FOR A FAN FIZZ
By ANDREW SARDONE
Friday, October 11, 2019 Print Edition, Page P42
To toast the 150th anniversary of Moët Impérial, a dinner in Epernay highlights the history and innovation that keeps the Champagne region popping the words "Avenue de Champagne" conjure up visions of a grand French boulevard flowing with effervescent wine like a scene out of a more grown-up - though equally burp-filled - sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But such a road exists, in the quaint town of Epernay about 90 minutes east of Paris, and it is overflowing with Champagne in a way that's more literal than you might imagine. Below the road are 110 kilometres of white chalk caves where millions of bottles lie, building up their bubbles for the world's top houses.
Marking the entrance to the avenue is the home of Moët & Chandon. On the south side of the street is its grand office block, which includes a visitor centre, boutique and access to Moët's own 28 kilometres of cellars. On the north side is the Résidence de Trianon, a village estate built for Jean-Rémy Moët, grandson of house founder Claude Moët, in the early 1800s that now functions as a clubhouse for the label's top customers. In the spring, it was where Moët & Chandon hosted a series of celebrations to toast the 150th anniversary of its flagship bottle, Moët Impérial.
The history of Moët & Chandon begins another century and a half before that first Impérial popped.
In 1716, Claude began working as a négociant, bottling and selling wine for the region's grape growers. As sweet, sparkling vintages gained popularity in royal courts from Spain to Russia, Moët assembled an enviable list of clients, including France's King Louis XV.
Jean-Rémy is responsible for focusing the company's efforts on bubbly and acquiring hundreds of hectares of the area's best vineyards. "Chandon" enters the picture in the form of Pierre-Gabriel Chandon, who married Jean-Rémy's daughter, Adelaide, in 1816 and partnered with her brother, Victor, on the new venture Moët & Chandon. Today, the business is the flagship winemaker of the LVMH group, which includes other Champagne houses, among them Krug, Ruinart and Veuve Clicquot.
Moët Impérial's big moment came in 1869, when tastes started to shift away from over-sweetened Champagne. Previously in Russia, for example, the preferred style of bubbly had some 300 grams of sugar per litre, about three times the sugar in a can of cola today. Moët Impérial, on the other hand, is in the drier brut style. Today, in the hands, nose and palate of cellar master Benoît Gouez, it's only become brut-er with hints of apple, pear and white peach. The latest bottling only has seven grams of sugar per litre, reflecting the contemporary oenophile's penchant for freshness in sparkling wine. "I don't know what the taste of Moët Impérial was 150 years ago. We have one bottle left but we never open it," says Gouez.
"Moët & Chandon has always been consumer driven.
It doesn't mean that we're doing everything they ask for, but at least we listen."
Reflecting Moët's roots as a négociant, creating a non-vintage Champagne like Impérial, where consistency trumps idiosyncrasy, involves mixing and matching wines. The fruit can be sourced from hundreds of different local growers, and reserve wines are stored for a few years as a hedge against inconsistent growing seasons. According to Gouez, there's no secret recipe, though the blend usually includes a relatively equal amount of pinot nero and pinot meunier and a smaller measure of Chardonnay.
"I want our Champagnes to taste like the grapes they're made of - it's a very simple concept," he says.
"Moët Impérial is a little bit of everything.
The beauty of that wine is that it's so complete... there are so many elements involved. What I like with Impérial is that idea of spontaneity, of not being obliged to wait for a special occasion."
Still, momentous events are central to the brand's iconography. Images of Hollywood stars downing flutes of Moët at awards shows and race car drivers dumping magnums on their pit crews have added to its cachet. So it's not surprising that Impérial's 150th was marked with some pretty over-the-top dos.
"We live in the present, but we have roots, we have history, we have patrimony, we have people, we have a style," says Gouez. All those aspects were on display for the series of celebratory dinners hosted at the Trianon house. The relationship between past and present was emphasized by the menu, which included pairings of four dishes interpreted in the styles of 1869 and today, including sorel soup, Russian salad, poached turbot and a gingerbread dessert. A month later, at the Château de Saran, the recently revamped seat of the Moët family, celebrities including model Kate Moss, actors Uma Thurman and Natalie Portman and tennis star Roger Federer enjoyed a similar parade of dishes - and a fireworks display over the hills of Champagne.
Moving forward, the property will become another venue to host high-rolling bubbly fans, but accessing the world of Champagne centred around Epernay doesn't require a home cellar
full of cases of fizz. A good spot to base yourself in the area is the Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa, which looms like a Bond villain's lair overlooking the vineyards and boasts an extensive bar menu of local bottles. Tours of the Moët & Chandon cellars can be booked online for visits between April and December. And opening in February 2020, the Musée du vin de Champagne et d'Archéologie régionale d'Epernay will capture the unique history and character of the region's wine culture.
Gouez, who has worked in California, Australia and New Zealand, says that what makes Epernay unique is its combination of terroir and technical know-how. "Epernay is the capital of Champagne, in the sense of being in the middle of the vineyards," he says. "And I would say the soul of Moët & Chandon is in Epernay - in the cellars." Just below the cobblestones on the Avenue de Champagne, in fact.
The Moët & Chandon head office (left) enjoys pride of place as the first house located along Epernay's Avenue de Champagne (top left). It includes a statue devoted to monk and cellar master Dom Pérignon (top right), whose name is used for another one of the house's sparkling wines. Across the street is the Résidence de Trianon, the historic village estate of the Moët family (above).
Benoït Gouez (far left), Moët & Chandon's cellar master, hosted a series of dinner parties at the Résidence de Trianon to mark Moët Impérial's 150th anniversary. The event offered guests a glimpse at the only original bottle in the house's possession and a menu by chef Marco Fadiga that contrasted dishes prepared in the style of 1869 and today (below).
The new Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa (top left) overlooks Epernay and the surrounding vineyards. Moët & Chandon's Mont Aïgu property (above) and its kilometres of caves below the city (right) highlight the house's sprawling influence in the region.