The Millennium - A Celebration worthy of Merret
The pop of the cork, the stream of mouthfilling bubbles, the fresh yeasty flavour are all very special experiences which have long made sparkling wine from Champagne a natural choice of wine for any celebration. But times are changing; other regions are now producing sparkling wines and other methods of production have been tried. So far, few have managed to match the finesse of a good Champagne made by adding sugar and yeast to a still wine and allowing it to undergo a second fermentation in a closed bottle. It is often claimed that this so-called traditional method was invented in about 1695 in the Champagne region of France by Dom Pérignon, a French monk and winemaker.
It is well documented that the first sparkling Champagne was produced in Champagne at about that time, and it is certainly true that the French did not have the technology to manufacture sparkling wines before 1695 Their glass was not yet strong enough to withstand the pressure generated in the bottle and they were still in the habit of sealing their bottles with wooden stoppers wrapped in cloth. Earlier references to sparkling wines can be found (and what home wine-maker has never experienced a popping cork or an exploding bottle?) but without the necessary technology it would have been impossible deliberately to manufacture a sparkling wine in the bottle. This begs the question - did anyone else possess the technology? Certainly they did!
England was not then a wine-making country but the English were regularly importing still wines in cask, mostly from France, and that includes the Champagne region, and bottling them for resale. Long before the beginning of the 17th century England had strong connections with Portugal and the English had begun to use cork, which provided a more efficient seal than wood or glass to stopper their bottles.
As early as 1630 a retired British Admiral, Sir Robert Mansell, while searching for a way to make coloured glass had invented a manufacturing process incorporating the use of iron and manganese which resulted in English glass bottles being much stronger than those being manufactured in France at that time. Moreover the writings of Sir George Etherege in 1676, nearly twenty years before Dom Pérignon is claimed to have invented sparkling wine, reveal that it was already common practice to render sparkling the still wines that were being imported from Champagne. Indeed the practice had already been referred to as early as 1662 when Christopher Merret presented a paper to the newly formed Royal Society in which he stated that sugar and molasses were being added to wines of all sorts to make them sparkling.
Quite obviously then, it was the English who invented what has since become known as the traditional Champagne process! It should come as no surprise therefore, that having established a reputable still wine industry of their own during the past 50 years, the Brits are turning to the production of English Sparkling Wine with such success.
There are currently about 380 commercial wine producers in the UK. By November 1996 at least 40 of them were known to be producing Sparkling Wine and no doubt the millennium celebrations have tempted more to enter the field. Quality has rapidly improved with winemaking experience and though, like Champagnes, some are better than others, the best of them can honestly claim to compete with the best that Champagne has to offer. If the label says Bottle Fermented or Traditional Method then the wine has been made by the same, original, Merret method and therefore merits further investigation. Forget Dom Pérignon, try some!
John Gibson, Bearsted Vineyards © 2001