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Pierre Pérignon

Pierre Pérignon is the man better known today as Dom Pérignon of Champagne fame.

Sadly, much of the "information" that is written about him in material for marketing is just that -- marketing myths. He was not the creator of the bottled wine called today "Champagne." Pérignon dedicated his wine practice to preventing wines from turning into sparkling wines. And, in fact, the transport of wine in bottles for sale (necessary for sparkling wines such as Champagne) was only allowed in France after a decree from Louis XV on 25 May 1728 -- 13 years after the death of Pérignon.

Pierre Pérignon was born in St-Ménéhould, Champagne, France c. 1638 and baptized 5 January 1639. He died in Hautvillers, Champagne, France 14 September 1715.

His parents were Pierre Pérignon, and Marguerite Le Roy. His father was a registrar for the provostship of the area ("greffier en prévosté".) The young Pierre's mother, Marguerite, died seven months after he was born. His father remarried to a Catherine Beuvillon. There would be seven children altogether in the family. His father grew some vines as a side activity, as did many people in the village; young Pierre may have learnt some vineyard skills there at his father's knee.

In October of 1652, Pierre was sent at the age of about twelve years old to study at the Collège des Jésuites de Châlons-sur-Marne. On 3 May 1657, he signed his intention to enter the Abbey of Saint-Vanne à Verdun and become a monk [1]. He took his vows there in 1658, and was ordained a priest nine years later in 1667.

In 1668, Pérignon was transferred to the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Pierre de Hautvillers. Hautvillers Abbey was founded sometime in the 660s, set back some 80 metres from the bank of the Marne river. It has been pillaged and sacked about four times in its history, and was completely abandoned in 1562. In 1603, rebuilding began, and the vineyards were replanted. Still, there were only about twelve monks there at the time that Pérignon arrived.

At Hautvillers, Pérignon took up the position of procureur (e.g. General Manager.) Modern marketing material often refers to this position as being that of Cellar Master, in order to emphasize the wine connection. He did manage the Abbey's vineyards, to oversee the wine production, and to ensure that tenant farmers around the Abbey paid their rent in either wine or grapes. But the overall duties were far broader than that, though, as Abbeys were expected to be totally self-sufficient. Pérignon had to look after pretty much all day-to-day administration of the monastery, down to even overseeing repairs of the church organ.

It's owing to this position of procureur that Pérignon acquired the title of "Dom." Dom (from the Latin "Dominus", meaning "Lord" or "Master") is a title of respect used in Benedictine and Carthusian orders. Actually, though, Pérignon was referred to in documents from the monastery as Dom Pierre or Dom procureur, not Dom Pérignon as he is today.

The Abbey prospered and grew under Pérignon's management. By the time he died, he had expanded the size of the vineyards from 10 hectares to 24.

The Abbey was dissolved in 1789 owing to the French Revolution and never restored.

Pérignon and Wine

It is startling to learn that, far from being the creator of Champagne, Pérignon strived to produce regular, non-sparkling (aka still) wines.

He considered the secondary fermentation that occurred in bottles (a vital factor in producing Champagne) to be a problem and he sought to eliminate it.

Each year, in the fall as temperatures in a northerly area such as the Champage region dropped, primary fermentation of a wine in vats might go dormant while still incomplete, leaving sugars still in the wine. If the wine were bottled like this, when temperatures rose again in the spring, fermentation would start again. This could cause a cork to rocket out. Or, even worse, an entire bottle to explode. This would damage any bottles -- or anybody -- near it.

The issue of sparkling wine and exploding bottles troubled Pérignon constantly. He sought to eliminate any bubbles in his wine altogether. But to mitigate the potentially disastrous consequences of it happening despite his best efforts, he developed thicker bottles, and originated (or at least, it appears to be first documented with him) the practice of affixing the cork to the bottle with a "cage" of hemp string. This technique is still practised, though pliable metal is used instead.

Pérignon preferred using red grapes (predominantly Pinot noir, specifically) because he felt they were least likely to produce a second fermentation in the spring, and that white grapes were more likely to re-ferment.

Still, he wanted to produce white wine (truly white, rather than grey or pink), so he had the grapes pressed, rather than treaded, and he emphasized pressing the grapes as gently as possible so that their reddish skins would not colour the white juice. For this reason, he also rejected any bruised and broken ones from the batches to be pressed.

He would mix together varieties of grapes prior to them being pressed, rather than blend the juice afterward.

He established rules surrounding the growing of the grapes in the Abbey's vineyards. Vines were to be kept under 3 feet (1 meter) tall, and the goal was smaller yields of higher quality. Harvests were to be done in early mornings.

Pérignon and The Myths

Many of the myths surrounding Pérignon originated in the 1880s for the purposes of marketing Champagne.

In the late 1800s, advertising began "quoting" him as having said, upon first discovering and tasting Champagne, "Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!" It appears likely that the quote was invented in 1821 by a Dom Groussard [2] who wrote a brief biography of Pérignon. Pérignon is more likely to have muttered imprecations about another bottle having "gone off" despite his best efforts to make it come out as non-sparkling wine.

Another myth is that by tasting a single grape, Pérignon could say which vineyard it came from. There is no documentation for this. Instead, we find that Pérignon would taste the grapes prior to mixing them for blending. When tasting, he didn't want to know which vineyard it came from, and so wouldn't let anyone tell him, in order not to be influenced by expectations based on previous years, good or bad. In 1821, Dom Groussard referred to this tasting without knowing the source as "blind testing."

This reference also led to another myth -- that Pérignon was blind. There is no documentation for this, though some sources wonder if Pérignon may indeed have lost his sight towards the end of his life.

Another myth is that Pérignon was the first ever to use corks. Monks at the St Hilaire Abbey near Limoux produced a sparkling wine in cork-stoppered glass flasks in 1531. And, in fact, even the Romans had used corks towards the end of the Empire.

[2] Many people incorrectly identify Dom Groussard as a successor of Pérignon at the Abbey in 1821. This would have been a real feat, given that there was no Abbey then -- it was permanently dissolved at the time of the French Revolution in 1789.


[1] "... pour ce faire ayant dessein de se rendre de l'ordre des Révérends bénédictins et entrer jour sur autre au couvent de Saint-Vanne à Verdun." Glatre, Eric. May 2008. Dom Pérignon, moine bénédictin de l’abbaye d’Hautvillers Père spirituel du champagne. Retrieved November 2009 from

J. Bullock, MD, J. Wang, MD, G. Bullock, MLS. Was Dom Perignon Really Blind? Survey of Opthalmology, Volume 42, Issue 5, Pages 481-486.

Mairie de Sainte-Ménehould. Dom Pérignon incontestable Père spirituel des Champenois. September 2007. Retrieved November 2009 from http://www.ville-sainte-menehould.fr/demo.php?frame_c=29&parent=3

Ring, Brad. Secrets of Dom Pérignon. Winemaker Magazine. January 2007.

Scholliers, Peter. Food, drink and identity: cooking, eating and drinking in Europe since the Middle Ages. Berg Publishers, 2001.

Schwartz, Ed. The night the Brits invented Champagne. Napa Valley Register. 30 November 2007.

Vizetelly, Henry. A history of champagne: with notes on the other sparkling wines of France. Southeran, 1882. Page 38 to 42.

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Oulton, Randal. "Pierre Pérignon." CooksInfo.com. Published 12 December 2009; revised 08 December 2010. Web. Accessed 03/17/2018. <http://www.cooksinfo.com/pierre-perignon>.

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