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Champagne wishes

Bubbly's birthplace a tasty side trip from Paris

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What do Marie Antoinette and Scarlett Johansson have in common?

Both are blond bombshells who love champagne.

My wife and I find out this fascinating tidbit on our tour of France's Champagne region, just east of Paris.

Antoinette, the Queen of Louis XVI famous for her flippant "Let them eat cake" remark, had her champagne-sipping ways end when her head was lopped off after the French Revolution in 1793.

Johansson, the star of such movies as Lost in Translation and The Girl With The Pearl Earring, is still very much alive and pitching for Moet & Chandon, the largest producer of champagne in the world.

It's at Moet's headquarters in Epernay we hear Johansson's sultry voice talking about elegance, taste and sophistication in the introduction video visitors watch before touring the cellars.

Pictures of her in Moet advertising campaigns are also plastered all over the place, looking sexy with champagne bottles.

Visiting Paris gave my wife and me -- champagne lovers ourselves -- the perfect opportunity to make a side trip to the birthplace of the special sparkling wine.

So we boarded a Cityrama bus with 50 other tourists and headed east.

Along the way, we're told champagne was pioneered by a modest Benedictine monk named Dom Perignon in the tiny village of Hautvillers around 1670.

It was no easy task fermenting the wine in bottles, instead of tanks, to naturally carbonate the drink and then keep the incredible pressure inside the bottle until the divine liquid was ready to drink.

Soon champagne became a favourite of French royalty.

As such, it gained an aura of power and luxury commoners to this day want to feel by sipping bubbly, too.

Even now, champagne likes to be known as the King of Drinks and the Drink of Kings.

Now let's deal with this issue of what can and can't be called champagne.

The French are very proprietary about champagne and only the sparkling wine made from the 33,000 hectares of grapes grown in the Champagne region can be called champagne.

All other bottle fermenters of bubbly are imitators that have to label their product as sparkling wine or -- at the very most with a play of words -- methode Champenoise.

Even if we arrive on a bus and are herded around in big groups, we can't help but feel special in Champagne.

After all, we're walking over the chalky soil that helps give champagne it's distinctively refined, but intense flavour, and by association we're elegant and indulgent as we stroll the cellars and, of course, drink the results.

At Moet it's the Imperial Brut, so named for its long history as being a supplier to royalty.

Its fresh bubbles are supposed to deliver essence of apple and pear up front and lemon and grapefruit on the finish.

By the way, Moet is on the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, a small town that lives and breathes champagne because it is home to scores of champagne houses and grape growers.

Some of the other tenants in historic manor houses on the avenue that front production facilities include Pol Roger, Perrier Jouet, Andre Bergere and Comtesse Lafond.

Moet is also the maker of Dom Perignon, immortalizing the monks name in bubbly.

But no tasting of that, as Dom is the ultra-premium brand of the house and too pricey for pouring to the tourist masses.

Moet is part of the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy conglomerate of luxury brands that also includes Krug and Mercier champagnes and the fashion houses Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Donna Karan.

With Johansson on the payroll, you'll also find her flouncing around in Louis Vuitton advertising campaigns.

Epernay knows the value of champagne as a visitor draw and the local tourist office always has a couple of producers pouring samples among the brochure racks.

On the day we were there, it was Beaumont des Crayeres and Janisson Baradon.

Our tour also drops by another prestigious champagne house -- G.H. Mumm & Co. in nearby Reims.

The tunnel cellars are carved out of the same chalk soil so important to the grapes and stretch in a maze housing untold thousands of bottle in various stages of fermentation, blending and aging.

Bartender Nicolas Gonce is popular when he finally pours the Mumm Brut and Demi-Sec and we get another shot of bubbly goodness.

Lunch at Le Sourire Café in the museum for Reims Cathedral allows us to get another taste in, this time Jil Accaries.

Back in Paris, we were able to keep playing the champagne theme as we took a dinner cruise on the Bateaux-Mouches, the glass-domed boat that takes in all of Paris' greatest hits along the River Seine, from the Eiffel Tower, of course, and the Arc de Triomphe to the Grand Palace and Notre-Dame church.

Bateaux-Mouches has a bottle of its own label champagne chilling in a silver ice bucket on every table as guests arrive.

The Lafayette department store even has a Moet Hennessy champagne bar, located coincidentally adjacent to the Louis Vuitton boutique.

We had to stop for glasses of Moet and Mercier. Shopping's thirsty work, after all.


-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 8, 2012 D5


Updated on Saturday, September 8, 2012 at 1:36 PM CDT: adds fact box

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