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The Benedictine abbey of Hautvillers, around 6.5km from Epernay, appointed Dom Perignon, a 30-year-old monk, as treasurer in 1668.
The Benedictine abbey of Hautvillers, around 6.5km from Epernay, appointed Dom Perignon, a 30-year-old monk, as treasurer in 1668.

Moët & Chandon: A Bouquet Of Bubbly

The story of champagne is one of vinters achieving the opposite of what they initially set out to make

There cannot possibly be a better setting for one of the low-profile murders that punctuate the first one-third of thriller novels by Scott Mariani, Dan Brown or Raymond Khoury. Deep underground, inside a warren of long tunnels hewn through chalky rock, I stand in front of dozens of bottles of champagne arranged in rows upon rows, all dusted with a layer of…dust. What a perfect setting for some light garrotting or fatal knife work.

But, in fact, I am ensconced inside the cellars of one of the great spirits brands in the world: Moët & Chandon. And the warren of tunnels, which extends for a mind-boggling distance of 25km, houses hundreds of bottles of the fizzy drink that the brand is famous for: champagne.

“Everything about this place is created for making champagne," one of the company’s well-drilled PR managers tell me as she leads me, along with a group of international journalists, deep into the ground at Epernay, a town of around 20,000 people some 120km north-west of Paris.

Driving in, Epernay looks remarkably like one of those small towns that dot the route from Geneva up to one of the watchmaking villages up in the Jura Mountains.

But they don’t make watches here. And those magnificent buildings aren’t watchmaking workshops. In fact, those buildings on Epernay’s Avenue de Champagne aren’t even the most expensive real estate on this historic thoroughfare. They are merely a façade, a marketing tool. The real treasure, real raison d’être of the buildings and of Epernay itself, are the kilometres of cellars underground that house hundreds of bottles of Epernay’s greatest export: champagne.

Châteaux belonging to some of the world’s most popular champagne brands line the avenue: Perrier, Mercier, de Castellane…

The biggest name in this bouquet of bubbly, arguably, is Moët & Chandon. For a quarter of a millennium, the house of Moët has been a fixture of the champagne business in Epernay.

But first a little background.

The Champagne region of France is located on the northern edge of France’s wine-growing regions. Because it was situated close to Paris, the region saw brisk business but also found itself in the way of several military campaigns coming to and leaving Paris.

Over time, the wine makers of Champagne became embroiled in a rivalry with their illustrious neighbours to the South: the Burgindians. Both sought to make popular red wines, but Burgundy had one unassailable advantage: it’s warmer weather that as better suited to growing red grapes. The Champagne vintners tried again and again, especially with the pinot noir variety, but their grapes simply achieved the sweetness and fullness of Burgundy’s best.

Rather than play a game they could never win, the Champenois decided to change the game altogether. Some time in the 17th century, they began to work with white grapes. Despite their best efforts at growing and blending, the white wine of Champagne never quite achieved intoxicating brilliance. As Hugh Johnson write in The Story of Wine:

“What they actually made was a very pale wine, varying with the vintage from claret colour to gris (grey), a slightly darkened white, but more often kiel fe perdrix (partridge eye), a share of delicate pink caused by the white juice having brief contact with the red skins."

Despite the best efforts of the Champenois, it seemed, they were doomed to play second fiddle to the Burgundians.

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Dom Perignon.

Dom Perignon brought unsurpassed organization, focus and experimentation, and continuous improvement to the process of wine-making. He is believed to have established certain golden rules of wine-making that vintners all over the region adhere to centuries later.

Today, Dom Perignon is the name of a brand of champagne outright. (This brand was acquired by Moët & Chandon in 1930.) But when the good monk started making wines, those bubbles were his arch-nemesis.

Johnson writes: “His region’s wine presented one great problem to Perignon. it had an inherent instability: a tendency to stop fermenting as the cold weather closed in in autumn, then start again with rising temperatures in spring… The lighter and greener the wine, the more subject it was to fizzing in the spring. White-grape wine was the fizziest: one of the reasons why Perignon used only black grapes."

Contrary to the monk’s plans, however, the market for fizzy wine suddenly began to take off. The English were the first to develop a copious palette for the bubbly, and the French nobility followed thereafter. Soon, Champagne was being inundated with orders for bubbly white—the exact opposite of what its vinters initially set out to make: still red.

Thanks to innovations by Dom Perignon and then further improvements in the ageing, blending and bottling processes by a host of other vintners, Champagne soon became the source of choose for the eponymous drink. From annual sales of around 300,000 bottles in the 1790s, Champagne sales zoomed to 20 million bottled by 1853.

In 1691, King Louis XIV of France created the post of courtier-commissionaire, or commercial agent, a post that could be purchased that empowered the holder “the right to set prices, arrange purchases, and take commissions" on the sales of Champagne wines.

In 1716, a certain Mr Claude Moët of Epernay took over the office of courtier-commissionaire. The House of Moët was poised to become one of the uncrowned kings of bubbly.

According to official Moët & Chandon company history, the house was established by Claude Moët in 1743 under the name Moët et Cie (Moët and Company). But the real global story of the brand begin when the founder’s grandson, Jean-Rémy Moët, took over day to day operation at the company. “Jean-Rémy is really the man responsible for making champagne the luxurious beverage it is today," a PR representative told me when I visited Epernay. It was under his watch that the brand developed a high-end global clientele and high-end brand positioning. “He was a PR whiz," the rep told me.

Epernay makes a perfect home for Moët & Chandon. First of all, there is the abundant supply of the three grapes that the company uses to makes champagne: pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. The house owns 1,150 hectares of vineyards that supply it with the mountains of fruit needed each season. Secondly, there is the peculiar cycle of hot and cold weather that enables the fermentation process that elevates champagne from the still boring stuff. And finally, there is the chalky soil underfoot that is perfect for digging cellars out of.

Walking through the Moët & Chandon cellars is an experience in itself. At first, it is deeply unsettling. The cellars are dark, cold, damp and confusing. But then you slowly get used it to it. And you begin to appreciate the complexity involved in making a good bottle of champagne. While the process itself has seen waves of industrialization over the last two centuries or so, it remains a process brimming with unpredictability. Wine, as they say, is alining liquid. Push it too far and the only bubble bursting will be your balance sheet.

But once meteorology, biology and chemistry all come together, what does the end product look and taste like? Moët & Chandon makes broadly two types of champagne: vintages and non-vintages.

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Benoit Gouez.

The non-vintage champagnes are the bottles Moët blends and releases each year. Think of these as champagne’s equivalent of regular whisky bottling, while vintages are the special limited-edition bottling. Currently, there are four non-vintage champagnes: the Moët Imperial, the Rose Imperial, the Nectar Imperial and the Ice Imperial.

The Moët Imperial is the brand’s flagship champagne. I found it a comforting, gentle beverage that is deceptively easy to drink. But what really got my engine running was the 2004 vintage. If the Imperial was like subtle classical music, the 2004 was robust yet restrained jazz music. This was a drink to celebrate with. Or gift. Or basically find any reason at all to drink.

I asked Gouez what his favourite Moët bottle of all time was. (The brand has a collection that goes back to the late 19th century. Many, I was assured, remain perfectly drinkable.)

“The best vintage has to be the 1921," he said. “It was a mythical vintage. Everything was perfect. And the champagne tasted like panettone." The next best vintage, he claimed, will be the 2006 due for launch next year.

Gouez said we were once again poised on the verge of another golden age of champagne. “The first Golden Age culminated in the 1960s. Then there was a long period of transition. And I think we are all set now for a new era of greatness."

A prediction to warm every wine-drinker’s heart. But how should one celebrate this golden age? I have a few golden ideas I picked up in Epernay.

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