Today we visited Epernay, home of the world-famous Moët & Chandon (est 1743). First we took a little train ride through the cellars of Mercier to discover the sacred art of the “Méthode Champenoise”:
In 1858, a 20 year-old man wanted to make champagne, a then rare and expensive commodity, available to “tout le monde” (all the world/ everybody).
With no money nor financial backing he approached lesser-known champagne producers to buy into his idea. He won them over, obtaining most of the shares in the company and the name, Mercier. When I tell you a little bit more about this visionary, Eugène Mercier, the previous fact will not surprise you in the least.
In 1870, in order to market the label, Mercier set out to make a wine barrel that would contain 20 tons of champagne. That is equivalent to an astonishing 200 000 bottles! It took 5 years to transform 150 oak trees into a big enough barrel. In 1889, the cask and it’s costly contents were ready to wow spectators and win first prize at the “Exposition Universelle” held in Paris.
How did they transport this 5m tall, wonder-work?
With 12 pairs of cattle of course! It took them 8 days to travel the 160km. Not only that, along the way, bridges needed to be reinforced, trees cut down and 5 homes raised to the ground!!
Sadly, although the barrel was remarkable, it paled in comparison to Gustave Eiffel’s engineering feat, of the same year, which stole the show! If only Mercier had finished a year earlier!
In 1900, wanting to impress guests at the same exposition, Mercier offered free hot air balloon rides.
And now … to the cellars… (skip this part if you’re not interested in the process of champagne production).
Champagne, aka bubbly, is twice-fermented to achieve this result. The first fermentation takes place in steel vats at a temperature of around 20 degrees Celsius. It is then separated from the sediment, yeast and sugars are added and it is stored upside down in bottles with metal corks for a year or more at 10C. Carbon dioxide is formed as a by-product when the yeast turns the sugars into alcohol. The yeast cells die and, aided by daily turning of the bottles, collect in the bottle necks (this is called “riddling”).
To get rid of the dead yeast, the bottle necks are dipped into a -28C solution. The little bit in the neck freezes instantly and is removed manually (a process know as “dégorgement”). This is why your champagne bottle is never full right to the top!
Mercier wanted his 100 workers to be happy and not to feel that they were just trapped 30m underground all day. Therefore, he adorned the 18km of cellars with beautiful works of art depicting the process of production.
At the end of the tour we “les adultes” were invited to a “degustation” (tasting) where we sampled three of their beautiful signature champagnes.
We cleared our heads with a picnic in a nearby fountain square and a stroll down Avenue de Champagne with its “magnifique” mansions. Including the one owned by Moët & Chandon.
Even the children enjoyed the experience. Merci, Mercier et Epernay!