As it happens, it has also taken three years to restore the magisterial abbey, cloisters, and gardens of Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers, the hillside monastery where a Benedictine monk named Pierre Pérignon came upon the méthode champenoise in 1670. The monks prayed at Saint-Sindulphe, an austere yet elegant stone church built on the monastery grounds in 1698, which has carvings of grapevines on the oak pulpit. It is here that Dom Pérignon is buried.
The Abbey d’Hautvillers, built in 650, was sacked and burned many times over the centuries. All that remains of the original structure today is a main building featuring a beautiful cloister gallery and an entrance built in 1692, known as the Porte Saint-Hélène. To restore the portal, Dom Pérignon hired master woodworkers to carve three cubic meters of oak from the Ardennes Forest. For the cloister gallery, local stonemasons who specialized in 17th-century techniques were brought in. The abbey itself is a long, two-story building of white stone built in the clean, regal style of Louis XIV. Upstairs in the light-filled library—sadly most of its books were pillaged during the many wars in the region—craftsmen restored the oak parquet, shutters, and window frames.
The abbey is now owned by Moët & Chandon, part of the LVMH Group, which produces Dom Pérignon Champagne. When Pérignon lived there in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, there was a maze of 20 buildings, courtyards, and gardens where the monks contemplated, tilled the soil, and worked on illuminated manuscripts. “It was a place of peace, tranquility, and knowledge,” says Richard Geoffroy, the chef de cave for Dom Pérignon Champagne today. It is Geoffroy who decides whether a harvest is good enough to create a Dom Pérignon vintage, along with overseeing the blending and deciding when a vintage is ready to be released to the market.
Indeed, he did. During his time at the abbey, Pérignon increased the vineyard land from 10 hectares to 25—some of which still yields grapes today. The monk was rightly proud of his bubbly, which was served at the court of Versailles. “I am sending you 26 bottles of the best wine in the world,” he wrote to the mayor of Epernay, now the headquarters for many Champagne houses. Aptly, Mr. Geoffroy adds, “It was the most expensive, too.”