Dis­cover why the French take their best fizz so se­ri­ously,

Sunday Territorian - - FRONT PAGE - writes NICK RICHARD­SON

YOu reach around and feel mois­ture on the chalky wall be­hind you. You are 12m un­der­ground, in the mid­dle of a vast net­work of dimly lit tun­nels. A rich or­ganic smell hangs in the air. You are told the hu­mid­ity is about 80 per cent.

As your eyes be­come ac­cus­tomed to the soft dark­ness, you be­gin to see racks and racks of bot­tles, all in readi­ness for the next stage of the highly con­trolled and exquisitel­y man­aged process that will ul­ti­mately lead to the cre­ation of that most spe­cial tip­ple, French cham­pagne.

We are in the Cham­pagne re­gion of France, 140km east of Paris, where the world’s most fa­mous cham­pagne mak­ers call home – from Dom Perignon, to Moet and, here, to Mumm, a cham­pagne house cre­ated by a Ger­man – for a peek at mak­ing pre­mium fizz.

Most Aus­tralian con­sumers of sparkling wine know our lo­cal prod­uct can­not be called cham­pagne be­cause of the rigid rules around the sourc­ing, cre­ation and pro­duc­tion of the French sparkling wine. Up close, you can see why the French take it so se­ri­ously. There are about 350 vil­lages spread across the Cham­pagne re­gion that pro­duce grapes for sparkling wine but only 44 of them carry the pre­mium des­ig­na­tion of “grand cru’’, or the best of the best.

There is, how­ever, a pro­found con­tra­dic­tion at the heart of this mag­nif­i­cent tip­ple. It is bound up with the no­tion there is a cen­turiesold tra­di­tion to mak­ing cham­pagne, in­her­ited and per­fected by ar­ti­sans over gen­er­a­tions. But those mak­ers re­main hid­den away. You will travel through dark cel­lars but you won’t see any­one. You can­not visit the vine­yards, at least not this time. There are no “mak­ers’’ to watch, no crafts­men or women to study. But you will be made very aware of the power of the cham­pagne brand and each of the cham­pagne houses’ iden­ti­ties. And their com­mit­ment to qual­ity.

This is wine made with a pro­found sense of its own his­tory, dat­ing back to Cham­pagne’s most fa­mous monk, Dom Perignon, to its near oblit­er­a­tion and colour­ful de­fi­ance dur­ing the two world wars.

It was around Eper­nay, a vil­lage dom­i­nated by the winer­ies, that the French not only found their best fizz but also the heart of their resistance at a time of war. Per­haps most fa­mously, the 1914 cham­pagne vin­tage was go­ing to be the finest on record un­til the war came but, even then, the lo­cal mayor (and cham­pagne maker) Mau­rice Pol-Roger, led the fightback against the Ger­man ad­vance .

Nearby Reims, and its glo­ri­ous gothic cathe­dral, en­dured 1051 days of bomb­ing but the cathe­dral and the cham­pagne houses sur­vived.

Now, you can take a tour through the re­gion and see the per­fect mix­ture of age-old ex­cel­lence and new tech­nol­ogy that pro­duces some of the world’s best cham­pagne.

Down in the Mumm cel­lars, many of the bot­tles are un­der­go­ing the sec­ondary fer­men­ta­tion that cre­ates its dis­tinc­tive bub­bles. Ac­cord­ing to the Dom Perignon leg­end, the monk had a gift for know­ing how best to cre­ate this car­bon­a­tion. These days we know the se­cret in­gre­di­ents are yeast and nu­tri­ents. Then add time.

Af­ter the sec­ondary fer­men­ta­tion has taken place, the “rid­dler’’ will ar­rive. This is not some Bat­man vil­lain in a Ly­cra suit but ar­ti­sans, who start their day with a se­ries of warm-up ex­er­cises to loosen the mus­cles in their arms, wrists and shoul­ders to en­able them to ro­tate one eighth of a full turn up to 30,000 cham­pagne bot­tles a day.

The “rid­dling’’ is vi­tal to cre­at­ing the per­fect fizz – it en­sures there is no sed­i­ment in the cham­pagne. Each of these bot­tles could be wait­ing any­time from three to seven years be­fore it fi­nally gets to pop its cork, so the process is pa­tient and painstak­ing. In time, the neck of the bot­tles will be frozen and a plug of sed­i­ment ejected be­fore the fi­nal bot­tling process is com­plete.

We are in the belly of the cham­pagne masters here, in a cav­ern, made for cre­at­ing wine ex­cel­lence that af­firms the dis­tinc­tive qual­ity of the re­gion’s main pro­duce. Aus­tralians used to a cel­lar-door ex­pe­ri­ence, where there is the chance of meet­ing the wine­maker, will find all of this a strangely anony­mous ex­pe­ri­ence. These are cham­pagne “houses’’, a clear in­di­ca­tion we are in the rar­efied air of ex­cel­lence and lux­ury. A quick side trip to Do­main Chan­don will con­vince any doubters that this is the al­co­hol equiv­a­lent of a visit to Tif­fany: there is glam­our and a deep in­vest­ment in re­mind­ing ev­ery­one that this cham­pagne is ex­pen­sive for a rea­son.

Back at Mumm we head up­stairs and, as the late morn­ing sum­mer light fills the tast­ing room, vis­i­tors are given a choice be­tween the demi-sec (a sweeter fizz), and the more savoury fare. Six turns of the wire cage (muse­let) around the cork to re­lease it. Then sev­eral slow turns of the bot­tle, not the cork. A soft sigh sig­nals the cork’s re­lease and then the fine beads of French cham­pagne are dart­ing up and down your glass.

It fills your nose first with that warm toast smell and then your mouth comes alive with the bub­bles. And you won­der if any­one would miss you if you took the whole bot­tle off in to the French coun­try­side. It’s al­most lunchtime: maybe you could even find a baguette or two to go with it?

A beau­ti­ful view across the Cham­pagne re­gion at sun­rise

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