Everyone knows the French are synonymous with Champagne, and it was that monk, Dom Pérignon, who invented it, right? That's what the French would say, but closer to home, in a Gloucestershire village, a blue plaque has been erected at the former home of the Englishman credited with being the first to put the bubbles in sparkling wine.
So why do we think Dom Pérignon invented it?
It's true that Dom Pérignon was involved, but it would seem that misconceptions surrounding Dom Pérignon came from one of his successors at the Abbey of Hautvillers, Dom Groussard. In 1821 he gave an account of Dom Pérignon "inventing" Champagne among other exaggerated tales about the Abbey in order to lavish historical importance and prestige for the church. In reality though, it's understood that Dom Pérignon avoided a second fermentation in the bottle because all too often, the build up of carbon dioxide caused the bottles to explode. In the 1600s, it was believed that evil spirits (not science) were responsible for such dramatic shattering of bottles.
Where does Gloucestershire come in?
In England, physician and scientist, Christopher Merrett had a curiosity about many things. He was born in Winchcombe in 1614 (24 years before Dom Perignon) and produced the first lists of British birds and butterflies, as well as becoming the chairman of the Royal Society's committee concerned with the history of trade and commerce. Between all these pursuits, he had an interest in both wine making and glass making. This was advantageous, as he was able to influence the way English wine bottles were made, and by the mid seventeenth century, the coal-powered factories in Newcastle upon Tyne produced much stronger bottles than were available in France. As a result the English could deliberatelyinduce a secondary fermentation in wine without the risk of blowing up the bottle.
In a paper presented to the newly formed Royal Society, Merrett described how English winemakers had been adding sugar to wines to give them a refreshing, bubbly quality - 30 years before Dom Pérignon supposedly got there first. "Our wine coopers of recent times use vast quantities of sugar and molasses to all sorts of wines to make them drink brisk and sparkling and to give them spirit," Christopher wrote.
It was the first time anyone had described the process or used the word "sparkling" to describe the end product, Winchcombe historian Jean Bray said.
It was Jean Bray along with folk artist Katie Morgan who applied to have the spot in Gloucester Street, where Merrett was born, marked with a blue plaque from the British Plaque Trust.
Merrett's birthplace was ironically a pub on the corner of Mill Lane and Gloucester Street and the house, which has been reconstructed since the 17th century, still has its cellar and barrel roll.“Published histories of Winchcombe have identified Christopher Merrett only as a distinguished physician and the author of a book of the complete flora and fauna as well as statements on the origin of fossils," she said. “We want to honour him above all as the inventor of English sparkling wine.”
Their application was successful and in May 2017, the plaque was officially unveiled as part of the Winchcombe festival celebrations.
We'll raise a glass to that!