The Australian - Wish Magazine - - COLOUR CODE - STORY JOSEPHINE McKENNA

Etched in the dank cel­lar walls of Moët & Chan­don in the heart of France’s cel­e­brated Cham­pagne re­gion is a rem­nant of his­tory that’s never seen the light of day. It was here that the ded­i­cated cav­istes, or cel­lar work­ers, left dec­la­ra­tions of love, de­tails of their ar­rivals and de­par­tures, even their chil­dren’s names, in the graf­fiti they in­scribed in the chalk walls be­neath the mai­son’s head­quar­ters in Éper­nay.

“All the his­tory of cham­pagne is writ­ten in the cel­lars,” says Benoit Gouez, Moët’s chief wine maker, or chef de cave. “It is quite im­pres­sive.”

Over the cen­turies, these face­less devo­tees watched his­tory un­fold as they lived through eco­nomic up­heaval, revo­lu­tion and the hor­rors of war. Prus­sian troops oc­cu­pied the town in 1870 and scratched on one of the walls is an im­age of a Prus­sian in­vader flee­ing the cel­lar with a bot­tle of cham­pagne.

To­day the graf­fiti lie hid­den be­hind thou­sands of dusty bot­tles in­side a spooky labyrinth of un­der­ground tun­nels where Napoleon Bon­a­parte him­self made a per­sonal ap­pear­ance more than 200 years ago.

Founded by wine mer­chant Claude Moët in 1743, Moët & Chan­don emerged at a time when King Louis XV was frol­ick­ing with his favourite mis­tress, the Mar­quise de Pom­padour, in­side the glit­ter­ing palace of Ver­sailles. The word révo­lu­tion had not yet en­tered the French vo­cab­u­lary when Moët be­came the of­fi­cial sup­plier to the royal court.

Moët & Chan­don is now one of the largest cham­pagne pro­duc­ers in the world, and is syn­ony­mous with French lux­ury and so­phis­ti­ca­tion. The com­pany pro­duces more than 30 mil­lion bot­tles a year and Moët’s steady growth was a key con­trib­u­tor to the €5 bil­lion in sales recorded by the wine and spir­its arm of its par­ent com­pany, the lux­ury gi­ant LVMH, in 2017.

Cham­pagne is en­joyed by well-heeled wine lovers, blue­bloods and wannabes in more than 150 coun­tries, from Hol­ly­wood star­lets to For­mula One win­ners and grand slam su­per­stars. More and more Aus­tralians are also quaffing cham­pagne. Last year more than 8.5 mil­lion cham­pagne corks were popped in Aus­tralia – a heady 16 per cent in­crease over 2016 – mak­ing it a record year for con­sump­tion of the French fizz.

Ac­cord­ing to wine writer Tyson Stelzer, au­thor of The Cham­pagne Guide, Aus­tralia is the world’s sev­enth-largest cham­pagne mar­ket, with the big­gest con­sump­tion per head of pop­u­la­tion out­side Europe. Aus­tralians are not only drink­ing more im­ported bub­bles, they are look­ing for bet­ter qual­ity in their drop. “Our palates have ma­tured,” says Stelzer. “We’re spend­ing more on a bot­tle of wine, and cham­pagne is no longer a spe­cial oc­ca­sion lux­ury but an every­day in­dul­gence.”

In the rolling hills of Cham­pagne, 140km north­east of Paris, there’s no hint of the re­gion’s global celebrity. The sleepy ru­ral set­ting seems like the lo­ca­tion for a clas­sic French film in which vine­yards criss-cross an idyl­lic land­scape splashed with golden spring

blossoms. The wind­ing roads are sur­pris­ingly free of traf­fic and de­spite an oc­ca­sional sign point­ing to the cel­lars, there are few tourists on the streets of the neatly man­i­cured vil­lages.

The Av­enue de Cham­pagne runs through the cen­tre of Éper­nay and for cen­turies was the main route from Paris to Stras­bourg. In 1791, the ill-fated King Louis XVI trav­elled it on his way to Varennes as he and his fam­ily fled for their lives from the fury of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies.

Two years later, Jean-Rémy Moët, the founder’s vi­sion­ary grand­son, chose the pop­u­lar thor­ough­fare as the site for his stately res­i­dence, known as the Hô­tel Moët. It was more than a home: Moët used the site to build an em­pire and show­case it on a grand scale. “He bought cel­lars, he bought land and planted vine­yards,” says Veronique Foureur, the her­itage man­ager for Moët. “He worked with the sci­en­tists of his time. He also worked with the glass mak­ers to im­prove the qual­ity, style and re­sis­tance of the bot­tles.”

The grand stone res­i­dence is to­day the cen­tre­piece of Moët’s global head­quar­ters. There’s an air of un­der­stated el­e­gance as you step across the thresh­old and the orig­i­nal floors squeak un­der­foot. A hefty hand­writ­ten ledger in the cen­tre of the el­e­gant sa­lon re­veals the per­sonal or­ders of such lu­mi­nar­ies as the Em­peror Napoleon, then a mere con­sul, and his mother Le­tizia. Napoleon’s wife Josephine was also a fan.

“It is like be­ing able to fol­low those very im­por­tant foot­steps in his­tory,” says Foureur, who was also born in the re­gion. “We are al­ways find­ing new in­for­ma­tion, pulling to­gether threads of in­for­ma­tion.

“Cham­pagne is not only a beau­ti­ful wine in a beau­ti­ful glass, it is also about the his­tory, the land and the dif­fi­cul­ties. You never know what the har­vest is go­ing to be like.”

Moët is the largest vine­yard owner in Cham­pagne, a proud re­gion with its own le­gal des­ig­na­tion, or ap­pel­la­tion, which has marked the bound­aries of the ter­roir and the iden­tity of its most fa­mous ex­port since 1936. The mai­son’s vine­yards cover 1180ha. Fifty per cent of the land owned by Moët is con­sid­ered Grand Cru and 25 per cent is Pre­mier Cru, ti­tles as­signed a cen­tury ago to the vil­lages with the best qual­ity grapes. It’s this kind of di­ver­sity, com­bined with nearly three cen­turies of savoir-faire, that has en­abled Moët to main­tain its rep­u­ta­tion and con­tinue to grow.

“Our vine­yards are our main as­set,” says Gouez. “Our grapes are a no­ble prod­uct of na­ture, and I con­sider my role and that of my team to be the en­hance­ment of that raw ma­te­rial.”

Only sparkling wines pro­duced in Cham­pagne un­der the strictest gov­ern­ment con­trols and Eu­ro­pean reg­u­la­tions can call them­selves cham­pagne. Moët re­lies on 300 grow­ers to sup­ple­ment its own grape sup­ply and Gouez says these re­la­tion­ships are crit­i­cal. “We have to have long-term part­ner­ships,” he says. “When you work with cham­pagne you don’t make it for next year; what we make to­day will take a min­i­mum of three years.”

Moët draws on three grape va­ri­eties from the re­gion – pinot noir, me­u­nier and chardon­nay – for its fi­nal blends, but the big­gest chal­lenge is en­sur­ing con­sis­tency when har­vests are no­to­ri­ously un­re­li­able. “Most of the time in Cham­pagne it is rain­ing,” says Gouez. “It is not the great­est weather to pro­duce wine. We have to recre­ate the same style but ev­ery har­vest is dif­fer­ent.”

Of the 319 wine-pro­duc­ing vil­lages in the re­gion, 234 sup­ply grapes to Moët to sup­ple­ment the mai­son’s own grapes. It may also use up to 50 per cent of its re­serve wine if the har­vest is dis­ap­point­ing.

“Our sup­ply can change from one year to the next,” says Gouez, who has been cel­lar mas­ter at Moët since 2005. “The more nu­ance you have in your sup­ply, the more chance you have to cre­ate your cham­pagne.”

He talks about Moët’s adept in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the grapes, but also ac­knowl­edges the im­por­tance of the re­gion’s limestone soil and par­tic­u­lar cli­mate.

“I think that’s what makes cham­pagne unique,” he says. “I don’t say that you can’t come close to that style lo­cally, but largely it is only in Cham­pagne that we can pro­duce that style on such a large scale. It is re­ally that bal­ance between in­ten­sity and fi­nesse.”

Born in Brit­tany and raised in Nor­mandy, Gouez says he had noth­ing to do with vine­yards as a child. He be­came in­ter­ested in wine­mak­ing while study­ing agron­omy at the École Na­tionale Supérieur d’Agronomie in Mont­pel­lier. Later he had in­tern­ships at the Cape Men­telle win­ery in Mar­garet River and

“In a house like Moët & Chan­don there is no recipe in a safe, so you only learn by ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Cloudy Bay in New Zealand, both part of LVMH, be­fore join­ing Moët in 1998.

“In a house like Moët & Chan­don there is no recipe in a safe, so you only learn by ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says. “It takes so long to de­velop a cham­pagne that you need to live with the team and the sea­son, and spend years and years to feel com­fort­able.”

Ev­ery­thing re­volves around the har­vest, which takes place in late sum­mer or early au­tumn. When the grapes have ripened, an army of 3000 work­ers de­scends on the vine­yards to pick them by hand. They are then trans­ferred to 500 press­ing cen­tres and stored in large vats be­fore the first fer­men­ta­tion.

The chef de cave and his team of oe­nol­o­gists – six men and four women – will spend weeks tast­ing and as­sess­ing the qual­ity and age­ing po­ten­tial of 800 dif­fer­ent wines be­fore de­cid­ing on the fi­nal blend. It’s a huge task. Gouez says: “None of us has the per­fect taste so we work as a panel. We clas­sify the wine on qual­ity, pu­rity, and char­ac­ter, and in the sec­ond round, the palate. The idea is to reach a con­sen­sus; it is cru­cial.”

Af­ter the ini­tial fer­men­ta­tion, a sec­ond fer­men­ta­tion aided by sug­ars and yeast helps to pro­duce cham­pagne’s fa­mous bub­bles. It is then sealed in bot­tles and stored on wooden racks, or sur lat­tes, in Moët’s cel­lars at tem­per­a­tures of 9C to 12C. The bot­tles are pe­ri­od­i­cally ro­tated by “rid­dlers”, and kept in dark­ness for months or even years for their mat­u­ra­tion.

Strolling through the cel­lars, it’s hard to pic­ture these dusty bot­tles even­tu­ally be­ing ex­tracted from this be­wil­der­ing 28km maze to take cen­tre stage at a movie pre­miere or a gala event on the other side of the world.

Across the av­enue in the Orangerie, an ar­chi­tec­tural gem built by Jean-Remy Moët and flanked by a spec­tac­u­lar gar­den, Gouez is wait­ing to share some sam­ples from the mai­son’s cham­pagne port­fo­lio.

The iconic blend is Moët Im­périal, the sig­na­ture cham­pagne named af­ter Bon­a­parte and first pro­duced in 1869 to mark the cen­ten­nial of his birth. Moët’s Rosé Im­pe­rial, known for its dis­tinc­tive colour and in­tense fruiti­ness, has been grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity since it was first re­leased in 1997.

There is also in­creas­ing de­mand for the house’s vin­tage cham­pagnes, blended ex­clu­sively from a sin­gle year’s har­vest. Since 1842, Moët has re­leased 73 finely aged vin­tages and is par­tic­u­larly proud of the Grand Vin­tage 2009, ma­tured for seven years in the cel­lars be­fore be­ing dis­gorged in 2017.

But it is also ex­plor­ing new ways to en­joy cham­pagne. In 2011, it re­leased Ice Im­périal, the world’s first cham­pagne served over ice. Purists may weep, but this cham­pagne has taken off in France as well as Ger­many, Spain, Mex­ico and Aus­tralia, where its part­ner, Ice Im­périal Rosé, will be re­leased later this year.

“We don’t live in the past and we con­tinue to evolve,” says Gouez. “For many peo­ple, tra­di­tion means do­ing what they have done in the past. If you don’t evolve, it is folk­lore.”

Served in a large wine glass, Ice Im­périal seems pitched at a young, hip crowd hang­ing by a har­bour­side pool, cruis­ing the Mediter­ranean or watch­ing the sun set from a rooftop bar in New York. But not only them – Gouez says it opens up new pos­si­bil­i­ties for those who want a “ca­sual and re­fresh­ing” ex­pe­ri­ence.

Con­sid­er­ing the scale of Moët’s pro­duc­tion and its in­creas­ing di­ver­sity, the big­gest risk for the mai­son, says Stelzer, is its phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess. “Moët has mush­roomed like no other cham­pagne house and the real dan­ger to­day is that its ex­plo­sive growth may top­ple the bal­ance in Cham­pagne,” he says. “The big­gest ques­tion of all is how Moët can sus­tain qual­ity in the wake of such un­prece­dented growth. Of course qual­ity does not au­to­mat­i­cally come with quan­tity, and Gouez and his team have em­braced in­no­va­tion and worked hard to re­fine the style.”

What was once a sym­bol of in­dul­gence in the French royal court is now an in­ter­na­tional drink to be shared by or­di­nary con­sumers as well as con­nois­seurs. Al­ready pop­u­lar in Ja­pan, the US, Ger­many, the UK and Aus­tralia, Moët is now be­ing em­braced in Nige­ria, Mex­ico and South Africa. The sales strat­egy is sim­ple.

“I think we have to con­tinue to pro­mote – not only in Aus­tralia but in most coun­tries – the idea that even if Cham­pagne is spe­cial, it shouldn’t be re­served for very spe­cial oc­ca­sions,” says Gouet. “Life is too short to drink bad cham­pagne. Shar­ing a glass of cham­pagne is just a way to en­joy life and have a good time. It should not be just once a year, but much more of­ten. Voilà!”

“We don’t live in the past and we con­tinue to evolve. If you don’t evolve, it is folk­lore.”

Op­po­site page, clock­wise from top left: dust-laden bot­tles; chef de cave Benoit Gouez; Moët’s subter­ranean cel­lars and rid­dling racksThis page, clock­wise from above: Moët Ice Im­périal; Grand Vin­tage Rosé 2009; Im­périal

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