TIME AND TERROIR
CHAMPAGNE HOUSE MOET & CHANDON HAS NURTURED ITS REPUTATION FOR CREATING SOME OF THE FINEST PRODUCTS OF THE FABLED FRENCH REGION. NOW ENJOYING UNPRECEDENTED SUCCESS, IT LOOKS FROM TRADITION TOWARDS THE FUTURE.
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