The Abbey of Hautvillers: The birthplace of Champagne

by Robert Whitley | Oct 4, 2000
The Abbey of Hautvillers: The birthplace of Champagne HAUTVILLERS, France - The original Abbey of Hautvillers was built by Benedictine monks in the middle of the 7th century. Dom Pierre Perignon didn`t arrive until 1668. The rest is history. This monastery, which has been destroyed and rebuilt seven times, is the birthplace of Champagne, the wine.

Dom Perignon, who was cellarer at Hautvillers until his death in 1715, was the father. Dom Perignon brought wealth and renown to the region of Champagne, a place with a history of wine production that dates to the time of the Romans. But the wine of Champagne prior to Dom Perignon was not the same Champagne that today is recognized the world over. Early Champagne was a lightly colored, thin red wine made from black grapes. The northerly climate was too cold to produce outstanding red wine, and the wines of that era from Champagne had little cachet.

Perignon happened upon sparkling Champagne purely by accident. He thought he could improve the quality of the Abbey`s wine by storing it in bottles to slow the process of oxidation. Because of the cold winters, fermentation of the grape sugars into alcohol usually stopped before the fermentations had finished. When spring brought warmer weather, the fermentation started again in the bottle. Dom Perignon`s first bubbles of Champagne were a result of carbon dioxide gas that formed as a result of the second fermentation.

Dom Perignon didn`t understand the underlying science, but he knew his wines were better than his neighbors` wines. The sparkling Champagne of the Abbey of Hautvillers quickly became the most popular wine of the region and enabled Perignon to sell his wine for twice the price of rival wines. But Perignon was not merely an accidental genius. He was the first to make a white wine from black grapes, a practice that is still going strong in Champagne.

A typical cuvee of Champagne today contains a high percentage of juice from the dark-skinned pinot noir grape. And Perignon perfected the art of blending a cuvee from many lots of wine provided by growers throughout the region of Champagne. That is the essence of winemaking in Champagne today, and most likely what continues to set Champagne apart from sparkling wines produced elsewhere.

Although it is widely held that Perignon invented sparkling wine, that belief is more myth than fact. Sparkling wines existed elsewhere before Dom Perignon happened upon it in Champagne. But Perignon did invent what the world knows today as Champagne. Such was Perignon`s influence at the time that he was able to persuade other Champenoise to abandon centuries-old practices - and stable revenues - for the production of wine with bubbles. The switch was not without financial risk, for the bottles of the day were not very strong and as many as half of any year`s production would explode from the pressure inside the glass.

"There is such a deep meaning here at the Abbey," said Richard Geoffroy, winemaker for Dom Perignon, Moet & Chandon`s prestige cuvee that was created to honor the good Dom in the 1920s. "It is not a winemaking facility. It is, more importantly, a source of inspiration.

"As a Champenoise, a winemaker from Champagne, the thing I admire is the vision. What counts is the man, Dom Perignon, had the vision for the entire Champagne district.

"He saw the potential and was able to convince the Champenoise to discontinue making their red wines, give up their position of comfort, and try something that was so uncertain. To make white wine from red (black) grapes was revolutionary.

"Red wine production in Champagne is marginal. I doubt we would be able to compete for supremacy with the other red wines of France."

Myths abound around Dom Perignon. That he worked his vineyards until his death even though he was blind. Many of the monks did go blind, a hazard of their long hours of transcription by dim light, but there is no evidence in the records kept here at the Abbey that Perignon was blind. Nor is there any evidence that he ever uttered the words "I am drinking stars" upon discovering the bubbles in his wine. Most of the written records of the time were destroyed during the French Revolution, so much of what is known comes from the oral history passed from one generation to another. But there is no doubt he was held in high esteem by his colleagues. Here, at the foot of the altar in the chapel at the Abbey of Hautvillers, lie the remains of Dom Pierre Perignon the man, the legend, the myth.WINE FINDS

The most outstanding wines are rated Exceptional. Wines that earn high marks for complexity, balance and flavor are rated Very Good. Wines that represent excellent quality for the price are rated Good Value.


Domaine Carneros 1998 Pinot Noir, Carneros ($40), delivers a huge statement on behalf of the Carneros district. Carneros, which straddles the southern end of Napa and Sonoma counties, seems the perennial second fiddle to the Russian River Valley in the world of California pinot noir. The `98 vintage from Domaine Carneros will remind pinot noir lovers what the debate is all about: intense fruit aromas, silky texture, stunning finish. This is the real deal.

Very Good:

Heritage Road 1999 Limestone Coast "Old Mundulla Vineyard" Reserve Shiraz, Australia ($18) is more than a mouthful of a name. At least the same can be said of this deeply colored wine with its rich layers of ripe black cherry and plum fruit and spicy nuances. It`s a full-bodied wine with supple tannins and good length on the palate. A real crowd-pleaser that is ready to drink now, and at a price that is modest for the level of quality in the bottle.

Good Value:

Domaine des Quatre Vents 1999 Fleurie, France ($13) is a vineyard-designated cru Beaujolais from the Georges Duboeuf lineup. Duboeuf shares the harvest each year with another negociant. It`s a Beaujolais with guts - for those who find some Beaujolais too far on the light side. This one is fragrant in the glass, plump and juicy on the palate and would be a delicious accompaniment to any fowl dish.

Delas Freres 1999 Merlot, France ($7) will quench the thirst of many a merlot lover at a price that hardly seems possible. It`s another in the stream of inexpensive, yet interesting wines springing from the Vin de Pays in the south of France. Its beautiful color is the first clue that this is no light jug wine masquerading as something more serious. Simple, ripe, soft fruit flavors make this straightforward red an excellent value at the price.SPIRIT OF THE WEEK:

Bowmore 17-year-old Single Malt Scotch ($70) strikes the perfect balance between smoke and fruit - no small accomplishment for an Islay malt. The Scots on this western Scotland isle like their whisky to taste and smell of smoked peat, Laphroaig being the prime example. The Bowmore 17 is rich and plump, with complex aromas of smoke and sea salt. A hint of citrus and a sweet nuance no doubt imparted by the mix of sherry casks and traditional bourbon barrels contribute a wonderful depth on the palate and a long finish. Recently voted "Best of Show" brown spirit at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition sponsored by Bon Appetit.

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(c) Copley News Service

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Author: Robert Whitley


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