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First description of sparkling wine

Think sparkling wine was invented in France? Think again. The first documented description of ‘secondary fermentation’ (or how to make a wine fizzy) was by an Englishman called Christopher Merrett on 17th December 1662.

And this was over 30 years before French Benedictine monk Dom Perignon was said to have invented Champagne.

Like a lot of gentleman scientists of the age (called natural philosophers), Merrett was a bit of a polymath. His interests ranged widely, from minting coins and tin mining in Cornwall to glassblowing and butterfly taxonomy (his 1666 Pinax Rerum Naturalium Britannicarum is now acknowledged to be the earliest complete list of the birds and butterflies of England). To be honest, his interest in wine-making seems low on his list of passions and priorities – which makes it all the more extraordinary that he was the man to describe such a fundamental wine-making technique.

After settling in London from his native Gloucestershire, he was primarily a physician, practising from 1640 onwards – even through the Black Death of the 1660s. As one of the founding members of the newly-formed Royal Society, he would have attended lectures and been abreast of all the latest thinking in the scientific community, which all fed into his treatise on secondary fermentation.

But before we get to what he said, a bit of historical context is needed. At the time, the English were making glass bottles that were much stronger than their French counterparts (ironically, they were more like the heavier bottles Champagne comes in today). Up to that point, glassmakers had been heating their furnaces with charcoal made from oak, but as the Royal Navy had banned the wood’s use for anything other than shipbuilding, the makers turned to coal instead. They found that coal burnt hotter anyway, making stronger glass that was less likely to explode.

Also, England at the time had developed a penchant for apple cider, which was sweet, fizzy and flavourful. It was the drinks trend of the era. By contrast, the flat white wine being imported from France was considered dry and bland. So the ever-inventive English would regularly add sugar to their bottles of French wine, so give it a more palatable sweetness and induce a slight fizziness due to secondary fermentation in the bottle.

On top of all this, Christopher Merrett – who as we know was a keen observer of the natural world – would have been taking notice of the vineyards around his home in Holborn. Yes, grape-growing was not only popular but common right in the heart of London at the time – which seems incredible today.

Against this historical backdrop, it seems only natural that he eventually presented an 8-page paper called Some Observations Concerning the Ordering of Wines to the Royal Society on 17th December 1662.

In it he describes the process of how London winemakers were already making sparkling wine: “Our Wine-coopers of latter times use vast quantities of Sugar and Melosses [molasses] to all sorts of Wines, to make them drink brisk [frothy] and sparkling and to give them Spirits”.

It was the first time anyone had described secondary fermentation. And the first time anyone had used the word ‘sparkling’ to describe the final wine.

In layman’s terms, he goes on to describe a process whereby a wine had undergone one initial fermentation, but extra sugar is then added in the bottle, that’s then sealed, forcing a second fermentation that creates bubbles.

The second fermentation of wine had happened before in France, but probably only accidentally, when the cold winter Champagne weather stopped yeast fermentation, only to begin again in the spring when the temperature rose. More often than not, this caused the French wine bottles to explode under the pressure, often decimating whole cellars.

But with England’s thicker glass, and the use of cork stoppers rather than wood, Merrett observed and documented English winemakers intentionally adding sugar to make bubbles. It was a technique that was later called ‘méthode champenoise’.


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