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The familiar ‘pop’ of the cork, the fizz spilling over the sides of the flute, and the bubbly dry taste — it could only be Champagne. Or should we say, ‘Merret’? Father of fizz? Christopher Merret is said to have invented Champagne
For nearly three centuries, the French have fought to ensure that only the sparkling wine made in a particular part of France can be given the name Champagne.
But could Champagne really have been introduced to the world by a 17th-century Englishman?
Many believe a Gloucester doctor called Christopher Merret recorded a recipe for a Champagne-style drink some 20 years before the French Benedictine monk and cellar master, Dom Pierre Perignon, who is officially recognised as the drink’s father.
In fact, so convinced is leading British wine producer Mike Roberts — whose Ridgeview vineyards are based in the South Downs in East Sussex — that he’s spearheading a campaign to name sparkling British wine after Oxford-educated Dr Merret.
It all dates back to a chilly December evening in 1662, when Dr Merret presented the Royal Society with an eight-page paper detailing experiments of English cider makers, who had begun adding sugars to wine to create a bubbly, refreshingly dry drink — remarkably similar to modern-day Champagne.
Dr Merret noted how ‘our wine-coopers of recent times add vast quantities of sugar and molasses to wines to make them drink brisk and sparkling’.
The academic, previously better known for publishing papers on smelting and tin mining, gave details of a ‘second fermentation process’ — a chemical reaction that occurs when the bottled alcohol underwent an increase in temperature and produced carbon dioxide — that now forms a key element of Champagne-making, namely the ‘methode champenoise’.
Tradition — and the French — have always insisted Champagne was invented in 1697 by Perignon. The monk supposedly discovered it entirely by accident: the wine he bottled from the abbey’s vineyards in the autumn just before the weather turned cool never fermented properly, only doing so when temperatures started rising again in the spring.
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This process — secondary fermentation — often resulted in exploding bottles thanks to the wine’s dormant yeast producing sudden carbon dioxide bubbles.
At first, Dom Perignon viewed this as a curse, referring to the new drink as ‘the devil’s wine’ — because one exploding bottle would often cause another to blow up, occasionally shattering entire cellars of wine.
But when the monk tasted the alcohol produced in bottles which didn’t explode, he started experimenting with grape varieties and realised it was a deliciously dry, fizzy drink by itself.
There are many wine experts, however, who believe the French merely copied Merret’s formula after visiting England.
According to them, the Merret tipple proved tremendously popular in London, whereupon word reached France about the new craze — and it wasn’t long before wine-makers in the north-east region of the country sent spies across the English Channel to investigate.
Champagne: The French claim that they invented bubbly
Their excitement at the discovery, however, was equalled only by their frustration that it was an Englishman cataloguing such advances.
‘We definitely beat the French and Dom Perignon by at least 22 years,’ says Tom Stevenson, the author of Christie’s World Encyclopaedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine, who has researched Dr Merret’s work.
In fact, he adds: ‘Merret was not only the first to describe the deliberate addition of sugar to create a sparkling wine, he was also the first person ever to use the term “sparkling wine”. The first documented mention of the equivalent French term, vin mousseux, was not until 1718.’
Moreover, on the English side of the Channel, winemakers had also started trying to produce bottles which could withstand the secondary fermentation pressure — with some help from Dr Merret for, happily, one of his many disciplines included glass-making.
He was helped by advances in British furnaces, which began using coal as the fuel of choice (instead of charcoal, after the British Navy requisitioned much of the timber to build a more powerful fleet), allowing much higher furnace temperatures, which were capable of creating stronger glass.
So sacre bleu — is it really Merret we have to thank for the reassuring sound of a cork popping?
Ridgeview’s Mike Roberts thinks so, for although Merret did not invent the technique, he dutifully logged the process and allowed other wine makers to use them.
Now he wants all British sparkling wine to be renamed ‘Merret’.
British producers are keen to mark their sparkling wines as uniquely English — in the same way the Spanish have cava and the Italians prosecco — to distinguish them from French champagne.
‘In no way do I want to call my wines Champagne,’ says Mr Roberts. ‘This is an English product and these are English vineyards.’
English sparkling wines are winning awards and increasingly replacing Champagne at glamorous events.
The Queen served sparkling wine from Chapel Down, Kent, at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. And the Royal Family has even planted 16,700 chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier vines in Windsor Great Park with the intention of creating their own fizz.
Mr Stevenson, who found Dr Merret’s paper in the Nineties, admits the French are not happy with a discovery that questions their boasts of giving Champagne to the world.
‘When I wrote about Merret, Le Figaro, the French newspaper, accused me of “trying to burn Dom Perignon”,’ he says, wryly.
Sour grapes, perhaps?
Story by Steve Bird
Courtesy of The Daily Mail
To add insult to injury. Before the bubbles were ‘discovered’ in Champagne, the French hated the stuff. It was just a still, sweet white wine.
The wine on the other hand was very fashionable in the English royal court. The King and nobility lapped it up. So the French shipped it over thinking nothing to it.
Funny how history tends to rewrite itself.