Toast of the town Epernay gives look at how champagnes are made

Sunday, July 21, 2002

EPERNAY, France -- Take a stroll down the Avenue de Champagne. See the fabled cellars where the favorite drink of kings, millionaires and movie stars is being carefully created. Have a glass of your favorite brand after the guided tour underground.

You can do it all here in Epernay, the capital of the Champagne region, and just about 75 minutes east of Paris by train.

Moet & Chandon. Perrier-Jouet. Mercier. These elegant "maisons de champagne" are here in Epernay. Veuve Clicquot, Pommery, Krug and other well-known names are located in the nearby city of Reims.

The Broadway musical "Gigi" celebrated "the night they invented champagne." And in Epernay, you can see and taste what's become of that invention.

Of course, the name Epernay might not ring a bell, unless you happened to look closely at the label on one of the Dom Perignon bottles at your last party, or at the labels of other well-known brands.

Head out to Epernay (pronounced ehh-per-NAY) from the Gare de l'Est train station in Paris early in the morning, to savor all the town has to offer.

Central avenue

Start with a stroll down the central Avenue de Champagne, lined with imposing buildings that also include the Pol Roger and Vranken Demoiselle maisons de champagne.

First on everyone's list is Moet & Chandon, which was founded in 1743 and whose building dominates the street. The huge gold-colored letters spelling the company name on the fence outside make the sight even more impressive.

In the courtyard of the company headquarters is a statue of the French Benedictine monk Dom Perignon, who helped to develop the luxury beverage in the 17th century in the nearby Abbey of Hautvillers.

Today, the line bearing the monk's name is one of the world's best-known champagnes.

According to legend, when Dom Perignon first drank his new creation, he exclaimed: "I am drinking stars."

The chic tour guide tells you about the founding of the brand by Claude Moet, and its rise to prominence.

You also see a short film about the principles of champagne making, emphasizing that only three grape varieties are authorized for the production of champagne: the chardonnay (a white grape); the pinot noir and the pinot meunier (both of them dark grapes).

To be called champagne, the beverage must be produced in the Champagne region, from grapes grown here under strict guidelines.

Other factors also come in, such as the aging time, which can reach several years, but is a minimum of 15 months before shipping.

Visit the 'caves'

After the film, it's down into the dimly lit cellars, called "caves," where tours are given in French, English and, upon advance request, other languages such as Spanish, Japanese and Chinese.

Moet & Chandon itself has more than 17 miles of these carefully monitored spaces dedicated to making champagne.

The stairs leading into the cellars might be tricky for handicapped or elderly visitors, but no trickier than the stairs at any tourist attraction back in Paris. You may also want to bring along a sweater even in summer.

To ensure perfect fermentation and aging, the humidity is high and the temperature is consistent, 50 to 54 degrees F.

During the tour, the guide takes you through the long tunnels, or "galleries" as they are called in French. The seemingly endless rows of bottles make people's jaws drop in sheer amazement.

The 60-minute basic tour, which costs $6.80, includes detailed explanations of wine-blending, fermentation, bottling, aging and storage.

As with the tours at other maisons de champagne, this one's capped by a real treat: the degustation where you get to try one glass of this sparkling delight loved the world over.

France marketed more than 262.6 million bottles of champagne last year alone.

Oh yes, even the fabled maisons de champagne have set up shops featuring their luxury wares.

After the tour, you can buy everything from champagne worthy of a king, to aprons, glasses, chess sets and elegant bottle stoppers.

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