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Discover why the French take their best fizz so seriously,
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