It’s one of those summer days where a short stroll gets the sweat trickling. A day where the footpath becomes a stovetop, and sunlight pops off windows like paparazzi flashbulbs. Yet we’re cool, we’re dry, we’ve no need for sunglasses.
We can no longer spy the verdant countryside that encircles this township, nor the cathedral spire or the tricolour flags of the war memorial, wilting in the warm, still air. What can we see? Tunnel after tunnel, chamber after chamber, dimly lit and carved out of chalk centuries before. Like an underground city with streets and houses stretching to a darkened horizon. A city filled not with the bustle of people, but with bottles. Millions and millions of bottles.
‘These cellars are three centuries old and keep our champagne at an ideal humidity and temperature of 10 to 12 degrees all year round,’ says Justine, our guide for an exploration of the world’s most popular champagne house, Moët & Chandon. Earlier we’d watched an introductory video in Moët’s palatial building in Épernay that outlined some of the history and processes involved in transforming local grapes into the world’s most renowned wine.
Then we’d descended into the ‘caves’, where more than 90 million bottles of Moët champagne are stored in tunnels that stretch for almost 30 kilometres over three levels.
‘Stay with the group, you don’t want to get lost,’ says Justine, before leading us through the labyrinth while regaling us with tales and titbits. She explains how champagne is made from a blend of still wines from three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. How it is matured in the bottle for anywhere from 18 months up to 10 years, gaining its famous effervescence through a second fermentation (tirage). How the company was founded by Claude Moët 275 years ago, but it was his grandson Jean-Rémy who first made it famous.
As we move through the caves, we see thousands of bottles racked upside down at a sharp angle. Why? That’s how dead yeast and sediment is removed, explains Justine. Those bottles are rotated by hand, an eighth of a turn a day (riddling), then their necks are frozen once the sediment has settled, with the icy ‘plug’ forced out of the bottle by the fizz of the champagne (disgorging). Each bottle is then topped up, corked and wired to maintain the pressure.
Once blended, everything happens in the same bottle throughout the process, so whether it’s the one you pop at a special event with friends and family or one of the limited-edition Moët magnums released last year to celebrate tennis legend Roger Federer’s career (NZ$34,000 per bottle), it was once racked and cobwebbed in these gloomy cellars. Cellars where Napoleon, a big fan of Moët and regular visitor, once presented his long-time friend Jean-Rémy with the Legion of Honour. Where the vintage section of the caves house bottles dating to 1892. Where many billions of dollars of champagne now surround us.
It’s no wonder the Avenue de Champagne, a one-kilometre stretch of grand houses in a country town about the size of Ashburton, has been considered the ‘richest street in the world’. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Moët’s neighbours include Pol Roger, Mercier, and Perrier-Jouët. All told, more than 200 million bottles are housed in 100 kilometres of cellars.
After finishing our cellar tour with a couple of glasses of Moët, we fizz back out into the heat and sunshine of an Épernay summer’s day, passing a statue of Dom Pérignon. A name that’s associated with luxury and lavishness, thanks to Moët’s ‘prestige cuvée’, the man behind the moniker was anything but lavish. A Benedictine monk in the 17th century, Dom Pérignon lived a frugal life of service in the cellars of the abbey at Hautvillers, an even smaller medieval village perched on leafy hillsides a few kilometres north of Épernay.
While the Épernay champagne houses are urban mansions atop sprawling networks of cellar tunnels (as are those in the larger city of Reims, such as Pommeray, Taittinger, and Veuve Clicquot), the champagne tasting experience when visiting Hautvillers and other small towns dotted around the region is more akin to wine touring in New Zealand. The producers are smaller, the setting more intimate and casual, and you taste several wines close to the vines.
Looking across the valley back to Épernay, the air is fragrant, and grapevines stretch like an emerald sea. There’s a sense of timelessness, of a place that breathes deeply rather than quickly. While Épernay is the champagne capital, Hautvillers is known as ‘the cradle of champagne’ thanks to Dom Pérignon and his influence that took local wine to royal tables.
More than 300 years after Dom Pérignon was experimenting with ways to prevent exploding bottles, that passion and craft continues among local producers. Hautvillers is a village of snaking cobblestones, less than 1,000 people, and a dozen wineries and champagne houses.
After enjoying vineyard vistas and exploring the historic Abbey of St Peter, founded in 650 and made forever famous by Dom Pérignon’s activities around a thousand years later, we sample a variety of champagnes in Hautvillers. We try a few vintages (single-season champagnes) at a courtyard café and antique store on Rue Henri Martin, then enjoy a degustation lunch with sparkling accompaniments at Au 36 on Rue Domaine Pérignon.
Sitting in the French sunshine, in good company with a glass of liquid sparkle in hand, I rethink my view of champagne as solely a celebratory drink of singular nature. The producers that call these rolling hills and river-cut plains home harness their grapes into a wide array of flavours. Perhaps champagne isn’t just for special occasions. After all, as the great Oscar Wilde once said, ‘Only the unimaginative can fail to find a reason for drinking champagne’.
Now that’s an idea worth toasting.
Words & Images Craig Sisterson