This weekend I took a visit to Eperney in Champagne where I found many of the caves that produce that region’s local tipple. I went on a tour of two champagne houses, Moët et Chandon and Mercier. During a visit to the first, we were assured of Moët’s credentials with stories of the fonder’s patronage by Napoleon I along with other impressive customers. We were led down into the wine caves, 25m underground and some 31km of them dug by hand into the chalk beneath the beautiful buildings above. Tipsy after a dégustation hosted by black clad experts, we were lead upstairs to the boutique where, surrounded by posters of the uber-glamourous drinking Moet, we were subliminally persuaded to buy champagne in bottles with unpronounceable names.
Then it was up the road to Mercier’s altogether less stuffy-looking building. If Mr Moët was the Wright brothers of champagne (in an incredible 2 for 1 offer) – making champagne in the early days, then Mr Mercier was the Richard Branson, joining the scene much later in the second half of the 19th century, but making waves for himself much later using clever marketing. He commissioned the Lumière brothers to make was to be the world’s first commercial. In another act of embracing new technology, he invited the willing and the curious at the Great Exhibition of 1889 to taste his brew while floating high over Paris in a tethered hot air balloon. But it was to be his 200,000 bottle barrel that stole the show. This enormous construction which took over ten years to build (and presumably to fill!). It was dragged to Paris by 28 oxen, requiring five bridges along the route to be strengthened and the purchase and demolition of several houses in order to make way. At the show, Mercier’s enormous barrel was a huge success, and he would have one the first place medal had it not been for a certain Mr Eiffel and his tower.
Mercier has long been pushing up grape vines but his cellars still have that technological flare: whereas the Moët tout guide was keen to point out the painstakingly laborious process of turning the bottles of fermenting champagne by hand, on display at Mercier’s was the cunning robot that did all this turning automatically; and rather than walking the galleries we were driven round in a lazer guided train. Now to my monochrome palette, the champagne at both houses tastes pretty similar (I’m no expert and I certainly couldn’t afford the bottles where the difference in taste starts to become noticeable) but Mercier’s trail blazing approach and embrace of modern technology caught my attention far more than Moët’s ‘natural ascendancy’ approach. And besides, who can beat a laser-guided train?