It’s not every day that you are handed a magnum of Moët & Chandon champagne by men in black tie with white gloves and told you can free pour into a pyramid of champagne flutes, that no one is going to end up drinking, just for the fun of it.
Let me set the scene. I am on a ladder in the Moët private residence in France doing just that, and wondering firstly, am I going to fall? (I have already consumed three mini bottles of fizz) Secondly, can I use this picture as my Christmas card. And lastly, how on earth did I get so lucky as to be in the Moët private family home, that would give Ballyfin a run for its money.
We are in the Champagne region of France to witness harvest season where winemakers cull grapes for many of the best loved champagnes in the world. The season is short, pickers only have a three-week window to work within, as after that, the grapes are past their best.
More specifically, we’re in Epernay, situated about an hour and a half outside Paris by car and the biggest names in Champagne are located here including Tattinger, Perrier-Jouet and Dom Pérignon.
Before we see the vineyards our first stop is the Avenue de Champagne, the famous one-kilometre long street lined with legendary Champagne houses including Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon and Maison Boizel. It is widely regarded as one of the most expensive streets in the world and not just because of the stunning architecture of the Maisons.
The real value you can’t see, it’s underground in the 110km of cellars under the different Champagne houses where more than 200 million bottles of bubbly are stored in dark climate-controlled corridors before they land on your dining table for special occasions.
It takes approximately three years for champagne to mature before it is ready for your flute, seven years for a vintage bottle. And here’s a tip if you are in the market for vintage bubbles — 2012 and 2013 were the best Moët vintages in recent years.
For tourists coming here, there is more to admire than just the buildings. You can visit the Champagne houses of the Maisons and tour their cellars. The Moët & Chandon house has a statue of the famous Benedictine monk Dom Perignon outside it, as he is credited with creating champagne all the way back in the 1670s.
I stop for a picture with Dom and inform him that he has given me way too many hangovers to which he looks pleased. ‘You had fun though, yes?’ his benign expression seems to ask. And he’s right.
The cellar tour here is €11, which includes a glass afterward in the garden and it really is fascinating to see how truly great Champagne is made. With annual sales of about 30 million bottles a year, there is literally a bottle of Moët popped every second so it’s become a welcome guest at many, many celebrations over the generations.
For the history buffs, a quirky hat which once belonged to Napolean is on display before you descend to the cellars. as M Bonaparte was a friend of the Moët family and a lover of fizz.
The cellars are dark and chilly and crammed with bottles gathering dust. It is a sight to behold and strange to think that this is where our beloved bubbles live before landing on the shelves in O’Briens and Tesco.
Our tour guide tells us some quirky facts about the Champagne process, including the use of workers called ‘riddlers’ to ensure the quality is top tier, whose sole job is to turn each bottle by hand to loosen the sediment left by yeast.
The process, called riddling, causes the sediment to collect in the neck of the bottle in preparation for disgorgement where it is ejected leaving the Champagne perfectly clear. We are told there is one riddler who is rumoured to turn a hundred bottles in 30 seconds.
For those thinking of a trip here from Paris by train, there is a direct service of just over half an hour.
A trip to the nearby vineyard fields next showed us where the process really begins. This land is the only land in France where Champagne is made by law and custom, and also because of its soil and climate. By the end of September harvest season is coming to an end in Epernay and most of the grapes have been handpicked from the vines.
We hear about Moët’s sustainability practices and how the vines are protected by using owl boxes to encourage owls to nest and get rid of any pests eating their grapes. The vineyards are almost entirely irrigated by reclaimed water and the house works closely with 2,000 winegrowers to benefit the biodiversity of the region.
While I am listening to the techniques, I am distracted by the chatter amongst the pickers in the fields which sounds more like they are getting ready for a night out rather than doing a day’s labour. There is great camaraderie amongst them as they handpick swollen grapes along each line.
The last stop on our trip is a stay in the Moët & Chandon guest house, Chateau de Saran, which was originally the family’s residence. You can’t pay to stay here as it is used as the principal residence for entertaining Moët & Chandon’s most glamorous guests, from movie stars to royalty, politicians, and journalists from around the world.
There are 11 themed rooms in the house which have all been decorated to honour a chapter in the Champagne’s history including the Roaring 20s, Christian Dior and Hollywood. I am checked into the Chinese room which is like something out of a painting. Decadent just doesn’t cut it. Everything is a feast for the eyes created by interior designer Yves de Marseille who worked on the project for five years.
Before my case is even unpacked my dress is whisked away by staff to be pressed before dinner. Outside a hot air balloon takes us up high up into the late afternoon sky to see the vineyards from a different viewpoint.
Naturally the snipes are popped as we head for the clouds and I wonder how I will ever be able to return to normal life again, now my head is quite literally in the clouds.
But as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: ‘Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right’ and I’m very happy to enjoy my own audacious Great Gatsby moment.
If you fancy your own Moët experience closer to home the Moët & Chandon Rosé Impérial is €63, you can also personalise your bottle of Moët & Chandon with your own special message, name or date for free with a purchase of Moët & Chandon in any size is available from Brown Thomas Dublin.