Christopher Merrett and the beginnings of champagne

We think of champagne as being quintessentially French: the label ‘champagne’ and even the term ‘champagne method’ are fiercely protected by the French government and strictly regulated by European legislation. But it was an Englishman, Christopher Merrett (1614–1695), the Royal College of Physicians' (RCP’s) first Harveian librarian and a founder fellow of the Royal Society, who originally described the distinctive ‘méthode champenoise’, several years before the monk Dom Pérignon began his experiments at the Benedictine Abbey at Hautvillers.

On 17 December 1662, just 2 years after the restoration of the British monarchy and the banishing of state-imposed puritanism, Merrett presented a paper on winemaking before the newly-formed Royal Society. In Some observations concerning the ordering of wines, he succinctly describes the process of 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’.

‘Some observations concerning the ordering of wines’ in ‘The mysterie of vintners’. Christopher Merrett, published London, 1669.

Merrett was describing the ‘second fermentation’ process where, after an initial fermentation, sugar is again added to the bottle, giving the wine naturally produced bubbles. This second fermentation had sometimes happened accidently to the wines produced in the Champagne region: cold weather occasionally stopped fermentation, which began again in spring as the temperature rose. If this happened, the wine bottles often exploded under the pressure, causing havoc in the cellars. According to Merrett, English winemakers and importers were, for the first time, intentionally adding bubbles, aided by the development of thicker, more durable glass able to withstand the effervescence.

‘Some observations concerning the ordering of wines’ in ‘The mysterie of vintners’. Christopher Merrett, published London, 1669.

Christopher Merrett was one of a group of 17th century gentleman scientists, nobleman and polymaths who established the Royal Society. Merrett was born in 1614 in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, and studied medicine at Oxford, initially at Gloucester Hall and then at Oriel, gaining his Bachelor of Medicine degree in June 1636. He settled in London around 1640 and began to practise as a physician. In 1651, he became a fellow of the RCP and in 1654 was the Goulstonian lecturer.

In the same year, he was nominated by his Oxford friend, William Harvey (1578–1657), as the first keeper of the library and museum, a live-in, rent-free appointment at the College’s house at Amen Corner. Merrett went on to write the first catalogue, printed in 1660.

Illustration of Gresham College in The lives of the professors of Gresham College. John Ward, published London, 1740. Wellcome Library, London.

Merrett was also a member of the ‘Invisible College’, a precursor of the Royal Society, which was formed around the year 1645. At their weekly meetings in London, as one of their number, Dr John Wallis, later remembered, they discussed ‘Philosophical Inquiries, and such as related thereunto; as Physick, Anatomy, Geometry, Astronomy, Navigation, Staticks, Mechanicks, and Natural Experiments.’ Some of the group’s members moved on to Oxford, where they formed the Oxford Philosophical Society.

After the Restoration, many returned to London, continued their discussions and experiments, and decided to establish a formal group. At a meeting at Gresham College in November 1660, Merrett was one of 40 men who were proposed to become founder fellows of the ‘Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’ (or the ‘Royal Society’).

Arms of the Royal Society in The record of the Royal Society of London for the promotion of natural knowledge. Published London, 1940.

Merrett quickly became an active member of the new Society. The papers he wrote – including on subjects as diverse as Lincolnshire, tin mining in Cornwall and the art of refining – reflect the Royal Society’s original extensive remit of gathering information on all knowledge, not just what we would today think of as ‘science’. Thomas Sprat, a fellow who wrote the Royal Society’s first history in 1667, described the Society’s aims as ‘to make faithful Records, of all the Works of Nature, or Art, which can come within their reach’.

Sprat acknowledged their debt to commerce: of the groups he describes who gave ‘incouragements’ to the Society, he lists merchants first. They ‘have assisted it with their presence: and thereby have added the industrious, punctual, and active Genius of men of Traffick, to the quiet, sedentary, and reserv’d temper of men of learning.’

The merchants were also crucial as data collectors: Sprat describes one of the Society’s first means of collecting information – sending questionnaires to contacts, usually traders and their agents, at home and abroad, some of which he published in his book. Merrett was then one of several fellows who were busy adding to ‘knowledge’ by documenting histories of trades and industries: in June 1664, his work was recognised by his appointment as chairman of the Royal Society’s new official committee for the history of trades.

Some six years after Merrett’s report on wine production, Pierre Pérignon was appointed as the cellar master at Hautvillers, and was given the task of improving the quality of the wine made in the abbey’s vineyards, including finding ways of preventing the formation of bubbles. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the English taste for sparkling wines spread to France. Following the death of Louis XIV in 1715, the new regent, Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, sparked a craze for the sparkling version of champagne; winemakers in the Champagne region began to produce fizzy wine in response and went on to create a hugely successful industry. Not for the last time an English innovation led to commercial success elsewhere.

After a sparkling beginning, Merrett’s own career fell flat. During the plague which hit London in 1665, he escaped to the country, deserting the Royal College of Physicians’ building at Amen Corner. While he was away, thieves broke in and the College’s treasure chest, containing cash and other valuables, was emptied. Merrett returned, but shortly after another disaster occurred – the Great Fire of London. He managed to save some of the most valuable books, but the College’s building (and library) was lost. With no library to oversee, the College decided it did not need a keeper and the decision was made to abolish Merrett’s post. This he vehemently disputed. After several court cases, in 1681 the College decided to take away his fellowship, ostensibly on the grounds that he had failed to attend a meeting to which he had been summoned. Four years later, the Royal Society also expelled Merrett, this time for being in arrears with his subscriptions.

Sarah Gillam, assistant editor, Munk's Roll

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