Toast of the Town Marne valley's Champagne region still sparkles

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Champagne.

It makes my head spin, my nose tickle. And the sight of vineyards spread mile after mile across France's Marne valley takes my breath away.

Here, Napoleon walked. In fact, according to records -- and just a little legend -- before every campaign, Napoleon came to the town of Epernay as the guest of Jean-Remy Moet to fortify his baggage trains with champagne.

Only once was he unable to make the trip here before battle, the legend goes, and that was before the Battle of Waterloo.

"Instead, he fought at Waterloo on Belgian beer," says Henri Perrier, who is married to Catherine, the last living Moet. "Everyone knows what happened at Waterloo."

With only a very small wink, Mr. Perrier leaves little doubt about why Napoleon lost.

"He should have stopped for his champagne," he says.

And now, here I am, the guest of Moet et Chandon, which is celebrating its 250th birthday, walking where Napoleon walked. Before long I will feel as if I've stepped into a 1940s movie set, enjoying a night at the Chateau de Saron -- the castle-like house Moet uses to entertain clients and invited guests -- a sumptuous dinner, a private tour of the cellars in Epernay and a tour of the Abbey D'Hautvillers, where Dom Perignon discovered how to make the sparkling, bubbling wine called champagne in the 17th century.

His grave is here, inside the abbey that was burned and destroyed five times through the ages, and is now undergoing another restoration. The beehives where he and his fellow monks collected honey are still visible across a small garden, where vines -- whose ancestry can be linked to those Perignon harvested -- still bear fruit.

Moet et Chandon owns the abbey and nearly 1,700 acres, on which it grows black and white grapes. The pinot noir comes from the Montagne de Reims, the pinot meunier from the Marne valley and chardonnay from the Cote des Blancs.

When I visited, the vines were lush green. Now, in October, the grapes are being harvested. Later, they will be pressed and blended and tested, and in three years, we will be able to drink the wines made from them -- unless the wine is a bottle of Dom Perignon, Moet's most exclusive creation. For Dom Perignon, we'll have to wait five years.

It is a long-term commitment sealed with love.

The French become irritable when California champagnes are mentioned, and they are positively indignant over a ruling by a British high court earlier this year allowing a non-alcoholic, flower-based drink to be sold with a label bearing the name champagne.

"It is nothing to do with champagne," says Mr. Perrier, who is my guide.

According to the strictest French laws -- and Common Market regulations -- only champagnes made from grapes in Champagne, the region in and around the Marne valley, can be called champagne.

This is a little confusing, since champagne is the name given to a wine whose sparkle is due to man's intervention and which is made from a blend of component wines. Yet, the French insist it is the land that makes the difference in the crops and thus the end result.

"The ground, the weather and the grapes," says Mr. Perrier. "That is what makes champagne, not the process."

As you drive through the narrow winding roads that run between the vast fields, you can hear the love in Mr. Perrier's voice and see the commitment in the fields. It is not unusual to see men walking slowly through the rows of grapes, checking the soil, the leaves, the vines for signs of trouble.

The roots here go deep. The earth is chalk, and the vines' roots reach far down into the soil in search of moisture. It is amazing the grapes survive at all, considering the alternating hazards of too much rain, too little rain and the chills that threaten in the early spring and late summer, in this northern climate.

As the men tending these vineyards say, "It is a very touchy business." They, like the grapes they nurse, also have roots that go back through generations. Champagne is not only a region and a drink in the northeast part of France, it is a way of life.

It may sound implausible, but growing up a farmer's daughter in West Virginia helped me to understand the French in Champagne. Watching my father crumble the earth through his fingers, his eyes searching the sky for rain, and seeing his worried face when the rain didn't come, the joy when it did, prepared me for Champagne, where a family's heritage is in the acres and acres of grapes planted in a soil so suited to them they grew here naturally for as long ago as anyone can remember. (In the last years of the 19th century, though, the vineyards were nearly destroyed by a parasitic louse called phylloxera, and would have been had the vines not been dug up systematically and replaced by American vine rootstock, which was immune to the parasite that had originated in North America.)

Like being a plumber?

"At the beginning, making wine was like being a plumber," says Mr. Perrier, 66, who served as the public relations host at the Chateau de Saran for 10 years and now continues the role on an interim basis. "Then they discovered the bubbles."

The bubbles. How do they put the bubbles in champagne? Mr. Perrier says it is one of the most often asked questions and sometimes, even after it has been explained, it is not always understood. He delights in telling this tale:

"There was a woman reporter from Texas who came here and was given a very extensive tour," Mr. Perrier says. "She had been to the cellars, to the labs, seen everything and had the process explained at least three times. But here she was at dinner, champagne was served, and in her distinctly Southern accent, she says, 'Oh, Monsieur Perrier, how do you put the bubbles in champagne?'

"I admit that I was a little irritated, and so I said, 'We use a tweezers and put them in one at a time and then we use what you would call a, a bubble stick, to count them to make sure there are exactly 2,560,000 bubbles in each bottle.' "

Bubble stick, bubble head

Mr. Perrier laughs. The kicker, he says, is that the writer returned to Texas and wrote about the bubble stick. A copy of the story made its way to the Office of the Champagne Council in Paris, which regulates the industry, and they had no idea what a tTC bubble stick was.

"They called me to explain," Mr. Perrier says. "Fortunately, they can take a joke."

Twenty-six miles of cellars exist under the town of Epernay. Of that, 15 miles belong to Moet et Chandon. They are a maze and smell of age. Lighted mostly by old, recessed lantern-like fixtures that give off a golden glow, the cellars are carved out of chalk. You can smell the chalk. You can write your name in the walls, some of which date to the days of the Romans. You can press your hand against these walls and feel their coolness.

During the World Wars, they were used as hiding places and bomb shelters.

In the original section, moss hangs undisturbed from the ceilings, as the moisture drips, creating small puddles on the concrete floor. Cobwebs and dust lie layered over what looks like a million bottles, and in fact, when inventory was taken last January, it turned out to be 100 million bottles.

To the right of one dead-end trail is a locked iron gate. Over it is written "Oenotheque." It is a library of wine. Inside, resting as if in a tomb, are the oldest bottles, dating to 1880, and the rarest. The eyes spy one made especially for Queen Mary, another for the Queen of Denmark and another for our 1976 Bicentennial.

They are valued for their history, not for their taste: A good bottle of champagne begins losing its power in less than 10 years.

It is quiet down here, under the earth. Much too quiet. Up above, the champagne industry is hurting.

This, the 250th anniversary of Moet et Chandon, is a very good year, says Philippe des Roys du Roure, whose duty it is to answer media questions. But the quiet cellars say business is not as good as it could be.

All the major champagne houses along the Avenue du Champagne in Epernay -- and that's about a dozen or so -- have been forced to reduce prices in an effort to maintain sales. The industry has been hit by the same malaise that has affected businesses everywhere since the economy hit the skids.

But no one would guess it when arriving above the town at the Chateau de Saran. Moet et Chandon budget five million French francs -- about $2.5 million U.S. dollars -- a year for entertainment here. Every day but Christmas Day, host and hostess Dennis and Bridget Foot greet guests: restaurateurs, politicians, royalty, entertainers, importers, media, clients and potential clients for a lavish evening of dining in the grandest fashion.

To be a visitor at the chateau is to have an antiques-decorated room with long windows opening on views of the vineyards. The single beds are very narrow and have the French-styled narrow bolster pillow. Surprisingly -- or maybe not, considering the seven-hour flight from Baltimore to Paris and the ensuing two-hour car ride to get here -- both the bed and the pillow are comfortable. On tables and mantels in the room rest bouquets of pink and lavender roses picked that morning from the chateau's own rose gardens.

Champagne nights

On this Monday night, there are 22 guests. About half the group speaks English, the other half French. Many speak a little of both, or at least make every effort to do so. Among the guests are two restaurateurs from Paris, who own Aux Cadrans du PLM and L'Aiguiere. The latter, says owner Patrick Masbatin, was "frequented by D'Artagnan" of "The Three Musketeers." He doesn't explain how this can be, since "The Three Musketeers" is a work of fiction. But then, there is such a thing as "historical" fiction.

Moet's historian and cultural attache, Bernard Beaulieu, and several members of the media from the United States are also here for the night.

As guests descend the winding stairs for the evening dinner party, they are greeted with -- what else? -- a glass of champagne.

Moet makes six kinds of champagne -- non-vintage brut, vintage brut, vintage pink brut, white Dom Perignon, demi-sec and pink Dom Perignon -- and through the evening, we will enjoy a six-course dinner and have five of those champagnes, plus one red wine that is made from a final pressing of leftover grapes and served only in-house.

The menu, which includes salmon and braised pork that could pass for filet mignon, is topped by a peach Melba unlike anything I've seen be fore. Dessert plates are set before each guest. The waiter enters, needing both hands and a firm grip to hold onto the silver platter that is large enough to hold a 35-pound ham. On it is a rounded giant mountain of vanilla ice cream. Red currant sauce drizzled down its sides leads the eyes to what looks like small, scalloped, sun-drenched foothills but turns out to be red -- currant-glazed peaches.

The head waiter's assistant hands you a giant spoon, and as the platter is held beside your plate, you are asked to serve yourself.

Drinking stars

The evening concludes with adjournment to the sitting room, where everyone is served a pink Dom Perignon that dazzles.

When Dom Perignon uncorked his first bottle of champagne and tasted it, he said he was "drinking stars." Now, when we drink it, we see stars.

IF YOU GO ...

* Tours of Moet et Chandon cellars are given daily, through Oct. 31, from 9:30 a.m. through 5:30 p.m., though they are closed for lunch from noon to 2 p.m.

* The cellars are closed at 4:30 p.m. on Sundays and holidays. After Oct. 31, the cellars are open only on weekdays. Free one-hour tours are conducted every 15 minutes in many languages.

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