Posted by Victor Keegan
on May 07, 2016
AT LONG last Christopher Merrett, the 17th century English scientist who first established what is now called the méthode champenoise – long before Dom Perignon – is to get official recognition. Local historians have now discovered exactly where he lived in the Gloucestershire village of Winchcombe and have applied for a plaque to be put up. When I wrote about this two years ago it was thought that the house – actually a pub – where Merrett was born was on Gloucester Street on the the corner of Mill Lane. This was true. But it turns out it was the wrong corner. The actual building is the one in the picture above and not the one on the other side of the lane part of which can be seen on the left of the photo. The house has been reconstructed since the 17th century but still has the original cellar and barrel roll.
Local writer Jean Bray and folk artist Katie Morgan have applied to have a plaque to commemorate Christopher Merret’s undersung achievement. Most people (especially in France!) still believe that Dom Perignon invented champagne but he actually came onto the scene nearly 30 years after Merrett.
In Merrett’s time Champagne in France was a still white wine. If a secondary fermentation happened it was regarded as a disaster because it would explode the bottles which were then made of weak glass. In a paper to the newly-formed Royal Society in December 1662 (uncovered by the champagne expert Tom Stevenson 20 years ago) Merret described how winemakers deliberately added sugar to create a secondary fermentation. There was no explosion because English bottles, unlike the French ones, were made in coal-fired furnaces able to produce stronger glass than the traditional woodburning techniques.
Merrett went to Oxford and worked in London while living in Hatton Garden which had a large vineyard in those days though it is not known whether Merrett was involved with it. He was buried in St Andrew’s Church, Holborn.
Jean Bray is to give a talk entitled “The Englishman who invented Champagne” at 7.30pm on Thursday May 26 at the Chandos Hall in Winchcombe as part of Winchcombe Festival of Music and Arts. It is sponsored by Strawberry Hill Vineyard of Newent which is one of the nearest vineyards to Winchcombe (price £8 including a glass of sparkling).
It is great that Winchcombe is celebrating its most famous son but there are dozens of vineyards around the country whose success can ultimately be traced back to Christopher Merrett (picture, left) who don’t celebrate him enough. This is partly because Ridgeview vineyard established Merrett as a trade mark. This may have been a shrewd move commercially but it may also have hampered the scope of vineyards in the UK to capitalise on a name that, in truth, ought to be more widely known than Dom Perignon.
Merret’s house is the second one on the right
It is 400 years since the birth of Chistopher Merret (1614 – 1695), the Englishman who first set out the principles of how to make what is now called Champagne. Dom Perignon came along much later. This weekend, the place where he was born – Winchcombe in Gloucestershire – is holding a small Festival of Fizz to celebrate this little-known occasion. In Merret’s time Champagne was a still white wine. If a secondary fermentation happened it was regarded as a disaster because it would explode the bottles which were then made of weak glass. In a paper to the newly-formed Royal Society in December 1662 (uncovered by the champagne expert Tom Stevenson 20 years ago) Merret described how winemakers deliberately added sugar to create a secondary fermentation. There was no explosion because English bottles, unlike the French ones, were made in coal-fired factories able to produce stronger glass than the traditional woodburning techniques. There was a shift to coal because wood was being prioritised for the navy because the Government was worried that a shortage of wood might affect the building of ships.
These days even the French admit that the English invented the “méthode champenoise”. Indeed the first mention of the word “Champaign'” anywhere was in English literature of the time.
While being delighted that Winchcombe is staging a festival this weekend I am surprised that the booming English and Welsh sparkling wine industry, which is awash with international gold medals, didn’t use the opportunity for a big marketing effort. I only heard about the festival two days ago when I read an eye-catching tweet from Oliver Chance of Strawberry Hill Vineyard (@englishbubbly) who said that Strawberry Hill was the nearest sparkling wine producer to the birthplace of the inventor: a great pitch but be careful, Oliver if you bump into @elgarwine – they could have a counter claim!
I am very grateful to Jean Bray, historian and journalist, – who is giving a talk on Merret at the White Hart Winchcombe at 6pm this Sunday (25th) – for guiding me to the house where he was born, a former pub called the Crown, on the corner of Mill Lane and Gloucester Street (see above). It is presumed, she said, that he was educated at the local grammar school – an Inigo Jones building now called Jacobean House – on the same side of the road opposite the church (just as it is presumed that Shakespeare went to his local grammar school though there is no actual evidence in either case). There are brass plates to his parents in the church on the right side wall as you enter (see, right).
Merret was a bit of a renaissance man excelling in other fields including compiling the first list of birds and the source of fossils. The son of a mercer, he went to Oxford and worked in London while living in Hatton Garden (which had a large vineyard in those days) and was buried in St Andrew’s Church, Holborn where Dickens was baptised. I am sure the fizz festival will be a deserved success and I wonder whether it will spawn a bigger idea. Could it do for Winchcombe and English sparkling wine what Hay-on-Wye did for second hand books?
Meanwhile, we should all raise a glass of English fizz this weekend to toast Christopher Merret, the man who chronicled the invention of méthode champenoise before the French turned it into one of the most successful brands ever. Now is the time to bring it all back home.
The local grammar school built by Inigo Jones (above, eft)
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Bride Valley Vineyard, Dorset, grower of classic grapes for sparkling wine
From Victor Keegan’s new book Alchemy of Age published this week
What makes Champagne go full throttle
Is secondary fermentation in a bottle.
This is an invention without which
Sparkling wine would be mere kitsch.
And who made this spectacular advance?
In folk law, a monk, Dom Perignon of France.
But wait. hear Christopher Merrett’s scientific view,
Which he wrote in a paper in sixteen hundred and sixty two
Without any mock Gallic piety,
He told the newly formed Royal Society
He’d invented this huge oenological advance
That let wine ferment in bottles first,
That were strong enough not to burst.
Britain’s gift to an ungrateful France –
It created that country’s strongest brand.
So, let’s raise a glass in our hand,
To a great man’s invention from afar
And drink to the Methode – not Champenois
But Merrettois. Let all by their merrets be
Judged that the whole world can see
That however we may be thought insane,
We gave the French – for free – Champagne
You can buy Alchemy of Age here