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Who Invented Méthode Champenoise?

Published in ‘Petits Propos Culinaires 120 – Essays and notes on food, cookery and cookery books on 4th August 2021

Good Question.. and one that has raised several eyebrows in the past. Champagne is a region in North Eastern France which means flattish open country, good for fighting with cavalry and tanks. But near the slow flowing muddy rivers like the Marne not so good. You can get bogged down in trench warfare. But higher up, in the chalky areas very good for carving out cool wine cellars.  Champagne a wine Region or a Province? or a state of mind? Picardy to the north. Isle de France, Paris and Orleans to the west, Lorraine to the east and Burgundy to the south… You can’t invent that. But they do grow vines there. Vines means wines. Which is probably why you are reading this article. The small bubbles that have a way of getting into your imagination and bloodstream, creating a  slightly euphoric sensation which encourages chatter and brings back pleasant memories of past events, and it is past events that should concern us here. Events back in the mid 17th century. 

Time: Temps Perdu  or to be more precise À la recherche du temps perdu –  Remembrance of Things Past. A novel approach and all that. Imagine if Proust and the fabled detective Inspector Poirot combined forces to tackle the greatest mystery of all. Mon Dieu. Whatever next. The invention of Champagne?  a tough nut to crack. We need all the little grey cells we can muster?  N’est-ce pas?

First one has to get one’s head round how large the champagne industry really is. It is vast. It has 33,843 hectares of vineyards equivalent to 338 sq Km. ie 130 square miles in old money. Even Birmingham is only 103 sq miles. In the Champagne wine region there are 16,200 growers, 360 champagne houses who employ 30,000 people, plus 120,000 seasonal workers. They certainly know what they are doing. They produce 231 million bottles every year of which nearly 10% end up over here in the UK. Their best export market.  Over 21 Million bottles cross the channel every year and with a population of 66 million that means roughly one bottle of bubbly for every 3 people in UK…  In America it is only one bottle for every 16 people. So they have a little way to go. Stars but no stripes.

But now for the crunch. Who put the genie in the bottle, and what shape was the bottle, what colour was it and who made them so strong? and what fiendish techniques were involved? Who invented or pioneered that rather complex process of encouraging and then containing a secondary fermentation with a little extra sugar and wild yeast? For hundreds of years we always thought it was the French. Even the French thought so and the name of Dom Pérignon has been banded around for centuries. There is even a statue of him in Epernay at Moët & Chandon HQ. Dom Pérignon (1638-1715) the rotund Benedictine monk from Hautvilliers. ‘Come quickly. I am tasting the stars etc.’ Very romantic, a very convenient sales pitch. The only real problem is that particular story is cobblers…

It was the village priest, Dom Grossard who started the rumour that Dom Pérignon had invented champagne. In a letter dated 25 October 1821, to M. d’Herbes, Deputy Mayor of Aÿ, he wrote, ‘As you know, Sir, it was the celebrated Dom Pérignon . . . who found the secret of making sparkling and non-sparkling white wine, and how to remove the sediment from the bottles.’ At the time of the letter, Grossard was a village priest but he had never met Dom Pérignon, who died more than a century earlier. Even Col François Bonal, the great  Champagne historian and cavalry officer, acknowledged Grossard’s claims to be ‘unfounded and even manifestly erroneous’.

What Dom Pérignon did, apart from excavating out a much larger cellar from the chalk, was to introduce the art of close pruning. This improved quality but required regular harvesting in the coolest hours of the morning, often stopping by nine. As well as harvesting every few days to select the ripest, healthiest grapes, he used smaller baskets to avoid crushing grapes. Rotten grapes were discarded. Very labour intensive. He also built press houses in various villages to reduce the distance the grapes had to be transported. These were often beam presses like the large cider presses. He made white wine from black grapes, the first known example, and started blending before pressing. It all came down to taste, palate, intuition and wine wisdom. Attention to detail and close observation, that was his forte. In fact he hated bubbles as they broke his precious bottles..  

In 1718 Godinot states that Dom Pérignon produced a wine that moussed (mantled or even sparkled) about twenty years earlier from when he was writing, i.e. back in 1698. This may have been a good thing or it may have highlighted a problem. This may have been pét nat. No sugar is ever mentioned in the abbey’s records. With French wine mousse describes ‘the foam that forms after champagne has been poured out of the bottle. Light and airy in texture. “Soft-mousse” − not overly fizzy, but “harsh-mousse” is excessively fizzy.’ Just so. Frère Pierre, a man who knew Dom Pérignon and the cellar intimately, does not mention bubbles or sparkling at all. Revealing?

But the story is much more complicated than that… Champagne or any sparkling wine or sparkling cider needs strong heavy duty bottles capable of withstanding real pressure from the build up of carbon dioxide. About 4-6 atmospheres or in old units 60-90 psi (pounds per square inch). Glass is strange stuff. It is made from sand, silica, limestone and soda ash which was obtained in the old days from sea weed and saltwort. You also needed a good kiln and loads of firewood and charcoal to reach and maintain very high temperatures c 1600C. The Romans were pretty good at it and so were the Venetians. Then there were the  French Huguenots who were massacred on St Bartholomew’s day in 1572. Many who survived this horrendous event fled to England. Some were glass makers who worked in London, the Sussex Weald and the Forest of Dean.  The only problem was the vast quantities of firewood that were used not just for glassmaking but for iron smelting and ship building. 

Then along comes James 1 who is in league with his Admiral Robert Mansell and they wanted to protect their scam for selling ship building timber to the navy at vast profit. So Royal Proclamation 42 of 1615 outlaws the use of timber for glassmaking and so the glass makers have to look elsewhere for their heat ie coal or in the case of Purbeck, oil shale..   To cut a very long story short the English Huguenots helped invent the English wine bottle known on the continent as Verre anglais. It had an onion shaped body, a long tapering neck, was green or dark green and a string lip at the top for tying down a cork as well as a punt or kick in the bottom to make the whole thing much stronger. According to a patent challenge from 1661/62 a legal judgment was given by the Attorney General that four glass makers, some Huguenots, had sworn that Sir Kenelm Digby had invented this type of bottle whilst they were in his employ ‘neere thirty years earlier’  ie 1631/1632…  So Digby had the bottle and the English aristocracy had fun playing around with them.  

The first recorded case of someone experimenting with bottling up cider was an eminent Hereford man called Lord Scudamore from Holme Lacy. 

In the 1631/32 household accounts he bought several different sizes of bottle from various glass merchants. Some in London and some in Gloucester. Possibly even the river port of Newnham on Severn. Only  22 miles from his homestead.  He even has a ‘new lock for ye Sydar house door’. He then takes 6 bottles of cider up to London in 1639 and has a 14 inch high christallo glass flute made for drinking sparkling cider, engraved with his coat of arms and that of Charles 1st and apple trees etc. The Scudamore or Chesterfield flute is now in the London Museum.  You are tempted to call it a ‘champagne’ flute but in 1639 Dom Perignon was only one year old..  Champagne has a very long way to go before it raises its head above the parapet in France. All the pioneering and ‘inventing’ and learning how to control the effervescence is done in England with these new fangled bottles in the shires.

( Illustration 2 ) 

    The only real problem is that the Civil War intervenes and all Scudamore’s possessions from his London house in Petty France are sequestered as are his lands in Herefordshire. Things are turned upside down and yet there is a silver lining to this tumult. Another cider maker, a very different kettle of fish to Scudamore, sets up shop in Oxford. Ralph Austen from Leek, an ardent Puritan and Parliamentarian, has a 2 acre walled garden facing onto Queen Street and running parallel to New Inn Hall Street. In 1653 Austen makes cider and has the world’s first cider bottling factory. He even writes books on orchards and cider. A Treatise of Fruit Trees… And  A Spiritual Use of an Orchard. 

“Cider maybe kept perfect a good many years, if being settled it be drawn into bottles and well stopt with corkes and hard wax melted thereon, and bound down with pack thread, and then sunke down into a well or poole, or buried in the ground, or sand laid in a cellar.”

When Austen says ‘settled’ he means that the primary fermentation has finished. This is crucial. Full-blown fermentation creates great pressure as the carbon dioxide builds up in the shape of small bubbles that eventually shatter bottles as they explode. Dangerous and expensive.

Crucially, an additional note was printed in the margin of the 1657 edition of his book: ‘Put into each bottle a lump or two of hard sugar or sugar bruised.’ He was on the right track. When Austen says, ‘Cider maybe kept a good many years’, this could be anything between five to ten years, referring either to his own cider or to Royalist cider made before the Civil War. Cider that had to be abandoned or hidden in haste down wells. That takes it back to 1650 and beyond, or even the early 1640s before war broke out, which ties in with Lord Scudamore’s own experiments. Scudamore was by the way Charles’s Ist’s ambassador in Paris (1635-1639) and would have known all about the quality of Vin d’Aye and the propensity for bottles to break with a secondary fermentation when things warmed up in early summer. ‘Naughty little dregs’.

  Next port of call John Beale Fellow of the Royal Society, Vicar of Yeovil and a Herefordshire lad from Yarkhill, home of the Brown Snout. His family had made cider for generations. Father, a Middle Temple man and his mother’s family, the wealthy Pyes of Much Dewchurch intimately connected to the aristocracy of Somerset. Montacute and Dillington Houses to be precise. Beale had a living of Sock Dennis near Ilchester from the Phelips family. It was John Beale who wrote many aphorisms on cider in Pomona which appeared at the back of John Evelyn’s elegant Sylva  of 1664. The first book the Royal Society every produced. The aphorisms were contained in papers or letters that had been read to the Society in the preceding two or three years relating to cider. At least seven were read in the first two years. 

Alas John Evelyn had a rather low opinion of vintners, abhorring ‘the Sophistications, Transformations, Transmutations, Adulterations, Bastardizings, Brewings, Trickings and Compassings’ that they practised in their temples, i.e. their vaults. And of their wine – ‘Let them drink freely that will; Give me good Cider.’  Cider was king in those days.

Evelyn praises John Beale, ‘the most excellently learned Vicar of Yeovil’, in helping him with ‘Aphorisms on Cider’ which is where key information about bottling and sparkling cider is to be found. Here you will find a Walnut of Sugar being added to a bottle of Cider in Somerset ( Montacute house I reckon) with his cousins. 18g sugar per bottle, 3½ teaspoons which is spot on. I confirmed this with Sam Lindo of Camel Valley wines back in 2008. So they had méthode champenoise  to a T back in Dec 1662, if not much earlier. 

 And in the Case of the astronomer Sir Paul Neile, he uses a nutmeg of Sugar playing on the safe side. Here you will find Potgun Cider which flies around the house from the addition of too much sugar. Their comments speak for themselves. Sir Paul even advocates systematic batch sampling of bottles, perhaps the earliest recorded case on record. 

 Sir Paul also adds crucial evidence about sparkling wine. And this is very, very important historically. Sir Paul advocates these same methods of bottling cider for helping French wines. He was a wine connoisseur and liked vins d’Hermitage from the Rhône, Graves wine from Bordeaux on the left bank of the Garonne, as well as Verdea, a fine white wine from Greece grown from vines planted by the Venetians. Sir Paul advises that bottling in the manner of cider ‘may doe good to French Wines also’. A crucial step forward. The first time that bottling with the addition of sugar has been properly articulated for French wine in a measured way. This is dynamite. Ie bottling cider techniques applied to wine. Here it is written down in 1663. Wine buffs take serious note! 

  All this was put back into the public domain in 2008 with the publication of Ciderland and a lecture I gave to the Royal Society that year. But that is only half of the cider story. There is more to come from a very different source.  But before delving into 1650s Herefordshire I must mention the famous quote dug up by the Doyen of Champagne writing this side of the channel, Tom Stevenson who publicised Christopher Merret’s observation:  a wine and glass man from Gloucestershire whose now famous quote goes like this :

“Our Wine-Coopers of later times, use vast quantitys of Sugar and Molossus, to all Sorts of wines, to make them drink brisk and Sparkling, and to give them Spirit, as also to mend their bad tastes, all which Raisins, and Cute and Stum performe.”

To be sure this mentions sugar but leaves a vast array of unanswered questions…  Crucially in this quote from Merret there is no mention of wine bottles in any shape or form, no mention of corks, no mention of laying down the wine, no mention of wax or pack thread, string lips or cellars filled with running water, or even sand. Certainly no mention of strong English bottle glass. Or mantling. No hint of storage at all or maturation. Or which wines were used. Were they even French? We know not . .

Over the last ten years the sparkling wine world has had its own little fracas, even in The Decanter magazine. Digby versus Merrett and vice versa.. ‘No Merret in Digby’ etc but alas neither are right. Both are I am afraid wide of the mark.. The rationale of the new technique and its origins lie not in London but in Hereford, Oxford and Somerset. One man who is not often mentioned these days is Samuel Hartlib. Like Ralph Austen in Oxford he was a staunch Parliamentarian and close to Oliver Cromwell. So after the Restoration he did not fare well. He fell out of favour and was not asked to join the Royal Society though the literary society and correspondences he kept up were not only admirable but provided a ready made frame work for the society’s members. His correspondence stretched across Europe and included many scientists Boyle and Beale amongst them. 25,000 pages of them. It is the letters from John Beale to Samuel Hartlib that are most revealing. Not all survive. Beale wrote letters once a week for several years, nearly always mentioning cider or cider apples or perry pears.  It is here that we discover the early references not just to cider but to ‘mantling.’ It is important to understand this word because it encompasses far more than just sparkling. It implies the cloak or mousse of bubbles or crème that forms on top of the sparkling cider or wine. Once you realise that sparkling is but a later convenience, it all fits into place… Poirot would say Voila

16 February 1657

We will rather drinke pure water, than the water of rottenes,
as we call all drinke that does not mantle vigorously . . .

Mantling cider was therefore de rigueur by 1657, forming a vigorous head or froth, or, as the French would say, mousse. Flat beer and flat cider were out. Royalist youth wanted to put a bit of sparkle back into life under Puritan rule. As if drinking was for them an anti-establishment activity. A bit like walking was for Wordsworth and Coleridge. John Beale then continues his letter:

‘Our Cider, if it bee brisky, will dance in the cup some good while after it is powred out: Although I disswade from all Morning draughts, yet I have brought it into fashion amongst many, They will not drinke cider, if it be no soe busy, as thoroughly to wash their eyes whilst they drinke it.’ 

Eyebrows raised yet again. To mantle is an archaic English term and predates anything in France or even London to do with sparkling wine. 

If wine had been sparkling in the 1650s you can be sure Hartlib would have been told. Mantling cider is where it is at in 1656−7. Sparkling wine comes later. The technique of bottling is, however, just the same. Mantle is an interesting word, from Latin, Old French and medieval English. As a noun it means a cloak, a covering, the foam that covers the surface of liquor. So it is a new phenomenon. ‘To mantle’ can also mean ‘to flower’, or ‘to smile like a drink’. Spot on. As a verb ‘to mantle’ means to form a head, to cream, which is just what happens. 

So combine that with the words ‘busy’, ‘brisk’ when ‘powred out’ as well as ‘wash the eyes whilst they drink it’ and you have an accurate description of what is going on. Sparkling is tame by comparison and does not imply great movement or energy. Diamonds sparkle but they are static. A visual trick. ‘To mantle’ implies movement and a deep-seated energy. A raft of very small bubbles ‘that rises to the surface and forms a cloak’. 

Even rough old publicans of Hereford got in on the act. Here Beale in May 1658 is comparing the price of cider in Hereford taverns and observing how landlords make a quick buck by bottling cider up in quart stone bottles for a few weeks. 

May 31. 1658 

“Nowe, for thiese two laste Monethes, cider is sold at the two chiefe Inns, the Black Swan & the Falcon, . . . They buy cider for 30s the hogshead, & sell it for 6d the Wine quarte, our hogsheads conteining 70 gallons of statute[1]measure, & a gallon of statute measure being about the proportion of 6 of our Wine-quarts, as I am informed. The only difference this, That at thiese Innes & houses of resort, They drawe it off in bottles some weekes before they drinke it; The bottles beeing stone botttles of a quart measure, & layd up in coole cellers.” 

John Beale has no great praise for their methods of perking up cider or for its quality, yet finds they can greatly increase the value of cider in a few short weeks. A miracle indeed.

  All in all these letters contain the earliest written evidence of the bottled sparkling technique, which was pioneered by Lord Scudamore in the 1630s then taken up by Ralph Austen, the Phelips family  and John Beale in the 1650s. They discovered it and wrote about it. They both added sugar when it suited them, sometimes just to perk up a wine. The sparkle or mantle was a welcome addition and very quickly caught on as standard practice. It was also very good business.  400% return within a few short weeks? Irresistible.  My hypothesis is that the cider aristocrats discovered the process as early as 1632. And it became very popular in the West Country. The Phelips of Montacute also had interests in glass making as early as 1620. The knowledge of bottling cider became dissipated during the Civil War. Ralph Austen took advantage of this and was hard at work bottling cider in Oxford by 1651. Why bottle if there was no sparkle? Bottles were very expensive compared to barrels. Then even the publicans of Hereford got in on the act and news travelled down the Thames via Oxford to London. The wine coopers were merely taking a leaf out of the cider makers bible and making a killing…  

 A technique which for business reasons in France was later christened méthode champenoise andwrapped around with monopoly restrictions. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks, it is almost certainly a duck. If it dances in the cup and wets the eyes and mantles vigorously it must be a secondary fermentation in a bottle: That is good enough for me. Ruinart, the first French champagne house, was not founded till 1729. More than seventy years later. 

That these important letters from Beale to Hartlib have survived is remarkable:  In 1662 Samuel Hartlib died impoverished. After his death the remaining diaries, letters and manuscripts were bought by William Brereton (1611−64), who lived in Cheshire. Brereton died two years later. John Worthington, an academic and past Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, found the papers. The letters then disappeared altogether for more than 250 years, until 1933. Remarkably they were found in a solicitor’s office by George Turnbull of Sheffield University and have now been transcribed and catalogued. Samuel Hartlib’s correspondence runs to over 25,000 folios of original material and are a staggering insight into people’s minds and thoughts at that time. One wonders what was lost.

Now enter the last Restoration actor upon the stage:  Silas Taylor, a Parliamentarian Captain of Horse, much given to cider with a family estate near Hereford and one of Pepy’s spies – a collector of sensitive political, military and naval information from Holland. It is Silas Taylor’s descriptions of sparkling cider which give real colour and edge to the debate, 

But this new, fine-drinking, brisk, quick-fretting cider − what did it taste like? Did it actually sparkle or mantle? And if so, how much? Luckily for us sparkling cider was described in great detail in a letter read out to the Royal Society in 1663 by Captain Silas Taylor: 

“I have tasted of it, three years old, very pleasant, though dangerously strong. The colour of it, when fine, is of sparkling yellow, like Canary, of a good full body and oyly: the taste of it like the flavour or perfume of excellent peaches, very grateful to the palate and stomach.” 

Wonderful stuff. A fine accolade from a Parliamentarian captain of horse. Silas Taylor could be talking about his own cider or even Lord Scudamore’s Redstreak. ( which was in fact Beale’s father’s Redstreak)  And here is the crucial bit. If it was three years old in 1663 it must have been made in 1660 or possibly earlier, which predates Merret’s accounts. We know it sparkles, it keeps very well, we know what it tastes like. A true connoisseur and a composer to boot.

Taylor then gives advice on how to bottle cider and the great care needed to get the timing right. Again, cutting edge stuff: Cider was not only on par with wine at this time, it was streaks ahead. 

‘This makes it drink, quick and lively; it comes into the glass not pale or troubled, but bright yellow, with a speedy vanishing nittiness (as the vinters call it) which evaporates with a Sparkling and whizzing noise.’ 

  Sounds familiar? He gives a refreshingly honest and accurate description of what he is trying to achieve. No mere accident. Perfection itself. You can see the sparkling cider, you can taste it, you can hear it bubbling away, you can actually smell it. The Oz Clarke of his day.

 So there you have it. Fast forward to 1676 and enter the writer and agriculturalist John Worlidge from Petersfield in Hampshire.  What is fascinating is that back in 1676 in Vinetum Britannicum  A Treatise on Cider, John Worlidge not only advocated bottling cider with sugar and using corks but he advised on the way in which the bottles should be stored: “Therefore is the laying of bottles sideways to be commended, not only for preserving the Corks moist but so that the Air that remains in the bottle is on the side of the bottle where it can neither expire nor can new be admitted, the liquor being against the Cork, which not so easily passeth through the Cork as the Air.” 

He then goes on to say something very interesting indeed: 

“Some place their bottles on a frame with their noses downwards for that end. Which is not to be so well approved of, by reason that if there be any least settling in the Bottle you are sure to have it in the first glass.”

 These wooden frames, later called pupitres, are a key part of the champagne process and let the sediment settle in the neck of the bottle. In other words, the dead yeast cells, which is what the champagne method succeeds in removing so adeptly by freezing the neck of the bottle in ice. So back in 1676 the English had a very good notion of what the problems were. The dregs could be removed by a deft flick of the wrist when opening. They even had ice houses . . .

Disgorgement was on the horizon. Over the centuries the French perfected how to make it. They knew a good thing when they saw it. 

The English were aristocratic amateurs who loved experimentation but had no desire to turn a hobby into a business. Ralph Austen was the exception. Wise man with a city full of thirsty Dons. All his rooms were painted Green.  When he died in 1676 he had over 500 bottles of cider in his cellar. 

 But spare a thought for these cider makers, the aristocratic and parliamentarian cider boys who spent thirty years perfecting the technique with a civil war and Commonwealth/Puritan period thrown in for good measure. So the English who gave the secret away via the Hereford publicans and London Vintners, then learnt to drink dry Champagne with aplomb and style without the hastle of making it themselves. 

These English men are the real hidden mantling heroes of the Champagne and sparkling wine story. The rough and ready cider makers and the rough and ready Huguenot glass makers who lived out in the forests experimenting with coal and no doubt drinking Cider along the way to quench their thirst. 

Temps Perdu  indeed. Lost time – lost techniques. Lost History or to be more precise À la recherche du temps perdu –  Remembrance of Things Past, A novel approach and all that. Even Proust used Champagne to elicit a few meandering thoughts and emotions.

“By dint of drinking champagne with them, I began to feel a little of the intoxication that used to come over me at Rivebelle, though probably not quite the same. Not only every kind of intoxication, from that which the sun or travelling gives us to that which we get from exhaustion or wine, but every degree of intoxication—and each must have a different figure, like the numbers of fathoms on a chart—lays bare in us exactly at the depth to which it reaches a different kind of man.”

If Proust had known the real history of champagne his novels might have taken a different direction. If Inspector Poirot had been to Hereford and stayed at Holme Lacy House, I am sure he would have uncovered th the true story and resuscitated the remarkable tale of mantling cider.

” Mes Amis.  I give you Lord Scudamore, Ralph Austen, John Beale, Sir Kenelm Digby, Silas Taylor and Sir Paul Neile as the true inventors and pioneers of the champagne bottle fermented process along with the Phelips family of Montacute House. They are all guilty of helping to invent and pioneer the techniques used in what we now call méthode champenoise but without realising it… They sparkled and they mantled. They were before their time. They simply bottled it up, which is what all good Englishmen do. Voila.. 

Further more detailed information about this fascinating subject which should arouse interest and curiosity in all sparkling wine drinkers around the globe, whether they be Champagne connoisseurs or imbibers of Cava or Proseeco, or anything else that sparkles or mantles in a bottle, they can all fortify their knowledge by purchasing a copy of Cider Country due to be published by Harper Collins in August 2021.  Also containing a detailed account of the infamous Cider riots of 1763 which unseated the Prime Minister of the time Lord Bute and gave the Americans something to chew on.

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