Champagne

The Rule of St Benedict goes back to the beginning of the Dark Ages. Born in the north of Italy at the end of the 5th century, at the end of the Roman Empire, Benedict is known as the Father of Western Monasticism; he laid down a social system for male religious communities that was the cornerstone of monastic life in Western Europe for a thousand years and one that endures to this day. It was a way of life built around prayer, manual work, reading and, of course, submission to authority. The Benedictine abbey was led by an abbot; under him were the priests who were the ones to copy manuscripts and to sing Gregorian chant; then there were the brothers who bore the brunt of much of the physical work and lay people who bore as much or more. The Rule of St. Benedict is followed not only by the Benedictines, the order he founded, but also by the Cistercians, the Trappists and others.

The monasteries are credited with preserving Western Civilization during the Dark Ages; copying manuscripts led to the marvelous decorative calligraphy of the Book of Kells and other masterpieces – the monks even introduced the symbol @ (the arobase, aka the “at sign”) to abbreviate the Latin preposition ad. They are also credited with sending out those fearless missionaries who brought literacy and Christianity to pagan Northern tribes, bringing new people into the orbit of Rome: among them were Winfrid (aka Boniface) from Wessex who chopped down sacred oak trees to prosyletize German tribes and Willibrord from Northumbria who braved the North Sea to convert the fearsome Frisians, destroying pagan sanctuaries and temples in the process.

The monasteries also accumulated vast land holdings (sometimes as donations from aging aristocrats who were more concerned to make a deal with God than they were for the future of their children and heirs).  With land and discipline came wealth and monasteries became the target of choice for Viking marauders. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the monasteries fell victim to iconoclasts and plundering potentates. Henry VIII dissolved the Cistercian abbey at Rievaulx in Yorkshire and other sites, procuring jewelry for Anne Boleyn in the process. This was the kind of thing that provoked the crypto-Catholic poet Shakespeare to lament about the

Bared ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang

Even today, though in ruins, Rievaulx is magnificent as a visit to Yorkshire or a click HERE will confirm. It can also be noted that the monks at Rievaulx abandoned the Rule of St. Benedict in the 15th century and became rather materialistic; this probably made them all the more tempting a target for Henry VIII.

We also owe the great beers to the monks. Today, two of the most sought after Belgian beers in the world are Trappiste and Abbaye de Leffe. The city of Munich derives its name from the Benedictine monastery that stood in the center of town. Today’s Paulaner and Augustiner beers trace back to monasteries. But what was it that turned other-wordly monks into master brewers? Mystère.

The likely story is that it was the Lenten fast that drove the monks to secure a form of nourishment acceptable to the prying papal legates. Theirs was a liquid only fast from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, including Sundays. The beers they crafted passed muster as non-solid food and were rich in nutrients. There are also stories that the strong brews would be considered undrinkable by Italian emissaries from Rome and so would be authorized to be drunk during Lent as additional mortification of the flesh.

Indeed, the followers of the Rule of St. Benedict didn’t stop there. We also owe bubbly to the Benedictines. The first documented sparkling wine was made in 1531 at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Hilaire in the town of Limoux in the south of France – close to the Mediterranean, between Carcassonne and Perpignan – a mere 12 miles from Rennes-Le-Chateau (of Davinci Code fame). Though wine-making went back centuries and occasionally wine would have a certain effervescence, these churchmen discovered something new. What was this secret? Mystère.

These Benedictine monks were the first to come upon the key idea for bubbly – a second fermentation in the bottle. Their approach is what now called the “ancestral method” – first making a white wine in a vat or barrel (“cuve” in French), interrupting the vinification process, putting it in bottles and adding yeast, grape sugar or some alcohol, corking it and letting it go through a second fermentation process in the (hopefully strong and well-sealed) bottle. This is the technique used for the traditional Blanquette de Limoux; it is also used for the Clairette de Die. The classic Blanquette de Limoux was not strong in alcohol, around 6-8 % and it was rather doux and not brut. Today’s product comes in brut and doux versions and is 12.5%  alcohol.

By the way, St. Hilaire himself was not a monk but rather a 4th century bishop and defender of the orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed (the one intoned in the Catholic and Anglican masses and other services); he is known as the “Athanasius of the West” which puts him in the company of a man with a creed all of his own – the Athanasian Creed forcefully affirms the doctrine of the Triune God and is read on Trinity Sunday.

The original ancestral method from Limoux made for a pleasant quaff, but not for the bubbly of today. Did the Benedictines come to the rescue once again? What devilish tricks did they come up with next? Or was it done by some other actors entirely? Mystère.

This time the breakthrough to modern bubbly took place in the Champagne region of France. This region is at the point where Northern and Southern Europe meet. In the late middle ages, it was one of the more prosperous places in Europe, a commercial crossroads with important fairs at cities like Troyes and Rheims. The cathedral at Rheims is one of the most stunning in Europe and the French kings were crowned there from Louis the Pious in 816 to Charles X in 1825. In fact, Rheims has been a city known to the English speaking world for so long that its name in French (Reims) has diverged from its older spelling which we still use in English. It is also where English Catholics in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods published the Douay-Rheims translation of the Latin Vulgate.

Enter Pierre Pėrignon, son of a prosperous bourgeois family, who in 1668 joined the Benedictine monastery at St. Pierre de Hautvillers. The order by that time deigned to accept non-noble commoners as monks and would dub them dom, a title drawn from the Latin word for lord, dominus, to make up for their lack of a traditional aristocratic handle.

Dom Pėrignon was put in charge of wine making and wine storage, both critical to the survival of the monastery which had fallen on hard times with only a few monks left and things in a sorry state. The way the story is told in France, it was during a pilgrimage south and a stay with fellow Benedictines at the monastery of St. Hilaire in Limoux that he learned the ancestral method of making sparkling wine. However he learned of their techniques, he spent the rest of his life developing and perfecting the idea. By the time of his death in 1715, champagne had become the preferred wine at the court of Louis XIV and the wine of choice of the fashionable rich in London. Technically, Dom Pėrignon was a master at choosing the right grapes to blend to make the initial wine; then he abandoned the ancestral technique of interrupting the fermentation of the wine in the cuve or vat and let the wine complete its fermentation; next, to deal with the problem of dregs caused by the second fermentation in the bottle, he developed the elaborate practice of rotating each bottle by a quarter turn, a step repeated every day for two or more months and known as the remuage (click HERE for an illustration); it is said that professionals can do 40,000 bottles a day.

To all that, one must add that he found a solution to the “exploding bottle problem”; as the pressure of the CO2 that creates the bubbles builds up during the fermentation in the bottle, bottles can explode spontaneously and even set off a chain reaction. To deal with this, Dom Pėrignon turned to bottle makers in London who could make bottles that could withstand the build-up of all that pressure. Also, that indentation in the bottom of the bottle (the punt or kick-up in English, cul in French) was modified; better corks from Portugal too entered into it.

Putting all this together yielded the champagne method. Naturally, wine makers in other parts of France have applied this process to their own wines, making for some excellent bubbly; these wines used to carry the label “Mėthode Champenoise” or “Champagne Method.” While protection of the right to the term Champagne itself is even included in the Treaty of Versailles, more recently, a restriction was made to the effect that only wines from the Champagne region could even be labeled “Champagne Method.” So the other wines produced this way are now called crėmants (a generic term for sparkling wine). Thus we have the Crėmant d’Alsace, the Crėmant de Bourgogne, the Crėmant de Touraine and even the Crėmant de Limoux. All in all, these crėmants constitute the best value in French wines on the market. Other countries have followed the French lead and do not use the label “Champagne” or “Champagne Method” for sparkling wines; even the USA now follows the international protocol (although wines labeled Champagne prior to 2006 are exempt).

Admittedly, champagne is a marvelous beverage. It has great range and goes well with steak and with oysters. The sound of the pop of a champagne cork means that the party is about to begin.  Of course, one key thing is that champagne provides a very nice “high”; and it does that without resorting to high levels of alcoholic content. Drolly, at wine tastings and similar events, the quality of the “high” provided by the wine is never discussed directly – instead they skirt around it talking about legs and color and character and what not, while the key thing is the quality of the “high” and the percentage of alcohol in the wine. So how do you discuss this point in French itself? Mystère. In effect, there is no way to deal with all this in French, la Langue de Voltaire. The closest you can come to “high” is “ivresse” but that has a negative connotation; you might force the situation and try something like “douce ivresse” but that doesn’t work either. Tis a mystère without a solution, then. But it is the main difference between a $60 bottle of Burgundy and a $15 bottle of Pinot Noir – do the experiment.

There are some revisionist historians who try to diminish the importance of Dom Pėrignon in all this. But he has been elevated to star status as an icon for the Champagne industry. As an example, click HERE for a statue in his honor erected by Moȅt-Chandon; click HERE for an example of an advertisement they actually use to further sales.

So the secret to the ancestral method and the champagne method is that second fermentation in the bottle. But now we have popular alternatives to champagnes and crėmants in the form of Prosecco and Cava. If these very sparkling wines are not made with the champagne method, what is it then? Mystère.

In fact, the method used for these effervescent wines does not require that second fermentation in the bottle, a simplification made possible by the invention of stainless steel toward the end of the 19th century. This newer method carries out the secondary fermentation in closed stainless steel tanks that are kept under pressure. This simplifies the entire production process and makes the bubbly much less expensive to make. The process was first invented by Frederico Martinotti in Italy, then improved by Eugène Charmat in France – all this in the 1890’s. So it is known as the metodo italiano in Italy and the Charmat method most elsewhere. In the 1960’s things were improved further to allow for less doux, more brut wines. They are now extremely popular and considered a good value by the general wine-loving public.

Finally, there is the simplest method of all to make sparkling wine or cider – inject carbon dioxide directly into the finished wine or cider, much like making seltzer water from plain water with a SodaStream device. In fact, this is the method used for commercial ciders. Please don’t try this at home with a California chardonnay if you don’t have strong bottles, corks and protective wear.

Indeed, beer and wine have played an important role in Western Civilization; wine is central to rituals of Judaism and Christianity; the ancient Greeks and Romans even had a god of wine. In fact, beer and wine go back to the earliest stages of civilization. When hunter gatherers metamorphosed into farmers during the Neolithic Revolution and began civilization as we know it, they traded a life-style where they were taller, healthier and longer-lived for one in which they were shorter, less healthy, had a shorter life span and had to endure the hierarchy of a social structure with priests, nobles, chiefs and later kings.  On the other hand, archaeological evidence often points to the fact that one of the first things these farmers did do was to make beer by fermenting grains. Though the PhD thesis hasn’t been written yet, it is perhaps not unsafe to conclude that fermentation made this transition bearable and might even have been the start of it.

 

 

 

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