Butterflies, Bubbles, and Birds: Christopher Merrett

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Christopher Merrett (1614–1695) is something of a hero to wine lovers, as we know him to be the first person to figure out that you could add sugar to a bottle of wine, cause it to re-ferment, and make bubbles! Put in more technical terms, he is acknowledged as the first person to deliberately create a sparkling wine via the addition of sugar.

So, cheers to Christopher Merrett, on that merit alone! However, as is generally the case with these scientists of yore, he accomplished much more than just bottling bubbles: he was, in fact, a member of the Fellowship of the Royal Society and studied metallurgy, glass making, plants, birds, and butterflies.

Merret was born in Gloucestershire in the southwest of England, and earned his medical degree at Gloucester Hall (which later became Worcester College of the University of Oxford). He practiced medicine in London, becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, and later became a founding Fellow of the Royal Society—the full name of which is officially “the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.”

In other words, Merret became a founding member of the oldest “learned society” in the world. The Royal Society views its role as “promoting science and its benefits, recognizing excellence in science, supporting outstanding science, and providing scientific advice for policy.”

Christopher Merrett

Merrett was a keen scientific observer of the natural world and became quite famous for publishing one of the earliest taxonomies of the plants, animals, and minerals of the British Isles. Published in 1666, this work—Pinax Rerum Naturalium Britannicarum—is now acknowledged as the earliest work to contain a complete list of the birds and butterflies of England. He also had an interest in glass making and translated Antonio Neri’s L’Arte Vetraria (“The Art of Glassmaking”—written in 1612) from Italian to English, while adding 147 pages of his own.

A few things going on in the scientific community as well as English society helped to lead Merrett to his discovery. For one, the English glass-making industry had become quite adept at producing hard, durable glass through the use of coal (which burns hotter) rather than wood for fires. English-produced bottled were thus sturdier—and less likely to burst—than French bottles. In addition, the English imported cork from Portugal to seal their bottles while the French were still using wooden stoppers and cloth. Finally, the English had already acquired a taste for apple cider, which was sweet and flavorful—more so than the wine imported from France.

As such, English people became accustomed to adding molasses and sugar to their imported French wines. Soon enough, Christopher Merrett—a keen observer of the natural world if ever there was one—noted that if you added sugar or molasses to French wine, and stored it in a sturdy, coal-fired English glass bottle stoppered with a tight-sealing Portuguese Cork, you ended up with a lively, flavorful, bubbly wine that was a tasty as English cider. That was an “a-ha” moment if ever there was one!

The title page of Merrett’s Pinax Rerum Naturalium Britannicarum

In 1662, Merrett delivered an eight-page paper to the Royal Society detailing the use of sugar or molasses to give wine or cider a bit of fizz. In the words of Merrett, this was “to make them brisk and sparkling.” Keep in mind that this paper was delivered in 1662, several decades before Dom Perignon’s famous “Come quickly, I am drinking stars!” moment, alleged to have occurred in 1697.

Merrett was only mildly interested in wine, and soon returned to his observations on the rest on the natural world. In addition to his studies of birds and butterflies, he went on to present several more papers on many topics to the Royal Society. These included papers on such diverse topics as fruit trees, tin mining, and coastal geography. His interests, it seems, knew no bounds.

Note: Much of the information about Christopher Merrett and sparkling wine came to light courtesy of the British wine writer Tom Stevenson.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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