History has taken its toll on the region of Champagne. WWI shrapnel pockmarks the walls of the few remaining chateaux and white crosses still speckle the hills, reminding us of the terrors of man.
The French Kings were crowned in Reims before the French revolution in 1789 and its Cathedral is a tribute to Gothic Architecture with its stained glass windows second only to Nôtre-Dame, on the Ile de la Cité, in Paris, only two hours away. Space and time have a different momentum here. A serenity that comes with decades of success has replaced the flurry of city life. While many French regions find themselves in fiercely competitive international markets, Champagne is a unique drink. Only here, on these chalky soils, is the legislated production entitled to the Champagne name; elsewhere in the world, the same process must be called sparkling wine or traditional method.
While the famed monk Dom Pérignon, who looked after the cellars of the Abbey of Hautvillers, did much to improve the quality of wine, he probably never made sparkling wine, as bottles to withstand the pressure had been invented in England around 1670, but were only introduced to France in the early 18th century, and the royal authorization to bottle wines in Champagne was only given, some 14 years after his death.
We lunched at Moët & Chandon, the largest and most famous producer’s La Résidence du Trianon, on the Avenue de Champagne, where 5 500 meals are served a year. “Composure” is the word that springs to mind in this great Champagne House and we were made to feel as though we were the center of their universe comprising the people, buildings, gardens and the refined flavours of Dom Pérignon. A long, flowing pool, framed by a chequer board of red and white flowers reflects the arches of the orangery, commissioned by Jean-Remy Moët, and garden manicured to perfection with a tight hedge tailored to the shape of the Moët & Chandon crest, in his honour. Beyond lies Epernay, with its tightly composed, valuable vineyards – the key to the quality of each Champagne House. The cream stone staircase with its wrought iron banister led us to the inner sanctum. Here, silk curtains highlighted cream accents and furnishings in pale blue, complimented by the gold leaf on walls, doors, ceiling, antique clocks and candelabra. Persian carpets warmed the wooden herringbone floors as mirrors reflected the grandeur of the room with its portraits. A display of violins, trumpets and music scores were a tribute to Wagner who composed the overture to Tannhauser here.
Most Champagnes are blended annually to a classic flavour and so one becomes more familiar with the label than the cellar master. Most Champagne Houses now also have a luxury cuvée. Moët & Chandon introduced Dom Pérignon, the world’s most prestigious Champagne, packaged in the original 18th century bottles, in 1930. Dom Pérignon’s finesse and restrained depth of flavour, combined with the legend that has surrounded it, makes it one of the world’s mythical wines. I heard about the dedication and enthusiasm of their chief oenologist Dr Richard Geoffroy, long before ever meeting him. His poise, thoughtfulness and defined philosophy convey the depth of his beliefs. He achieves a state of tension in this cuvée special from an equal blend of chardonnay and pinot noir, adjusting proportions to allow the uniqueness of the vintage to shine and mature for the desired 10 years. “Chardonnay is especially intense in the first and middle phases of tasting, whilst pinot noir fills the middle palate and the finish. Neither should dominate and the resulting balance should be dynamic, giving a feel of fragile waves of sensation,” he says.
Dr Geoffroy has likened the service of Dom Pérignon to the tea ceremony in Japan, respecting the tastes, history and tradition of each. Designing menus around the bubble is paramount and he finds a kindred spirit in Bernard Dance, the chef de cuisine, whose pursuit to exhibit the uniqueness of these cuvée’s has taken him around the world to discover a global pantry. Dance uses the variety and sensuality of pure ingredients, preferring to keep dishes classically simple with texture thrown in to enhance the authenticity of the Dom. Each seemingly effortless dish he creates actually has hours of thought and preparation behind it. As Dom Pérignon discovers new consumers, Dance alters his repertoire to compliment a wider range of cuisines and fashions, maintaining his respect for new palates and the preservation of the individual Champagne. He believes countries should keep their own identity, and compares cooking to painting, saying that while all artists have the same colours, each produces a different result. His biggest challenges have been finding a compromise for the dominating spice in Mexican food and chocolate, which he has subdued with a touch of orange.
Soft sighs of pleasure accompany the opening of the 1998 as gloved hands pour it into flutes. We admire the colour with bubbles jumping in an upward stream, like sunlight suspended in water. We savour the nuances of citrus, gingerbread, white fruit and flowers, which escape on the wings of the zesty bubbles. An expressive equilibrium, a restrained elegance, a deceptive depth, a richness and refinement lingers long after the first sip.
A silver platter bearing canapés of thick slices of potato knighted with a crown of caviar and decorated with Parmesan wafers tempts the palate. The silver spoons have infinity shaped handles. I observe how my taste buds play with the Champagne, salty black balls, and chalky crisps.
Four of us are seated in a wooden paneled library lined with porcelain sculpture, designer soupcon of chef’s talents, highlighted by three vintages of Dom Pérignon. Slices of rose-coloured lobster carpaccio drizzled with extra virgin olive oil form a graph of dots on the plate. So simple and elegant, the crustacean essence flatters the aromas of the 1998. A soup bowl of creamy foie gras with a drizzle of caramalised beetroot to cut the richness follows with three popcorn flowerets to add texture. The flavours unify the weight and age of the honeyed brioche 1990, which is firm, precisely defined with hints of brioche, vanilla and honey. The succulent flavour of the 90 vintage enhances the seared crispy skin and soft firm texture of the turbot au jus salé á l’anchois. The finale, according to Dance, is always the most difficult course to pair. He is hesitant to add sugar to desserts for fear of altering of the cuvée flavours.
This tour de force establishes his ability to capture the inherent flavours of the ingredients, while highlighting and complimenting each. A peach tart with ice cream – the thin, toasty pastry chosen to highlight an aged Champagne. The ice cream, flavoured with spring truffles, as al dente as the peaches, adds the desired crunchy flavour and enhances the hint of wild mushroom on the nose. The 1976 vintage displays the characteristic tautness of elegance, finesse and delicacy complimented by richness and complexity. Age has focused its flavours giving a gentle sweetness of bottle age.
Each day these men walk a fine line between maintaining tradition and creating innovation through imagination. Their decisions dictate the future tastes and trends of Dom Pérignon, making an international statement in the glass that is appreciated by millions around the globe. They preserve the sacred process attributed to the monk, creating a drink of distinction with an aftertaste that lingers like the fine memories I have of this exclusive Champagne House.