• World

The Luxury Of Liquid Gold

5 minute read

As you drive east from the center of Epernay in France’s Champagne region, the modest three-story houses of this sleepy country town are suddenly replaced by regal grandeur. On both sides of a broad avenue, a succession of palatial buildings sweeps into the distance. Elegant gatehouses and cobblestoned courtyards lead to lofty 19th century façades decorated with columns and carvings. They were built by a self-made aristocracy — producers of the bubbly wine that is synonymous with luxury and sophistication.

In Moët & Chandon’s stately garden, the rulers of Austria, Russia and Prussia once toasted their victory over Napoleon. Today Japanese tourists in heavy make-up and designer clothes photograph each other in front of the black railings and gilded Moët nameplate. As with other luxury goods, champagne’s clientele has broadened over the years. Last year, that democratization generated revenues of $2.8 billion on 253 million bottles sold. Yet the region’s producers still pride themselves on a certain sense of tradition. Up the road in Reims — with Epernay, twin capital of the world’s most distinguished sparkling wine — Henri Krug receives visitors on leather-upholstered armchairs in an elegant wood-paneled salon. Four previous generations of Krugs look down from the walls. “Krug’s style has always been different from the other champagne houses,” he says. “I’ve been doing the final blend for the past 40 years and my father did it for 40 years before me. My son has now started, and he’ll continue when I’ve retired.”

In Champagne, the blend is everything. Ever since Dom Pérignon — cellarmaster at the abbey in Hautvillers at the turn of the 18th century — discovered that he could obtain a more consistent wine from year to year by mixing the grapes from different vineyards, most champagne has been an artful collage of different grape varieties from several vintages. “We use reserve wines to compensate for what’s lacking in each year’s harvest,” Krug explains. His Grande Cuvée is a blend of between 50 and 60 individual wines from 25 villages, including up to eight separate vintages of the region’s three traditional grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.

The region’s wealth has always been generated by forward-looking entrepreneurs with a nose for new markets and a taste for risky bets. Bruno Paillard is a 48-year-old local boy who continues in that vein. In 1981, Paillard took on the challenge of establishing his own champagne house from scratch. Today he produces 600,000 bottles a year — three-quarters of them for export — at a futuristic glass and steel winery on the outskirts of Reims. “I’m probably the most traditional champagne producer,” Paillard says with a grin. “I’m convinced that if one of the great figures in champagne history opened a house today, they’d combine the best aspects of the past with the best new technology.”

Where Henri Krug still employs “riddlers” to remove the sediment from his wine by hand-turning the bottles in vaulted cellars, Paillard has done away with cellars altogether. In his fermentation hall a computer-controlled cooling system keeps the temperature stable at 10.5° C. Bottles are stacked 10 m high in metal cages, slowly undergoing the second fermentation, which raises champagne’s alcohol content and provides its characteristic sparkle. Nowhere is Paillard’s modernity more apparent than at one end of the vast cold store, where motorized “gyropalettes” rotate and incline whole cages of bottles. Today, even Henri Krug is installing “gyropalettes” for all but his most prestigious cuvées. “Machines give us far greater precision,” Paillard explains. “The result is a much higher quality than you could obtain by hand.”

So as modern technology replaces ancestral techniques, what’s to stop any of the other sparkling wines being produced around the world — from Spain to South America — knocking champagne off its pedestal? The answer: the rolling chalk hills with their thin layer of topsoil that lie between Reims and Epernay, and a harsh northern climate that provides no more than the bare minimum 100 days of sunshine required for a grape to ripen. Extreme growing conditions like that produce grapes with unique character. “To make a great champagne, you’ve got to make great wine,” says Anselme Selosse. He’s wearing a shabby grey T shirt, shorts and battered leather clogs, amid rows of vines. “My wine’s the pure juice of the land it comes from.”

Selosse represents the other side of the champagne business. In his village of Avize, 110 different makes of champagne are produced by small-scale growers working tiny plots. Selosse has 15 acres of vines and sells up to 48,000 bottles each year. “I’m interested in difference,” he says. “A wine that’s constantly identical from year to year bothers me.” He makes his wine the old way, fermenting each year’s harvest in oak barrels and hand-turning his bottles in a 200-year-old rabbit-warren of brick-lined vaults. Yet Selosse is anything but a traditionalist. His conversation veers from feng shui to microbiology. “Science provides us with a tool to make sure everything’s going well with our vines,” he explains. “When you love a vine, the vine gives it back to you.” That may sound romantic but with champagne vines worth over $200,000 an acre, it’s a romance rooted in pragmatism.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com