Champagne - invented by an Englishman

In popular but inaccurate history, Champagne was invented by the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon, who died on September 14th, 1715. He allegedly discovered the 'methode champenoise' at the Abbey of Hautvilliers in 1697. No. Some 35 years earlier in 1662, an Englishman, Christopher Merret, delivered a paper to the newly-formed Royal Society revealing how to add sugar to a finished wine to create a secondary fermentation in the bottle.

A problem was encountered that the glass bottles of the time were fairly weak, and tended to explode with the pressure. The explosion of one in a cellar could trigger a chain reaction that exploded hundreds of bottles. Stronger bottles were needed. Here, too, it was English scientists and inventors who came up with the goods. Glass at the time was made using charcoal furnaces, but when this was banned so that wood was reserved for navy ships rather than charcoal, glassmakers began experimenting with coal.

Merret himself was among those who developed the stout bottles that could contain the bubbles, the early ones looking something like large onions. Because coal added impurities, the stout bottles tended to be dark and opaque, but they did the job.

Merret wrote, "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." It was the first recorded description of the process and the use of the word “sparkling” to describe fizzy wine. In England Merret and his contemporaries initially used the process with apples, rather than grapes, to make sparkling cider. It is, nonetheless, the 'methode champenoise' that is a source of French national pride. And the French rapidly caught on to the advances in English glassmaking technology, with early accounts of their champagne making referring to “verre Anglaise,” or English glass.

There’s a plaque honouring Merret’s achievements in the Cotsworld town of Winchcombe, but in fact he was one of a number of people who were experimenting with different methods of brewing and glassmaking. It was the early start of something remarkable, an age of invention and innovation that developed into the Industrial Revolution, the phenomenon that led to the modern world.

The historian T S Ashton describes how a schoolboy wrote, “About 1760 a wave of gadgets swept over England,” in answer to a question on the Industrial Revolution. That anonymous schoolboy has been quoted in many subsequent books on the subject because it sums up something unprecedented: an age of improvement in which it became respectable, even practically a duty, for people to experiment and innovate in order to make more of what people wanted, and to make it more efficiently. It was under way well before 1760, as Merret’s example shows us.

Much of this was the outcome of an empirical approach, with inventors testing new ideas in practice, and learning from experience how to adapt and improve them. The English tended not to build vast, all-embracing systems of thought like their Continental counterparts, but to concentrate on real-world experience. Their development of the champagne process is but one example among thousands. They did what worked, and then improved it. And they still do.