Pop Pop, Fiz Fiz: Balance and Bubbles
How the arts inspire one another is the alchemy of creative cross-pollination. In architecture and interiors, that interplay is obvious, if not always self-evident (interior design being a profession new to the 20th century, the whole decorative enchilada, inside and out, having in previous eras been the combined providence of the architect).
In ancient and old buildings of stone—be they classical, Romanesque, medieval, Renaissance, baroque, even rococo and certainly neo-classical—it’s often easiest to see how a structure “speaks” when it’s denuded of furnishings and decoration, when tone and tenor become clear. Is the voice elegant? Eloquent? Does it pose a question, or posit a solution, or both? Does it, in short, talk pretty?
The idea of a human-made environment as boon and buttress for thought—a safe haven for contemplation sensorial, spiritual or philosophical—is as ancient as the Greco-Roman atrium, which found translation over the centuries in the Islamic pleasure garden and Medieval Catholic cloister.
During a visit to the just re-opened Abbey of Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers in the Champagne region of France, a few hours drive from Paris, I was especially mindful how stones, and the spaces and volumes they make, inspire, their balance and harmony encouraging breakthroughs in other arenas—in this case those that start with a pop and then get bubbly. Because buzz notwithstanding, this abbey was home for over forty-five years to Dom Pierre Pérignon (c. 1638-1715), the monk who is the father of Champagne.
While it’s clear he did not invent champers, Pérignon, the abbey’s cellar master from 1670 until his death, was indisputably Champagne’s greatest and earliest pioneer. He improved quality and set standards for production that would be refined progressively in the 19th century—the celebratory result summed up in an apocryphal Pérignon quote from a late 19th-century print advertisement: “Come quickly, I’m drinking the stars!”
In the ensuing three centuries, most Pérignon particulars have been lost. Still, it’s known that when he came to the province weak red wine was its norm. It’s also known he created clear white wines from black grapes (Pinot Noir) by clever, innovative manipulation of their pressing, and that he was the first wine maker to understand the idea of terroir (that grapes grown in different sections of a district, or even a sub-section of a district, yield different attributes and tastes). It’s known he evolved into a wine whisperer who learned how to bottle Champagne at just the correct moment to preserve its bubbles, and that he employed thicker glass to discourage explosions caused by the wine’s second fizzy fermentation, single explosions often then starting disastrous chain reactions.
What remains a mystery is what inspired the gentle, humble Benedictine to launch an oenophilic revolution? Or what, in other words, enabled Pérignon to conceive of an improved sparkling wine, when sparkling wine was very much a novelty?
And having done so, what then emboldened him to embark upon a journey that would occupy him for well over four decades, its resolution predicated on the reconciling of Champagne’s many disparate elements, both technical and taste?
No documentary evidence exists, unfortunately. But just as there came to be balance in Champagne, so was there first architectural harmony in the Abbey of Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers.
Situated next to vineyards on a postcard-pretty hillside outside of Epernay, the abbey and its grounds just received a makeover costing several million euros and taking several years, the work initiated, planned and paid for by the property’s owner, Moët & Chandon. (Dom Pérignon is the house of Moët & Chandon’s tête de cuvee, or top of the line.)
Like the monk’s favored drink, the Abbey of Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers is a mix. Fully rebuilt in 1692, it incorporates earlier architectural elements, such as Romanesque columns (with grape-vine motifs, no less), with some later decorative detail, namely window frames with small 19th-century mouth-blown panes.
The park, gardens, cloister and renowned Sainte-Hélène portal were fully restored, and the monastery’s former library was renovated; it’s now a tranquil tasting and event space. Connected to the abbey is Hautvillers’ church, where Dom Pérignon’s tomb occupies a place of honor.
It’s a mosaic of and in balance. Like the vintage beverage that bears his name.
(All photos credited to Stephane Cardinale.)
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