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Dom Pérignon


Pierre Pérignon was born in December 1638 or January 1639, in Sainte-Menehould, one of seven children. He came from a well-to-do family, his father in charge of the Clerk’s Office at the Provostship. His mother died seven months after his birth, his father remarrying three years later to Catherine Beuvillon, the widow of one of the city’s merchants. His father and an uncle on his father’s side were vine owners.  While his exact date of birth is uncertain, his birth certificate is dated 5th January 1639.

He grew up in Sainte-Menehould before becoming a choir boy at the Benedictine Abbey of Moiremont. At the age of 13, he was accepted into the Jesuit school in Châlons-en-Champagne and, in 1656, he entered the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Vanne and Saint-Hydulphe in Verdun where, faithful to the Rule of Saint Benedict, he split his time between manual labour, reading and prayer. He also acquired solid foundations in philosophy and theology during his time there. 

In 1668, at the age of 30, he joined Abbey Saint-Pierre in Hautvillers. Dom Pérignon, during a pilgrimage to the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Hilaire discovered the method for producing Limoux sparkling wines before returning to his abbey in Hautvillers where he experimented with the method using Champagne wines. Until his death in 1715, he held the post of procurer (cellerar-bursar). This was a position of the highest importance at a time when monasteries owned vast estates on which all kinds of produce were grown and then sold. More importantly, his position gave him supreme control over the vines and pressing machines owned by the abbey.  He is buried in front of the Abbey-Church of Hautvillers.


In the last few months of the 17th century, the Abbey of Saint-Pierre in Hautvillers had all but lost its former glory. The church was home to just a handful of monks who strived to make a profit from the abbey’s estates that were abandoned or scarcely exploited. The storerooms, cellars and presses were half in ruins. The young cellerar strived hard to restore everything to its former glory and give back to the abbey the resources it so severely lacked. He also wanted to improve the image of the small religious community. In this time-honoured wine region, exploiting the monastery’s vines and selling the wine produced seemed an excellent way to achieve these objectives.  First witnessed in 1668, Dom Pérignon's first innovation consisted of systematically blending the grapes from different sources even before pressing the fruit. The young monk never had trouble acquiring grapes, because the tithe obliged local winegrowers to hand over a portion of their harvest to the monastery. Dom Pérignon thus had the choice of a selection of grapes from a wide range of sources which he himself blended to harmonise the qualities and eliminate any imperfections. “It is the knowledge of the good effect produced by grapes of three or four vines of varying quality which brought the famous wines of Sillery, Ay and Hautvillers to perfection. Father Pérignon, a Benedictine monk from Hautvillers, was the first to have successfully applied the method of blending wines from different vines," wrote Abbot Noël-Antoine Pluche in 1763.
An oenologist ahead of his time, Dom Pérignon paid particular attention to the harvests and the choice of grapes. Dom Pérignon permitted nobody but himself to even taste the berries. Father Pérignon would never taste the grapes on the vines although he went there every day as they approached ripeness," said Father Pierre, pupil and successor of the "father" of champagne. “But he would return with grapes from the vines that he intended to use to make the first cuvée. He would taste the grapes the next day on an empty stomach, after leaving them out overnight on his window ledge, judging their flavour in relation to previous years. Not only did he compose the cuvées according to his taste, but also in accordance with the yield, the early, late, cold and rainy years, and according to whether the vines had many or few leaves. All of these events served him well as rules to guide the composition of his such distinguished cuvées.”  For Dom Pérignon, the blending of the crus and the grape varieties was practically a science.

The champagne thus acquired a quality never before achieved and which would do wonders for its reputation. Rightly or wrongly, history also tells us that it was Dom Pérignon who first invented the method of creating bubbles in bottled wine. At that time, the bottles would be ‘corked’ with wooden plugs wrapped in oakum and soaked in oil. While researching into a cleaner and more attractive process, Dom Pérignon had the idea of pouring bees wax into the bottle necks, ensuring perfect water tightness. After several weeks, however, most of the bottles had exploded, too weak to withstand the pressure. Interestingly, wax did, in fact, retain the carbon dioxide, produced by the fermentation of the malic acid into lactic acid and then carbon dioxide in the bottle. Thanks to this happy coincidence, Dom Pérignon had discovered the fermentation process in the bottle. The “Champagne method” or quite simply champagne was born. The monk supposedly also invented the cork stopper to replace the archaic wooden charm kept in place by hemp string as well as the champagne flute.

Whether Dom Pérignon invented champagne or not matters very little in reality. Undoubtedly, the wine production process was a collective effort achieved over a long period of time in which he likely played a major role. In the early 18th century, champagne as we know it today was the delight of aristocratic and royal tables, the only echelons of society able to avoid this precious nectar.

Dom Pérignon passed away at the Abbey of Hautvillers on 14 September 1715.
He was buried in the abbey-church at the foot of the high altar under a gravestone made from black marble. The following epitaph can be read on his gravestone:

                                         Ci-gît Dom Pérignon, pendant quarante sept ans cellérier dans ce monastère, 
                                  son administration des affaires familières lui mérita les plus grandes éloges, recommandable 
                                                       par ses vertus et plein d'amour paternel pour les pauvres.
                                                   Il s'en fut dans sa soixante-dix septième année, l'année 1715.
                                                                       Qu'il repose en paix, Amen.”
Translation: Here lies Dom Pérignon, cellerar at this monastery for forty seven years, for his administration of formal matters he merits the highest praises, commendable by his virtues and full of paternal love for the poor. He was taken from us in his seventy-seventh year in this year 1715. May he rest in peace. Amen 


Dom Pérignon Dom Pérignon

Office de Tourisme Intercommunal d'Hautvillers 51160 Hautvillers Tél. 03 26 57 06 35 • Fax 03 26 51 72 66

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