Sunday, August 18, 2013

More champagne? Mais naturellement...

The Tattinger Estate, Champagne
Visiting Champagne provides a cornucopia of experiences - the champagne itself, the lush French countryside, large houses, champagne, small houses, more champagne, delectable food, rose champagne, vintage champagne...well, you get the idea.

The vines!
Our base for exploring the region was the small town of Cumières, a few minutes from Epernay. Our landlord, who ran a three-room establishment, gave us lifts to nearby restaurants, stuffing his Gauloise in his back pocket and speeding dangerously through the vine-clad hillsides.

Our address in Cumières.
Dom Pérignon
Above Cumières was the even smaller village of Hautvillers, ridiculously picturesque, and the site of the rebuilt Abbey once inhabited by Dom Pérignon, the monk who some say "invented" champagne -- bless him. Wiki says:
Contrary to legend and popular belief, Dom Pérignon did not invent sparkling wine, but he did make important contributions to the production and quality of Champagne wine. The oldest recorded sparkling wine is Blanquette de Limoux, which was apparently invented by Benedictine Monks in the Abbey of Saint Hilaire, near Carcassonne in 1531. They achieved this by bottling the wine before the initial fermentation had ended. Over a century later, the English scientist and physician Christopher Merret documented the addition of sugar to a finished wine to create a second fermentation, which occurred six years before Dom Perignon set foot in the Abbey of Hautvillers and almost 40 years before it was claimed that the famed Benedictine monk invented Champagne. Merret presented the Royal Society with a paper, in which he detailed what is now called méthode champenoise, in 1662. Merret's discoveries coincided also with English glass-makers technical developments that allowed bottles to be produced that could withstand the required internal pressures during the secondary fermentation process. French glass-makers at this time could not produce bottles of the required quality or strength.
I don't think it would be wise to get into an argument about wether the English first invented champagne, but whatever his contribution, Dom Pérignon seems to have spent a good deal of his time perfecting the technique, and he's glorified for his efforts today. The Abbey, and by association, the name Dom Pérignon, is today owned by the house of Moët & Chandon. They produce a high-end vintage champagne labelled "Dom Pérignon" - first made in the early twentieth century.

Moët & Chandon caves.
Moët: the largest.
Inscrutable codes on the waiting Moët bottles -
referring to the blend, the year and the location.
That odd-looking gap supported with a couple of bits of wood?
That's were a bottle exploded.
Dom Pérignon magnums, resting quietly.
Ah! The tasting moment at Moët & Chandon.
All sizes.
Moët & Chandon is the biggest house in Champagne, both in terms of the land owned and the quantity of champagne produced. But like all the big houses they cannot produce enough grapes on their own land to make their large quantities of wine, so they buy grapes from the small producers. Moët is also one of the oldest houses, founded in 1743 by Claude Moët. Napoleon is said to have visited his friends at Moët & Chandon rather frequently - understandable. At the house, on Epernay's famed Avenue de Champagne, you can view the very tree under which Napoleon is said to have sipped champagne.

But let's leave Napoleon sipping his Moët and head on over to another large house in Reims, Pommery, where they have their own innovative champagne widow. Madame Pommery is said to have launched the first commercially successful 'Brut' champagne in history in 1874 at a time when champagne was excessively sweetened with sugar.

The Widow Pommery.
You'd think she'd look happier. 
Over at Pommery, they celebrate their own champagne widow - Louise Pommery, an almost-contemporary of the Widow Cliquot, and like her, successful in building a house that thrives today.

Looking upwards in the caves at Pommery. Roman excavated.
Pommery champagne waits in the dark.
Pommery's caves: attractive.
If a visit to Veuve Cliquot is about innovation, and a visit to Moët & Chandon is about the biggest, then a visit to Pommery is about quirkiness. There, they fill their caves with not only champagne, but also funky modern art works. If it's your third caves visit, and you've already had plenty of champagne, it's fun.

A little modern art with your champagne?
From the Pommery website:
Monumental exhibitions of contemporary art named "Experience Pommery" have been staged annually in the Domaine's chalk pits cellars since 2004. These selections of works provide a wide-ranging panorama of the international art scene, showing the diversity of cultures, languages and procedures. These exhibitions make the Pommery Estate an essential venue on the contemporary international artistic scene and, like Champagne, are an experience to share.
Ah! The tasting moment again!
"Madame Pommery described her Champagne in two words, joyful lightness." 

"Going a little further, Pommery has delicacy and intensity, heart and spirit, and a subtle style that is able to distinguish and promote the elegance of the flavours rather than their power. A completely fresh style, with a flash of flavours that settle on the palate to produce a tender taste."
Thierry Gasco, Cellar Master, Pommery

Saluté from Pommery.

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