The indisputable highlight of July is one day of patriotic fireworks, parades, and red-white-and-blue flags waving in national fervor. I’m speaking, of course, of July 14—Bastille Day, the most important holiday in France. So crank “La Marseillaise” and allow quiz show champ Ken Jennings to help you out with his formidable! knowledge of all things French.
French Myth #2: Sparkling Wine Was Invented by Champagne Monk Dom Pérignon.
If everything you know about champagne comes from rap videos, you probably assume that (1) it’s mostly for spilling on stuff, not for drinking, and (2) it was invented by some French guy named Dom Pérignon. In fact, the eponymous 17th-century Benedictine monk was a leading winemaker of his time, but wine expert Tom Stevenson has recently uncovered evidence that the refermentation of wine by adding sugar and molasses, which we today call the méthode champenoise, was actually invented in 1662, six years before Pierre Pérignon became a monk. Champagne was born in England, of all places!
In 1662, a Gloucester doctor named Christopher Merret presented to the Royal Society a paper called Some Observations concerning the Ordering of Wines, in which he describes the secondary fermentation of wine, via the addition of yeast and sugar, to make it “brisk and sparkling.” Merret was a student of glassmaking technology, and knew that Britain was producing, for the first time anywhere, glass bottles strong enough to withstand secondary fermentation without blowing up. In France, sparkling wines were called “the Devil’s wine” because of this explosive propensity. As a result of all the broken glass, winemakers like Pérignon spent decades trying to figure out ways to prevent secondary fermentation!
Following the rediscovery of Dr. Merret’s work, some British vineyards have begun labeling their sparkling wine “Merret.” Others call it “Britagne” (spelled like “champagne,” pronounced like “Britannia.”) Whatever you call it, it’s sure to come as a shock to those who have believed centuries of French lore about the great Dom Pérignon. Those stories— Pérignon identifying a vineyard by tasting a single grape, Pérignon inventing the cork, Pérignon crying out “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!”—were all made up a century after his death by publicity-hungry successors at his abbey. Sorry to pop your bubble, France.
Quick Quiz: Today, Dom Pérignon champagne is produced by what fabled winery, which has since merged with Hennessy and Louis Vuitton?
Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.