August 4, 1693 Drinking the Stars

The Roman Rebublic built on and improved what the Greeks had begun, creating their own God of Wine and calling him Bacchus. It was the ancient Romans who first developed the concept of Terroir, “tare WAHr”, the notion that regional climate, soils and aspect (terrain) can effect the taste of wine.

1-armeniaThe oldest winery for which archaeological evidence exists was established around BC4100, in present-day Armenia. The Egyptian Pharoahs were producing a wine-like substance from 3100BC for use in public ceremonies, due to its resemblance to blood.

Archaeologists discovered a 3,700 year old wine cellar in the north of Israel.  Phoenecian traders plied the Mediterranean from the shores of the Middle East to Gibraltar, transporting grapevines and wine in ceramic jugs.   Traders introduced wine to the ancient Greeks sometime around BC800, who then began to perfect the beverage, even naming a God of the grape harvest: Dionysus.

alexakis-history-of-wineSounds like a great job, as Greek Gods go.

As the Greek city-states rose in power, viticulture and wine making traveled the eastern Mediterranean with Greek armies, into Sicily and the boot of Italy, and north toward Rome.

wine history

The Roman Republic built on and improved what the Greeks had begun, creating their own God of Wine and calling him Bacchus. It was the ancient Romans who first developed the concept of Terroir, “tare WAHr”, the notion that regional climate, soils and aspect (terrain) can effect the taste of wine.

bacchus-12The legions of Rome expanded the Empire across Europe from modern day France and Germany into Portugal and Spain.  Everywhere the Legions went, vineyards were soon to follow. To this day, some regions are said to have more ‘Terroir’, than others.

Wine seemed better suited to the sensibilities of the Roman palate, and Tacitus maligned the bitter brew of Germanic barbarians.  Nevertheless, letters home from cavalry commanders of the Roman Britain period (ca AD97-103), include requests for more “cerevisia”.

Muhammad directed the “Righteous” to abstain from alcohol sometime in the seventh century, but promised “[R]ivers of water unaltered, rivers of milk the taste of which never changes, rivers of wine delicious to those who drink…” in heaven.  (Surah 47.15 of the Qur’an.)

Local production of rustic beers continued well beyond the collapse of the Roman empire, while the monasteries of Europe became prime repositories of viticulture and wine making technique.

The wines of medieval and renaissance-era Europe tended to be almost universally red and almost always, still.  The in-bottle refermentation that gives “sparkling” wine its ‘fizz’ was a problem.  Fermentable sugars were frequently left over when weather began to cool in the fall, particularly with the white grape varietals. Refermentation would set in with the warm spring weather, converting bottles into literal time bombs. Caps would pop off and wine would spoil. Sometimes the whole batch would explode, one pressurized bottle going off in sympathetic detonation with the other.

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Pierre Perignon entered the Benedictine Order at the age of 19, doing his novitiate at the abbey of Saint-Vannes near Verdun and transferring to the abbey of Hautvillers in 1668.

On August 4, 1693, the date traditionally ascribed to Brother (Dom) Pérignon’s invention of Champagne, the monk is supposed to have said “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!”.

hautvillers-vineyardsThe story is almost certainly a myth, a later embellishment to the story.  During his 47 year career, Pérignon went to considerable lengths to eliminate bubbles from his wine.  Dom Pérignon never succeed in that goal, yet he did make bubbly wine a whole lot better, using corks for the first time to prevent the escape of carbon dioxide, and perfecting a ‘gentle’ pressing technique which left out the murkiness of the skins.

It is almost certainly Dom Pérignon who perfected the double fermentation process. He was an early advocate of natural farming methods we would call “organic”, today.  Pérignon insisted on “blind” tasting, not wanting to know what vineyard a grape came from prior to selection, and strictly avoiding the addition of foreign substances, insisting that all blending take place at the grape stage.

Dom PerignonPérignon didn’t like white grapes because of their tendency to enter refermentation. He preferred the Pinot Noir, and would aggressively prune the plants so that vines grew no higher than three feet and produced a smaller crop. The harvest was always in the cool, damp early morning hours, and Pérignon took every precaution to avoid bruising or breaking his grapes. Over-ripe and overly large fruit was always thrown out. Pérignon never permitted grapes to be trodden upon, always preferring the use of multiple presses.

In 1891, the Madrid Agreement established among the European powers, that only sparkling wines from a certain region in northeast France may be labeled “Champagne”.  The principle was re-asserted in the Treaty of Versailles ending WW1, providing protections for a French wine industry which had, ironically, been saved and literally rebuilt from the ground up by grafting “inferior” American root stock onto French vines.

But that must remain a story for another day.

800px-Phylloxera_cartoon
1890 cartoon from Punch depicting the Phylloxera aphid, which all but obliterated the French wine industry.

That American companies like Korbel, Cook’s and others may continue to call their bubbly wines Champagne is due to the United States’ Senate never having ratified the treaty formally ending WW1, back in 1920.  The United States entered the Madrid system in 2003, but the Champagne name dispute, remains unsettled.

california-champagne-header

Benjamin Franklin, born nine years before brother Pérignon’s death in 1715, is supposed to have said “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” That’s close, but the quote seems to come from a letter to André Morellet dated 1779, in which the Founding Father wrote  “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy“.

Either way, I enthusiastically approve Mr. Franklin’s message.  Cheers.

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