A Night At The Birthplace Of Champagne

The monk, through his public relations rep, had told us to rendez-vous in a not very ecclesiastic place. "We will be meeting in Paris at the Place Vendôme Park Hyatt and then heading to Epernay," he'd relayed. The program was tempting: visit the restored Abbey of Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers, where Dom Pérignon invented champagne, taste several vintages of Dom Perignon in the monk refectory, visit part of the 26 kilometers of caves and spend the night at Moët et Chandon's Château de Saran.

When I arrived at the Park Hyatt, there was no monk, no PR rep, only a few other journalists wandering like myself between desk, reception and breakfast room, explaining that we had a rendez-vous with DP. An hour later, the jet-lagged American PR rep arrived and the trip started. My night with Dom Pérignon was not going to be a tête-à-tête, but what can you expect from a monk who died 300 years ago?

As the luxury bus approached Epernay, the capital of Champagne, more and more English, German, Dutch, Polish and French cemeteries along the road reminded us that Champagne had been a major battle field during WW1. As we were going to learn, champagne is a matter of life and death. Arriving at Dom Pérignon's abbey, Hautviller, first thing we did was to visit his tomb. "He wanted to make the best wine for God," said Marie-Filomène Martins, our guide. Why had he decided one day to press the grapes as usual... but to keep the wine till spring, when the second fermentation, the "prise de mousse," starts in the bottle? Nobody really knows. But champagne was born. The benedictine monk was also a businessman, evidently. Not only did he expand the vineyards from 10 to 25 hectares (today, champagne is cultivated on 34,500 hectares, including 1,150 owned by Moët et Chandon), he also designed the flute and managed to be the main supplier at Versailles for the king of France.

Dom Pérignon today is Richard Geoffroy, Chef de Cave since 1990. He could have been a monk, were he not married with several kids. Born in Vertus, son of a long line of Côte des Blancs winegrowers, Geoffroy is a character. A former physician who decided to quit to study oenology, he likes to meditate but also to create dishes like the white pyramid of three bowls to serve the "pigeon de l'accouchée," a classic on the menu at the Château de Saran. All year round, he travels around the world to meet clients, chefs, wine makers. As chef de cave, he creates each single vintage of Dom Pérignon, and even decides if there will be a vintage at all (if a certain vintage is not up to snuff, the house simply skips that year for a vintage champagne). Each year, a new battle starts with the harvest.

The current release of Dom Pérignon is 2003 — put on the market nine years after the harvest — from a year other producers chose to skip. Not only because of the heat in '03, which killed thousands of elderly people in France and across Europe, but because in the Champagne region, the weather had been miserable until July and turned only in August. Some believe that when it comes to champagne, "août fait le goût," which means the last four weeks before the harvest are the most important (it translates roughly as August makes the taste). Geoffroy decided to go for it. The move paid off. "This Dom Perignon is expressive, riper and richer than all the vintages," he told us. He poured some with a carpaccio de langoustines topped with Saint James caviar, which started a dinner at the chateau that, you could say, was 300 years and two monks in the making.