"Champagne," actress Marlene Dietrich said, "gives you the impression that it's Sunday, that the best days are still to come."
But there's more to the roi du vins than mere bubbles and promises, as my husband, David, and I found on a visit last winter to the Champagne region. Champagne sits unchallenged on its throne not only because it has been the drink of choice for French kings, popes and European nobility since the Middle Ages but also because an intricate web of rituals and rigid regulations work to protect and burnish the image of refinement that goes with every flute of the sparkling drink.
The center of this intrigue is France's northeast region of Champagne. Its unique combination of climatological and geological conditions makes it ideal for producing "Champagne." Similar wines produced in other parts of Europe legally are barred from using the label.
Along Champagne's back roads, in 86,000 strictly defined acres of vineyards — which make up just 3% of France's wine-grape production area — no fewer than 14,695 Champagne producers work their magic on 12,500 brands, mostly sold in France. Lately, though, Americans are falling under Champagne's spell: Sales of French Champagne in the U.S. rose 15% last year.
David and I started our three-day discovery of the region in Épernay, one of Champagne's two capitals, about 90 minutes from Paris by car. Our base was the appropriately named Royal Champagne hotel, a Relais & Châteaux hotel that frequently hosted Napoleon on his way to Reims, where most of France's kings were crowned.
The Royal Champagne sits at the crest of a privileged hill in the town of Champillon, just minutes from Épernay, overlooking vineyards and villages of the Marne River valley. We chose it not only because of the hotel's impeccable service but also because of its Michelin-starred restaurant, which has one of the region's most comprehensive wine lists. We counted more than seven pages listing more than 200 wines, served by a knowledgeable sommelier.
The Champagne legend begins in the 10th century, when Europe's ruling classes fell in love with the drink and local producers refined their efforts to control the wine's natural effervescence and temper its impetuous nature. Poets, artists and philosophers have sung its praises since. The philosopher and writer Voltaire declared it the "wine of wit."
But the scientific method that produces the limpid, golden wine of today, with its long-lasting, natural bubbles, belongs to Dom Pérignon, a 17th century Benedictine monk and cellar master at the Abbey of St. Pierre d'Hautvillers. He discovered the secret of the "second fermentation," experimented with blending grapes from different vineyards and had the brilliant idea of tying the cork with wire to the bottle to seal in the bubbles.
On a hill next to Champillon, Dom Pérignon's abbey and the adjacent church rise above the village of Hautvillers. The church itself is worth a visit. If you are lucky, as we were, the sound of nuns singing Gregorian chants will fill the vast space as you glimpse the remains of the monk in a small black urn of glass and marble.
On our way there, we passed vineyards with such familiar names as Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, Claude Remy and Clouet-Vazart. Along the sloping streets of the village, wrought-iron signs announced the trades of the residents, most of them Champagne makers, of course: Petit and Fils, Saint Vincent, Adam Revolte, G. Tribaut, L. Nicaise.
Local guidebooks — and signs posted at doors — insist you should simply knock and you'll be asked in to taste the product and learn how it is made. But we didn't take advantage of the open invitations because we had appointments to visit two vineyards.
Beyond Hautvillers, we had a list of other "must-see" places, among them the town of Ay, with its towering Gothic church and distinctive wood-framed houses. It runs along some of the oldest vineyards in the region, including Maison Gosset, founded in 1584.
Most of the time we devised our own routes, never failing to stumble on a castle, a historical house, a stunning view or an ancient church next to a maison de Champagne. But a couple of times we followed one of the well-marked routes turistiques, such as the Côte des Blancs, winding 18 miles from Épernay south to the village of Vertus and earning its name from vineyards planted mainly with Chardonnay grapes used to produce blanc de blancs — Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay.
Most of the biggest brands, known as grande marques, have vineyards here. The route includes Oger, one of France's prettiest towns, and Cramant, marked by a gigantic Champagne bottle at its entrance.
As we drove through Champagne's enchanting vineyards, streets and towns, 45 feet below us lay a hidden kingdom: 150 miles of cellars that guard more than 290 million bottles of Champagne — worth more than $4.2 billion — in various stages of aging.
In the centuries-old maze of tunnels, passed from generation to generation by the Champagne producers, visitors can see, smell and even scrape with a fingernail the critical ingredient in the making of Champagne: the thick chalky subsoil deposited there since the Mesozoic era.
The chalk shelters the Champagne from light and changes in temperature, but its real value lies in what it does to the fruit growing aboveground: It stores and returns heat and humidity that nourishes the plants and gives the grapes of Champagne their distinctive character. Only three varieties have adapted ideally to the region's soil and climate: chardonnay, (light and fresh), pinot noir (body and aging) and pinot meunier (fruity).
The cellars crisscross Épernay's main artery, the Avenue de Champagne, in the old center of the city where small castles, mansions and opulent bourgeois homes bear the names of the most prestigious brands: Moët & Chandon (whose tête de cuvée, or most prestigious bottling, is Dom Pérignon), Perrier-Jouët, Mercier, De Castellane, Pol Roger, Boizel and many more. The city's slogan says it all: "Drinking Champagne in Épernay is like listening to Mozart in Salzburg."
Jewel in the crownWe had an appointment to visit Perrier-Jouët, a maison de Champagne founded in 1811 in Épernay that has passed through many hands since, including Seagram's.
I chose Perrier-Jouët because of the distinctive flower engraving on its belle epoque bottles for its tête de cuvée. The company offers tastings and several tours of its press house, winery and cellars — which extend more than six miles and contain 10 million bottles.
We had another reason to choose Perrier-Jouët. The company owns an extraordinary jewel: the Maison Belle Epoque, a private house decorated in the Art Nouveau style. The house, a block from the winery on the Avenue de Champagne, boasts a unique collection of furniture, doors, curtains, tapestries, paintings and objets d'art by such masters as Louis Majorelle, Emile Gallé, Antonin Daum, Hector Guimard and René Lalique.
Perrier-Jouët reserves the house for guests and clients, but a visit with lunch can be arranged with a complete tour for $380 per person for groups of at least eight.
We were guided through this beautifully restored house and its masterpieces by Sandrine Cavazzini, who also gave us a comprehensive tour of the winery and cellars and introduced us to some of Champagne's secrets.
The appellation is zealously protected by the powerful Comité Interprofessionnel des Vins de Champagne through bilateral international agreements and hundreds of lawsuits. The committee pulls out all the stops to ensure that other regions or producers of sparkling wine do not call its drink Champagne, even if it has been made in the traditional method.
The committee is Champagne's high priest, keeping Champagne on its throne by establishing strict rules and enforcing rigorous control of the growing and production cycles and harvest schedules and fixing annual grape production quotas; this year it is limited to 28,650 pounds for every 2 1/2 acres.
It allows no irrigation of the fields and prohibits mechanized grape-picking to ensure tradition and natural selection. The committee also controls the appellations and the amount of time — a minimum of 15 months — that the bottles are stored in the cellars before they are sold.
Later that day, at the Prévoteau-Perrier winery, a small operation in Damery, I learned that although they grumble about such strict supervision, the producers appreciate the rules, because they help keep Champagne prices high.
"With such strict control, there is no overproduction," said Patrice Prévoteau, owner with his wife, Claude, of the Prévoteau-Perrier winery. "We cannot surpass the quotas, even if we have a very good harvest. They are established according to the demand."
Winemakers' welcomeIcalled the Prévoteaus that morning to make an appointment to visit their winery, and we were invited for a drink at 6 p.m., "après le bulot" — after work. (At the time, they did not know I was a journalist, though they learned that during our visit.) They showed us into their home office. Claude brought in appetizers, and we tasted the darling of their wines, the Adrienne Lecouvreur Champagne, named in honor of an 18th century dramatic actress, a star of the Comédie-Française, Voltaire's lover and a native of Damery. The Prévoteaus bought the house she had owned and the commercial rights to her name.
They were welcoming and charming. Flutes of Champagne in hand, we toured their operation and learned about their family history, business, harvest and process.
Like many midsize and smaller Champagne producers, the Prévoteaus run a family business, now in its fifth generation. Patrice, a barrel-chested man in his 50s with a booming voice and contagious laugh, and all the family members work in the cellars and vineyards. The production from their 37 acres is sold out year after year, mostly in France. "We have no prospects of growing because there is no more space," Claude said.
Because of the committee's restrictions on expansion, many big Champagne makers bought wineries in Napa Valley and produce sparkling wine made in accordance with the Champagne region's method, known as méthode champenoise.
"Legally they cannot produce Champagne there, but they make crémant and use the traditional method and labels similar to those of the Champagne they make in France," Patrice said.
"In the U.S. they can plant wherever they want. They can irrigate. There are no quotas or limits about when or how much to bottle," he added wistfully, as he recalled the couple's Napa Valley vacation 15 years ago. "When they learned that we were Champagne makers, they treated us like kings."
A fitting reception for a man who makes the king of wines.
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Home of the bubbly
From LAX, Air France and Air Tahiti Nui have nonstop flights to Paris. United offers direct flights (stop, no change of plane), and United, Continental, Northwest, American, Lufthansa, Delta, KLM and US Airways have connecting flights (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $570.
From Paris to Épernay, drive east on the A4 highway toward Château-Thierry, then take the N3 to Épernay. A good source for maps and turn-by-turn directions is http://www.viamichelin.fr .
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 33 (country code for France) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
The Royal Champagne, 51160 Champillon-Bellevue, Marne; 3-26-52-87-11, http://www.relaischateaux.com/royalchampagne . A former coach inn with 20 rooms. Doubles from $245.
Le Château d'Etoges, 4 Rue Richebourg, 51270 Etoges Par Montmort; 3-26-59-30-08, http://www.etoges.com . This 17th century castle, with 19 guest rooms, is classified as a historic monument. Rates from $220 per person, including dinner and breakfast.
Le Clos Raymi, 3 Rue Joseph de Venoge, 51200 Épernay; 3-26-51-00-58, http://www.closraymi-hotel.com . A 19th century mansion, with 20 guest rooms, that once belonged to the owner of Moët & Chandon. Surrounded by gardens and a few steps from Avenue de Champagne. Doubles from $160.
Like France's other wine regions, Champagne is popular with tourists, many of them British and American. Many large wineries have tours in English; some wineries, particularly the smaller ones, may not. Area hotels usually can arrange appointments and English tours. When taking tours I never felt obligated to buy the wine.
Perrier-Jouët, 28 Ave. de Champagne; 51201 Épernay; 3-26-53-38-00, http://www.perrier-jouet.com . Tours in English, French, German and Italian from $11-$380 per person ($380 includes lunch and house tour) for groups of at least eight and depart 9 a.m.-noon and 2-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays.
Prévoteau-Perrier, 13-15 Rue Andre Maginot; 51-480 Damery; 3-26-58-41-56, http://www.champagne-prevoteau-perrier.fr . Visits by appointment.
TO LEARN MORE:
Épernay tourist office, 3-26-53-33-00, http://www.ot-epernay.fr .
Comité Departemental du Tourism de la Marne, 3-26-68-37-52, http://www.tourisme-en-champagne.com . Weekend tours and Champagne tasting courses.
French Government Tourist Office, (410) 286-8310 (for brochures) or (310) 271-6665, http://www.france tourism.com.
Cecilia Rodriguez is a freelance writer living in Luxembourg.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times