19 MAY 1961, Page 32


Are There Other Wines?

By KATHARINE WHITEHORN AT this time of year, there is no vintage in the champagne country. The great mechanical presses lie dismembered and empty; the camp beds of the grape-pickers are piled against the walls of their lodging-houses; high stacks of baskets lie idle in the courtyards.

The gently rolling country is not even lush, yet; there is not a greengage in sight; the lines of the half-grown vines look, from a distance, as if they have been scraped on the hill slopes with a fork To the east the late spring weather advances like an approaching army in showers and storms across the flat plains—plains to which the oncoming of arms has often been a deadly reality. From Reims to Epernay the life of the vines is beginning; but it has got no further than that.

So it is not exactly with vine leaves in my hair that I come back from a weekend of champagne- watching; but there was one sight I would have missed at any other time of year. This is the moment when last autumn's wine, having lain still and unfizzy in glass-lined vats all winter, is actually poured into the bottles in which it will ferment. Idle spring though it is, the chugging of conveyor belts, the chattering din of the corking machinery and the hiss of the mechanical cow from which the wine is whooshed into the bottles give a good old active rattle to the Moet et Chandon plant. One is apt to talk of bad wine as being not only battery acid but factory-bottled; I had never realised that the phrase fits the best just as much—at least in an enormous and highly mechanised bottling plant like this one.

I had barely appreciated too why champagne is so expensive. The stages. are double what they would be on ordinary wine; since it does its fer- menting in bottles, all of it is obviously château- bottled. Nor had I grasped that the first cork clamped into the bottle was not the one which would eventually land in the eye of the deb's delight; and having had it explained to me that when the bottle has stood on its head for the right length of time the sediment would have collected on the cork, and that the cork would then be removed, I was unable to understand how they could defy the law of gravity for long enough to get in a new cork. In the old days—and in smaller chateaux still—there is a very advanced knack of releasing the cork and whipping the bottle up- right at the exact moment when cork and sediment have poured out but the wine is still within. Moet, however, simply pass the necks of the bottles through freezing fluid, pull out the cork and icicle of frozen sediment, and the champagne being kept from bubbling over by the general cold prevailing, clap in the final cork.

The problems connected with champagne are

problems of glass, corks, and explosions almost as much as of grapes----and most of the grapes. indeed, are grown on other people's smallholdings and sold to the château. Even Dom Perignon, the monk who originated champagne, did not simply leap up from matins and invent the stuff, but was allegedly the first person in the district to hear about a specially strong new glass being made in the Ardennes (where his home was) and to spot that Spanish monks, alone among the fraternity had no trouble with leaking water- bottles because theirs were stoppered with cork- tree bark instead of wood Even recently, it is progress in the glass trade that has helped to bring the Moet et Chandon wastage down to 1 per cent (from the nineteenth century 40 per cent.)—though you can still hear the occasional klunk of a bursting bottle in the echoing stillness of the cellars.

Going into the cellars is more like going into the main galleries of a mine than into any cellar I had imagined. Cut with comparative ease into the soft chalk (excellent for champagne—the top- soil is thin and the vine roots go right down into the chalk), the cellars stretch fully fifteen miles; electric trolleys bump and clang along the pas- sageways; low-voltage wires along the damp ceil- ing provide an inhuman succession or staring Cocteauesque lights. Even the cellar where they held the party for Khrushchev is dark and full of bottles again now, and a cellarman has to' be a very long way off in his long apron to provide the traditional picture of the jolly monk cellerier sampling his own wares. But during the hour- long walk round we at least had the thought of what was actually going on here to sustain us: more than eighteen million bottles getting on., with the business of becoming champagne.

Our guide was a girl who has what must be in ' some ways the world's most enviable job. Mott et Chandon, being large, rich and conscious of the value of a name, keep up an entire and luxurious château simply for the entertaining of their guests; and she runs it.

While we were there the wine waiters from the lour d'Argent came for lunch, plus their well- padded wives (only in France can a woman look as if she cared about nothing but food and drink, and also look proud of it). Not wishing to madden readers with descriptions of a meal they did not eat, I will not dwell on such things as chicken cooked in a champagne and truffle sauce, but pass directly to why all these wine waiters were there. Mott sells champagne to America. Americans always pack into the Tour d'Argent. Therefore . . . Actually it is not the glossy restaurants but the sleazy nightclubs which pro- vide the champagne firms with their biggest head- ache. Americans familiar with New World 'cham- pagne' drink champagnes like acid and soda. and understandably conclude that the genuine article has nothing on American `champagne.' The champagne firms fight against this—as they fight against foreign impositions. And when you think of the ceaseless vigilance of the men who snoop around to see that nothing gets the 'appella- tion' that is not made from the right grapes, in !he right quantities and by the right method, it is easy to understand why the court case that banned the use of the word 'champagne' for the productions of other countries caused such joy.

There were several things I understood better by the end of that weekend. Although it is not true that you can drink any amount of cham- pagne without falling down a single marble stair, the people who say you can drink it any time of the day or night are dead right—whenever we felt the need for a Little Something it was not tea or coffee but champagne. and very nice, too. I understood why, when people take such a fan- tastic amount of trouble to get the taste of a wine just right—fussing about the quantities of grapes, and the fermentation; tasting the wine, resting it, blending it, turning it, re-corking it and so on— it is rather better than pretentious nonsense to notice whether at the end of it they have got the flavour right. I don't pretend to be able to distinguish exactly between one and another yet—it may take years and years and years of trying. I shall not be heard to complain if it takes the rest of my life.