No Merret in Digby: taking issue with an eminence grise

Decanter magazine recently published a highly inaccurate letter about a topic that demands a full and swift response. It was written by Hugh Johnson, who I admire more than any other living wine writer. I caught the wine bug from his epic and totally revolutionary The World Atlas of Wine, which was the first work of reference to give wine a sense of place. When I picked up that book, it changed my life: wine became my career. I literally owe Hugh my livelihood, but he could not have got things more wrong when it came to his recent letter. And because time is very much of the essence, as readers will discover, I cannot wait for Decanter to publish a response. Nor would a letter be a sufficient response. The only way to achieve a timely publication of a sufficiently comprehensive response is to do it myself, here on wine-pages.

In the Letters column of the September issue of Decanter, Hugh marginalises the relevance of one “William Merrett” [sic] and bizarrely suggests that Sir Kenelm Digby should be regarded as the real hero of the méthode champenoise revolution. As Merret’s famous paper was written on 17 December 1662, it would be grossly unfair to allow Hugh’s error-strewn letter to ruin the 350th anniversary of his paper’s place in history. Obviously Hugh meant Christopher Merret, not William Merrett (although his surname can be spelt with either one or two ‘t’s, there is good reason why I use one1), but he is plain wrong, not just confused, in believing that Merret was the author of The Mysterie of Vintners2.He is also wrong in thinking that he might have started “the hare in Chapter 12 of [his] Story of Wine” as that particular hare had been running for 84 years before his book was first published3. However, the biggest travesty is that for no good reason, indeed for no reason at all that he cares to share with us in his letter, Hugh simply dismisses Merret’s role as the first person to document the méthode champenoise. Instead, he ascribes the invention of Champagne to a combination of accidentally sparkling wine and the development of the stronger glass that was “patented by the swash-buckling Sir Kenelm Digby”, who he then nominates “hero of the revolution”.

Digby had nothing to do with méthode champenoise and he was only a bit player in part of the technology that enabled the English to make the first sparkling Champagne. If that makes Digby the hero, then Bradley Wiggins should have refused the yellow jersey and given it to Adidas.

If that makes Digby the hero, then Bradley Wiggins should have refused the yellow jersey and given it to Adidas.

I was not surprised by parts of Hugh’s letter. He has mentioned his sceptical view of Merret to me on a couple of occasions. While historians have searched for the very first mention of the word “sparkling” in connection with wine, rather than “gay”, “brisk” or “lively” (all words often thought to infer a degree of effervescence), Hugh has postulated that the first use of “sparkling” might simply be synonymous with brightness and clarity. If the word “sparkling” was used without the verb “to drink”, then Hugh might have a point, but “to drink … sparkling” can only refer to a substantive tactile impression. However, “sparkling” is not the smoking gun in Merret’s paper, but before I breakdown the famous quote word by word to reveal what is, and before I list and dismiss all of Hugh’s errors, I shall reproduce his letter to reassure readers that I am not misquoting him:

Hugh Johnson’s letter to Decanter magazine

Digby the unsung hero
With all the talk of English Wine lately, the name of William Merrett is increasingly being taken in vain as the supposed ‘inventor’ of Champagne. I’m all in favour of references to this curious doctor, the author of The Mysterie of Vintners of 1662, but it would be a pity to misunderstand his role.I may have started the hare in Chapter 12 of my Story of Wine. Without naming him, I quote Merrett and his recipe for adding molasses to ‘all sorts of wines’ to make them drink ‘brisk and sparkling’ and linked it to a mention by Samuel Butler in his Hudibras of 1663, of ‘brisk champagne’.

I’m pretty sure the coincidence of two events was what ‘invented’ Champagne. One was the Restoration fashion for (still) wine from Champagne prompted by racy French courtiers of Charles II. The other was a new technique for making glass in England, firing the furnace with coal instead of wood, patented by the swash-buckling Sir Kenelm Digby, resulting in stronger (and darker) glass.

Champagne bottled in English cellars soon popped its cork. Once the cork was tied down, using the ‘string-rim’ on the new bottles, the carbon dioxide in the wine was obliged to stay in solution, emerging as fizz when the string was cut and the cork expelled. It may well be that the vintners added molasses to Champagne, but it was the one wine in the world that would make bubbles in bottles without assistance. And I suspect, as it was the fashionable premium wine ordered by grandees, that Merrett’s methods were unlikely to be applied in their cellars.

The French and Dom Pérignon in particular, deprecated the English idea. Louis XIV banned trade in bottled Champagne (perhaps since French bottles couldn’t take the pressure). Until the 1690s fizzy Champagne was the preserve of the English.

By all means, then, let’s celebrate William Merrett as a respected wine-doctor, respected enough to report to the newly found Royal Society. For hero of the revolution, though, I nominate the diplomat, naval commander, celebrated lover, Royal Society committee member and cookbook author Sir Kenelm Digby. Perhaps we can look forward to a Cuvée Digby – or even Digby as a name for our brilliant English bubbly?

Hugh Johnson OBE, Essex, UK

In the beginning…

Still wines from northerly Champagne were not always fully fermented when they were shipped to England in the 17th century, but as soon as temperatures rose the following spring, fermentation would recommence. The English had been bottling all sorts of wine since at least the late 16th century and, as Hugh correctly explains, when the corks are tied down with string “the carbon dioxide in the wine was obliged to stay in solution, emerging as fizz when the string was cut and the cork expelled”. As the product of small and varied amounts of sugar left over from incomplete first fermentations, the bottling of still wine from Champagne would have inadvertently yielded various degrees of relatively light effervescence. None of this is in dispute, but the relevance of this happenstance to the invention of méthode champenoise is.

When these slightly effervescent wines became popular, English vintners came under pressure to satisfy increasing demand. They would have been aware that there was a problem of variability, with some bottles having no fizz at all, and would seek to minimise the incidence of failure. Presumably they noticed that the sweeter the wine, the more successful its effervescence, while the drier the wine, the greater the failure rate, hence the addition of “sugar & molasses”, but sometimes the sweeter wines did not referment and it is at this point that the story moves from incidental to invention.

Vintners knew of fermentation in 17th century and had noted that gas “boiled” during this process, but they did not know about the role of yeast, a discovery that would not be made for another 200 years. Ignorant of yeast, the vintners could only use by trial and error everything they knew about how to start a fermentation and to keep it going. We do not know the real heroes. Who did what and when. We know only that by 1662 English vintners had perfected a repeatable method, not of extending the first fermentation, but of promoting an entirely new, second fermentation. Merret was never going to be the hero, of course, he was just the messenger, but we should be grateful for the fact that he was one of the best possible witnesses of such events in the 17th century. He was a scientist who was trained to observe and understood what he saw to the highest level of knowledge for his era. The pity is that Hugh refuses to accept the importance of the process that Merret observed or the clarity of Merret’s explanation of that process:

Okay, let’s analyse the quote in detail:

merret quote

“Our wine coopers of later times use vast quantities of sugar & molasses to all sorts of wines to make the drink brisk & sparkling & to give them spirit as also to mend their bad tastes, all of which raisins & cute & stum perform.”

“vast quantities”
Emphasis on the large volume indicates that the amount used is exceptional and therefore more than would have been used for merely sweetening up a wine.

“later times”
Clearly a recent practice.

“sugar & molasses”
This source of sugar determines a second fermentation, rather than a continuation of the first.

“all sorts of wines”
The secondary fermentation process was obviously applied not just to Champagne, but to all sorts of wine. However, within just 14 years “sparkling Champaign” [sic] was so famous in London that it transcended verbal reference to be enshrined in English literature5. From this, we can assume that the structure and character of Champagne was particularly suited to the new and highly popular sparkling style.

“drink brisk & sparkling”
Not just pétillant or lightly effervescent, but fully sparkling. This is the first reference to the word sparkling in direct context to wine in any language, anywhere in the world. Henceforth we find that every documented instance of “sparkling Champagne” refers unambiguously to a fully sparkling style of wine, so much so that Champagne became synonymous fully sparkling wine. The use of “to make them drink” clearly rules out any notion that sparkling might be a visual tribute.

“to give them spirit”
In 17th century English, “spirits” are the very essence of the wine as they “moveth” during fermentation, but “spirit” in the singular is alcohol and in the context of making the wines drink sparkling, this can only refer to the alcohol given to the wine by its second fermentation.

“all of which raisins & cute & stum perform”
This refers to how the sugar and molasses are made to perform the second fermentation. The raisins are the source of yeast and also provide more sugar to be converted into carbonic gas. English vintners might not have known anything about yeast, but they knew that the addition of raisins would ignite a new fermentation. I used to lazily accept everybody else’s conclusion that “cute” was “cure”, until I looked closely at the manuscript, where it clearly states “cute”. This is the 17th century English for concentrated must, as defined by Merret himself, just seven lines below his famous quote, where he writes “cute (which is wine boild [sic] to the consumption of ½)”. As with the raisins, this concentrated must would provide more sugar to be converted into carbonic gas. Hugh gets “stum perform” wrong in The Story of Wine, defining it as wine that is “muted or stopped”. Whereas this would be correct in the modern usage of “keeping stum” or, indeed, the Old Dutch origin of the word, the use of “stum” had a much different, more specific meaning when writing about wine in Restoration English. As Merret himself put it a page or so before his famous quote:

“A little stum put to wine decaid [sic] makes it ferment afresh”…And here we have the smoking gun! For “stum perform” we can read “second fermentation”

So there it is, the English did invent the Champagne process, and they did so at least six years before Dom Pérignon set foot in Champagne, more than 30 years before the French made their first sparkling Champagne, over 60 years before mousseux was mentioned in connection with wine in a French dictionary, and almost 80 years before Ruinart, the first Champagne house, was established.

“A little stum put to wine decaid [sic] makes it ferment afresh”and here we have the smoking gun! For “stum perform” we can read “second fermentation”

English vs. French technology…

Not only did the English invent sparkling Champagne before the French, but the French could not have invented it in 1662, if they had wanted to. They did not have the technology. The French did not have cork stoppers. The Romans introduced the cork throughout its empire, including the regions that would become France and England, but the French “lost” the cork, whereas the English did not. At the time, the French were using hemp-wrapped wooden bungs, which would have been hard pressed to keep wine in a bottle, let alone carbonic gas. Furthermore, French bottles were not robust enough for storage and were little more than carafes for serving wine. French glass was wood-fired, whereas English glass was coal-fired. Coal burned at a significantly higher temperature, resulting in a stronger glass. Hugh’s hero Sir Kenelm Digby was involved in the elaboration of bottle glass, but he was not instrumental in the development of the coal-fired furnace, which made English glass stronger in the first place. Digby certainly was not the inventor of the coal-fired furnace, as implied by the second sentence of the third paragraph in Hugh’s letter4.

Hugh speculates that the method observed by Merret was not applied to “the fashionable premium wine ordered by grandees”. Well maybe, maybe not, but it does nothing to alter the fact that secondary fermentation was widely used in London at the time. Merret refers to “Our wine coopers of later times”, a sweeping statement that infers at least a certain degree of widespread usage. Widespread enough that within 14 years the sparkling wine produced by this method was exclusively from Champagne and so popular in London that Sir George Etherege wrote about it in The Man of Mode:

To the Mall and the Park
Where we love till ’tis dark,
Then sparkling Champaign
Puts an end to their reign;
It quickly recovers
Poor languishing lovers,
Makes us frolick and gay, and drowns all sorrow;
But, Atlas, we relapse again on the morrow.

English sparkling wine…

As for changing the “name for our brilliant English bubbly” to Digby, I have gradually come to the conclusion that this is neither necessary, nor desirable. English sparkling wine does what it says on the bottle. Although the term “sparkling wine” had a negative connotation 10 years or so ago, it does not offend any more. In fact, with the increase in sales of some sparkling wines bucking the downward trend of wine in general, it must be assumed that it now has a positive connotation. This is thanks to the rapidly rising quality of the most successful sparkling wines from outside of Champagne, with the best English sparkling wines having played a major role in the rehabilitation of this style. However, what Merret described was a method, not a wine, and the English wine trade would have much to gain by registering “The Original English 1662 Method” with the EU as an official designation for a sparkling wine produced by a secondary fermentation in the bottle in which it is sold. The shorter, nicely alliterate “Merret’s Method” is probably a non-starter because the name of Merret has been commercially associated with Ridgeview for so long that some of the other producers would never accept it.

The pitch to the EU should refuse to allow the acceptance of “The Original English 1662 Method” as synonymous with Traditional Method, as that designation has always been subservient to méthode champenoise, which is allowed only for Champagne, the producers of which never bother to use it. The English designation must stand alone from Traditional Method and méthode champenoise, as it predates both. However, I would suggest that like Champagne, the producers of English sparkling wines should not be obliged to use “The Original English 1662 Method”. All the documented evidence is on our side, but whether the EU accepts the proposal would not matter. If it does, then Merret’s 350 year old observation becomes enshrined in EU law, officially endorsing English sparkling wine’s historical precedence over Champagne. However, if it does not, then English winemakers simply use it on their back label, and keep pressing their case. The story runs and runs, providing a longterm source of publicity that will eventually make Merret more famous than Dom Pérignon.

1. The Royal Society’s own records contain both spellings, and it would seem that Merret himself also used both spellings. His original paper, Some Observations concerning the Ordering of Wines, was filed under Merret with one ‘t’ when I acquired a copy for publication in Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (Absolute Press, 1998). Although there are instances of two ‘t’s in other documents, Merret often preferred just one.

2. Another doctor by the name of Walter Charleton was the author of The Mysterie of Vintners. The confusion with Merret stems from the fact that some surviving copies are missing the imprint page containing Charleton’s name and appended to this work is a printed version of Some Observations concerning the Ordering of Wines, which is duly credited to “Dr. Merret”.

3. Hugh Johnson quoted only Merret’s words, not his name, in The Story of Wine, which was first published in 1989, but André Simon had done likewise a full 84 years earlier in his very first book, The History of the Champagne Trade in England (1905). Like Hugh, Simon attributed the quote to another publication, but his was The Art and Mystery of Vintners and Wine Coopers, by one who served two apprenticeships to a Vintner in the City of London (1675), which is a different work to The Mysterie of Vintners mentioned in Hugh’s book, although the two works extensively quote numerous similar sources and consequently overlap one another. The book Hugh refers to was first published in 1669, not 1662, as he states. In the modern era, Merret’s name was first mentioned in print in 1967, when Patrick Forbes published Champagne: The Wine, The Land, and The People. Forbes, like Hugh, linked Merret’s quote in the very next line to the “brisk champagne” mentioned in Samuel Butler’s Hudibras.

4. So many patents, licenses and monopolies were dispensed by the King and Parliament in the early 17th century that I would be loathe even to suggest that Sir Kenelm Digby did not have one for the coal-fired furnace, as Hugh claims. In any case, a patent at this juncture in history was not a granting of any right or recognition of invention. The word originally meant an open letter from the king, and by the early 17th century it had evolved into a patent of monopoly granted by the monarch. In this particular case, however, the patent was also a license to invent and develop the coal-fired furnace before enjoying its monopoly. So even had Digby been awarded a patent, it did not mean that he had invented the coal-fired furnace, something which was, in any case, impossible. Digby was born much too late. The coal-fired glass furnace was perfected sometime between 1611 and 1613, when Digby was just 8-10 years of age. Digby did not build his coal-fired glassworks at Newnham on Severn until 1632. Albert Hartshorn in Old English Glasess [sic] was “certain that coal furnaces were in use for glass-making in many places in England as early as 1608”, but most modern day glassmaking historians would agree with Dr. Eleanor Godfrey, who has determined that Thomas Percival “was the first person to use coal successfully for making glass” in 1611. The word “successfully” is the operative word here because coal burned at a significantly hotter temperature and this had many implications on how a coal-fired furnace should be designed. It was not simply a matter of replacing one fuel with the other. Fundamental changes to the construction of a furnace had to be tried and tested before it could be demonstrated to work effectively, efficiently and continuously at significantly higher temperatures. The most obvious change was the repositioning of the fire and deployment of specially adapted flues, but the most difficult obstacle to overcome was the reconfiguration of the melting pot. This is the vessel that contains the molten glass.

In wood-fired furnaces, such pots were made of clay in a simple, open-bowl design for ease of access, but in the greater heat of a coal-fired furnace, they shattered very quickly, consequently much tougher clays (later called “fireclays”) had to sought and tested. Furthermore, the open-bowl design caused the glass to become tainted with impurities from the coal fumes, forcing the development of less accessible, closed-pot designs. Coal-fired furnaces thus went through several degrees of relative “success” before glassmakers were able to take full advantage of their new fuel. It was thus more of an informal collaborative effort than the work of any single inventor (especially one some 20 years in the future by the name of Digby), with even some of the less successful designs contributing something of use to the final package. The first coal-fired glass furnace patent was issued in 1610 to financier Sir William Slingsby and his co-inventor partners Andrew Palmer, Edward Wolverston and Robert Clayton, who were licensed to make “all kinds of glass with sea-coal, pit-coal, or any other fuel not being timber or wood” for 21 years, but as often happened, it was soon rescinded and other patents issued.

Some, like John Rovenzon, Edward Salter and Simon Sturtevant, tried and failed without any financial backing (both Simon Sturtevant and John Rovenzon published treatises advocating the adoption of coal-burning furnaces), but generally the patents were granted to financiers (such as Viscount Andever, Lord Dudley, Sir Thomas Howard, Sir Robert Mansell, Earl of Montgomery, Sir Thomas Tracy, Sir Edward Zouche), and they took in co-inventor partners (e.g., Thomas Hayes, Robert Kellaway, Thomas Mefflyn, Thomas Percival, Bevis Thelwall and Paul Tyzack, to name just a few). It was the combined effort of such people that enabled the coal-fired furnace to be developed, but if one person has to be singled out as the “hero” of superior English glass technology in the 17th century, it must be Mansell. As Vice Admiral of the Narrow Seas (the English Channel) and Treasurer of the Navy, Mansell was worried about the decimation of English forests by charcoal burners. He feared they would jeopardise British shipbuilding, which would threaten the future of fleet and, as an island dependent on the sea, that would endanger the security of a nation. Accordingly he persuaded James I to ban the burning of wood and charcoal in 1615. With the development of coal-fired furnaces perfected between 1611 and 1613, the switch to coal was as instant as any changing production process could possibly be at the beginning of the 17th century. There is no doubt that Mansell gained a huge financial profit from this situation, but equally there is no doubt that he was, more than anyone else, the prime motivator in English glass becoming a vastly stronger product.

In 1615, Mansell joined Sir Edward Zouche’s “oligarchy”, the latest patent owners for the coal-fired furnace, all of whom he soon bought out, to be granted a patent of his own. When Parliament passed the Statute of Monopolies in 1624, Mansell even managed to ensure that his glassmaking monopoly was specifically excluded, after which he maintained sole control until 1642, when it only came to a halt because of the Civil War. Mansell was also instrumental in further strengthening English glass, albeit unwittingly, when added a combination of iron and manganese to colour the glass, and ended up toughening it. Digby is credited with having invented bottle glass and producing the first wine bottle with a “string lip” or “string rim”, under which string securing a cork may be tied, but the “proof” is very similar to that relied on by the French to demonstrate that sparkling Champagne was produced as early as 1697 in that country. They rely on a document called Mémoire sur le Manière de cultiver la Vigne et de faire le Vin de en Champagne, which was written in 1718 by an anonymous author (believed to be Jean Godinot) and contains the first use of the term “vin mousseux”, referring to its popularity having been established “more than 20 years earlier”. This is not proof, of course, but neither is the evidence for Digby. In 1661 Henry Holden and John Colnet (a former employee of Digby) claimed “the Invention and Manufacture of Glass Bottles” in their application for a patent as part of the Glass Bottles Bill of 1661 “for preventing of Frauds and Abuses in the Making and Vending of them”, but the Bill was rejected in 1662 after hearing evidence from Edward Percival, William Sadler, John Vinion and Robert Ward, all also former employees of Digby, who claimed that Digby had invented bottle glass “near 30 years hence”. Although Parliament accepted this assertion, it was, like Godinot’s claim, no more than hearsay.

Both statements are probably true, but 20 and 30 years after the events in question, they do not represent proof. As with Thomas Percival, the supposed inventor of the coal-fired furnace, a lot of other people were involved in the development of bottle glass. English vintners were bottling all sorts of wines in long-necked glass bottles since the late 16th century. They were much thicker than French bottles of the same time, therefore stood up to storage, whereas French bottles did not, but would they have withstood the pressure of fully sparkling Champagne? No, despite being much thicker, they were wood-fired. Would the first bottles produced by coal-fired furnaces have withstood the pressure? Probably, but there would be breakages. However, after the introduction of coal-fired glass in France, the breakages in Champagne cellars were so regular that cellar workers had to wear protective face masks until the early 20th century. As bottle glass developed in both countries, it was not a matter of overcoming the problem, just of reducing the percentage of breakages. We don’t know what improvements Digby made, but it is likely that his bottles were stronger than those that went before, just as it is likely that the strength of the product continued to increase in the 30 years between Digby and Mansell’s observations. With the fashion for sparkling Champagne documented 14 years later, there would have been even greater demands to increase the strength of glass bottles.