11/02/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
We sing. We dance. We make passionate love. But first, a little British champagne. Come again? Surely you jest. In truth, the Brits aren't actually making the bubbly—what would you drink it from, a Wellington boot? But enologist Tom Stevenson claims that the method for making sparkling wine was developed not in France but in 17th-century England.
With this heresy, Stevenson, 47, author of the soon-to-be-published Christie's World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wines, has set le chat among les pigeons. The French, who get into a snit when other winemakers call their product champagne, dismiss him as another annoyance anglais. "Just making sparkling wine isn't the same as making champagne, is it?" sniffs a champagne industry spokeswoman.
For Stevenson, who lives near Oxford with his wife, Pat, the proof of his thesis is a scientific paper describing a process for deliberately fermenting still wines, presented to England's Royal Society in 1662—decades before Dom Pérignon, generally acknowledged as the father of champagne, could have done the same. According to Stevenson, the Dom got the credit because of marketing by Moët & Chandon, the French champagne producer that sells the pricey brand named for him. "You probably can't find anywhere where they actually say he invented champagne," he says, "but everyone got the impression he did. He has a place in the history of champagne, but he didn't invent it." And what would the Dom say to that? Maybe "Salut!"