Life's Great Moments Marked by Champagne (February 24, 2012)
Of all beverages, only champagne promises limitless adventure as well as having salutary effects for the imbiber. You cannot open a bottle of champagne without experiencing a frisson of excitement as you ease the cork from the bottle and it comes away with the sound of a lover's sigh.
Or so that's the way it should come to pass - not with a climactic explosion, a cork in flight and a gusher of wine.
As a wine writer who has chased the grape around the world for over 35 years, champagne has featured in some of my most memorable moments. In 1976 I visited Moët & Chandon in Epernay and I was invited by the Comtesse de Maigret, the wife of the late heir to the company, to taste a champagne vintage dated 1911. The bottle had been disgorged that morning to impress a group of English wine merchants. The wine had lost its bubbles but still had its wonderful yeasty flavour and tasted remarkably fresh, rather like a well-aged Grand Cru white Burgundy.
As we sipped the wine, the Comtesse told me the story of how her husband – who, incidentally, used to keep a wolf as a pet – single-handedly saved France from diplomatic embarrassment with the Russians. In 1960 Nikita Krushchev and his enormous entourage visited France. As part of their itinerary, Krushchev and his wife were taken for a tour of a movie studio where the film Can Can was being shot. You may recall it starred Shirley MacLaine and Frank Sinatra.
Mrs. K was so offended by the sight of chorus girls kicking up their legs and showing their bloomers that she had to be escorted off the set. To repair the damage, a tour of Moët & Chandon was hastily organised and the Comte de Maigret suddenly found himself host to 100 Russians.
In honour of his distinguished visitor the Comte ordered his cellar master to disgorge sufficient bottles of the Russian Premier's birth year (1894) to serve to the party. According to the Countess, her husband watched in dismay as the Russians guzzled down the rare old vintage champagne like vodka.
That evening the Comtesse entertained the group of visiting English wine merchants and me to dinner. 1976 was the year of the American bicentennial and Moët had prepared a special cuvée to celebrate the event. Two of these ceremonial bottles, dressed at the neck with crossed stars and stripes, were presented to all of us at the table. They were fitted into in plastic carrying cases that looked as if they might contain a trumpet.
I had to return to my home in London the next day – a London that was in the midst of a terrorist bombing campaign by the IRA. The IRA's favoured targets were railway stations where they could cause maximum injury, disruption and fear.
I had to fly from Paris to Gatwick Airport and then take the train from there to London. In one hand I was carrying a suitcase and a shoulder bag and in the other the case containing the two bottles of champagne. It was raining heavily and the train was at the platform about to leave when I arrived at Gatwick station. I had to run to catch it. Juggling my luggage, the shoulder bag must have rubbed against the clip fastener of the case holding the lid shut. The lid flew open and both bottles of Moët fell to the platform and exploded.
I have never seen a railway station empty so fast. I was left standing on the deserted platform, in the rain, staring down at the wreckage of broken glass and the spreading pool of sparkling wine. I could have wept.
On my second trip to the Champagne region I drove to Dover and took the ferry across the English Channel to Calais. Although short in distance – 21 miles – this sea crossing can be one of the most violent if a sudden storm erupts. On this occasion a Force 9 gale was blowing. I was with Gordon Bucklitsch, a latter-day Falstaff who taught me wine at the Grant's of St. James' Wine School. The passengers were hanging over the rails of the ferry losing their lunch.
Gordon had been in the British Navy during World War II and that experience had shaped his wine vocabulary. He would refer to the bouquet of Château Margaux as "tarred rope." For a portly man he had no difficulty negotiating the deck in a rolling sea and instructed me to join him downstairs in the bar. I was feeling somewhat queasy but I followed him below deck, where he ordered a bottle of champagne and two glasses.
"Trust me," he told me, "this will settle your stomach." We stayed in the bar for the entire crossing, demolishing the bottle, and I felt as right as rain.