Dom Pérignon “invented” Champagne. From ‘Le Petite Journal’, 1914.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A quote – ‘come quickly, I am tasting stars!’ – has also been falsely attributed to Pérignon, who was said to have uttered the phrase when he first tasted sparkling champagne. However, it is more likely that the phrase came from a print advertisement in the late 1800s.

Many of the myths surrounding Pérignon are likely because of one of his successors at the Abbey of Hautvillers, Dom Groussard, who wrote an account of Pérignon in 1821. In it, he stated that Pérignon ‘invented’ champagne and also invented other grossly exaggerated stories in order to generate interest in and prestige for the church.

Further myths about Pérignon include the statement that he was able to name vineyards precisely by tasting a single grape, and that he was blind, with the latter probably originating from Pérignon having conducted ‘blind tasting of wine’.

The monastery where he worked is now owned by Moët & Chandon

Dom Pérignon’s tomb, Abbey Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1937, Moët & Chandon bought the brand name Dom Pérignon for their prestige cuvée. Today, Dom Pérignon is part of the Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton empire owned by France’s richest man, Bernard Arnault. It is one of the most highly prized champagnes in the world and frequently breaks bidding records when sold at auction.

The remains of the Abbey of Hautvillers where Dom Pérignon spent his adult life is now the property of Moët & Chandon.

Lucy Davidson