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On this day 1715…Dom Pérignon dies

The famous “inventor” of Champagne, Dom Pierre Pérignon, died on this day 300 years ago.

Dom-perignonAn extremely long-lived man, Dom Pérignon was born and died in exactly the same years as Louis XIV (1638-1715), although he outlived his sovereign by two weeks.

Born in the Champagne region in 1638 in the town of Saint-Menehould, Pierre Pérignon was the youngest of seven children. His father was a local marshal and his family did own vineyards and it’s entirely possible he helped with the harvest although how exposed the young Pierre was to viticulture is open to speculation.

It’s unlikely he had much time to learn the secrets of 17th century winemaking as he was swiftly packed off to the Benedictine abbey of Moiremont where there was a school for boys. He stayed there until 1651 when he left to study at the Jesuit College in Châlons-sur-Marne.

He may not have been raised to be a winemaker but, for his time, he was clearly well-educated and his natural inquisitiveness would hold him in very good stead when he took over the vineyards at Hautvillers.

At the age of just 17 in 1655 he entered the church beginning his monastic life at the abbey of Saint-Vanne near Verdun and was confirmed a Benedictine in 1658.

In 1668 he was sent to the abbey of Saint Peter in Hautvillers where he would spend the rest of his life and achieve the fame for which he is still remembered.

The myths, half-truths and, sometimes, complete fabrications surrounding his time as cellarer there and his “invention” of Champagne are so common as to not be worthy of re-telling here; particularly as a previous post on the subject has appeared already on the drinks business.

Nonetheless, a brief discussion on his time and role at the abbey is necessary. Essentially he was sent to Hautvillers to help turn it around as that particular community was struggling both spiritually and financially.

Benedictine communities were generally and usually still are cloistered and contemplative, having limited contact with the outside world but they are not entirely mendicant and from the Middle Ages until the 18th century relied on selling produce to neighbouring lay communities to help them survive. The motto of orders such as the Benedictines, Cistercians and Trappists is “ora et labora” – prayer and work. When not at divine office monks are expected to be working in the fields, orchards, apiaries, vineyards and libraries particular to their abbey or monastery and through that work honour God just as effectively as uninterrupted prayer.

It is no secret that the development of western European viticulture owes much to the religious orders who, through the endowment of land from rulers such as Charlemagne, planted and expanded vineyards across Champagne, Burgundy, the Rhine and elsewhere from the eighth century onwards. Many of these plots would remain in ecclesiastical hands until the 800px-Tombe-perignonFrench Revolution nearly 1,000 years later.

Unsurprisingly therefore Hautvillers held extensive vineyard holdings but the wandering piety of many of its brothers – who apparently preferred to spend time with local women than at work or prayer – meant the vineyards, cellars and press were in a parlous state hurting the spiritual and financial welfare of the abbey.

Like the coach of a new football team or commander of a military unit, Dom Pérignon had been sent to whip God’s foot soldiers back into shape.

As the vineyards were the chief source of income for the abbey it was there that he devoted his attention and under his guiding hand he quickly brought things back in line. Although there is even evidence he longed to return to Saint-Vanne he had proved himself so successful at Hautvillers that it was thought best for him to remain there.

Like a good Benedictine he therefore threw himself into his work and under his stewardship the abbey’s vineyards doubled in size and the quality of its wine had improved immeasurably. As we all know, by the time of his death 47 years later his part in the groundwork of what we would recognise as Champagne had been laid. A perceptive man with a curiosity for natural science as well as theology, he justly deserves his reputation as a spiritual godfather of the Champagne region and his part in the development of its famous wine.

So respected was he in life that he was even buried in the corner of the abbey graveyard normally reserved for its abbots. His tombstone, next to that of a later prior, Dom Royer, can be found in front of the altar in the church of Saint Sidulphe.

The abbey was largely destroyed during the revolution leaving only the abbey church standing. It was acquired by Pierre Gabriel Chandon in the early 19th century and remains the property of the house to this day.

The prestige cuvée that bears his name was not created until the twentieth century, the inaugural 1921 vintage being launched in 1936.

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