Toast of the Town Marne valley's Champagne region still sparkles

October 17, 1993|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

Champagne.

It makes my head spin, my nose tickle. And the sight of vineyards spread mile after mile across France's Marne valley takes my breath away.

Here, Napoleon walked. In fact, according to records -- and just a little legend -- before every campaign, Napoleon came to the town of Epernay as the guest of Jean-Remy Moet to fortify his baggage trains with champagne.

Only once was he unable to make the trip here before battle, the legend goes, and that was before the Battle of Waterloo.

"Instead, he fought at Waterloo on Belgian beer," says Henri Perrier, who is married to Catherine, the last living Moet. "Everyone knows what happened at Waterloo."

With only a very small wink, Mr. Perrier leaves little doubt about why Napoleon lost.

"He should have stopped for his champagne," he says.

And now, here I am, the guest of Moet et Chandon, which is celebrating its 250th birthday, walking where Napoleon walked. Before long I will feel as if I've stepped into a 1940s movie set, enjoying a night at the Chateau de Saron -- the castle-like house Moet uses to entertain clients and invited guests -- a sumptuous dinner, a private tour of the cellars in Epernay and a tour of the Abbey D'Hautvillers, where Dom Perignon discovered how to make the sparkling, bubbling wine called champagne in the 17th century.

His grave is here, inside the abbey that was burned and destroyed five times through the ages, and is now undergoing another restoration. The beehives where he and his fellow monks collected honey are still visible across a small garden, where vines -- whose ancestry can be linked to those Perignon harvested -- still bear fruit.

Moet et Chandon owns the abbey and nearly 1,700 acres, on which it grows black and white grapes. The pinot noir comes from the Montagne de Reims, the pinot meunier from the Marne valley and chardonnay from the Cote des Blancs.

When I visited, the vines were lush green. Now, in October, the grapes are being harvested. Later, they will be pressed and blended and tested, and in three years, we will be able to drink the wines made from them -- unless the wine is a bottle of Dom Perignon, Moet's most exclusive creation. For Dom Perignon, we'll have to wait five years.

It is a long-term commitment sealed with love.

The French become irritable when California champagnes are mentioned, and they are positively indignant over a ruling by a British high court earlier this year allowing a non-alcoholic, flower-based drink to be sold with a label bearing the name champagne.

"It is nothing to do with champagne," says Mr. Perrier, who is my guide.

According to the strictest French laws -- and Common Market regulations -- only champagnes made from grapes in Champagne, the region in and around the Marne valley, can be called champagne.

This is a little confusing, since champagne is the name given to a wine whose sparkle is due to man's intervention and which is made from a blend of component wines. Yet, the French insist it is the land that makes the difference in the crops and thus the end result.

"The ground, the weather and the grapes," says Mr. Perrier. "That is what makes champagne, not the process."

As you drive through the narrow winding roads that run between the vast fields, you can hear the love in Mr. Perrier's voice and see the commitment in the fields. It is not unusual to see men walking slowly through the rows of grapes, checking the soil, the leaves, the vines for signs of trouble.

The roots here go deep. The earth is chalk, and the vines' roots reach far down into the soil in search of moisture. It is amazing the grapes survive at all, considering the alternating hazards of too much rain, too little rain and the chills that threaten in the early spring and late summer, in this northern climate.

As the men tending these vineyards say, "It is a very touchy business." They, like the grapes they nurse, also have roots that go back through generations. Champagne is not only a region and a drink in the northeast part of France, it is a way of life.

It may sound implausible, but growing up a farmer's daughter in West Virginia helped me to understand the French in Champagne. Watching my father crumble the earth through his fingers, his eyes searching the sky for rain, and seeing his worried face when the rain didn't come, the joy when it did, prepared me for Champagne, where a family's heritage is in the acres and acres of grapes planted in a soil so suited to them they grew here naturally for as long ago as anyone can remember. (In the last years of the 19th century, though, the vineyards were nearly destroyed by a parasitic louse called phylloxera, and would have been had the vines not been dug up systematically and replaced by American vine rootstock, which was immune to the parasite that had originated in North America.)

Like being a plumber?

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