If enjoying life to the fullest demands taking calculated risks, so then does truly enjoying fine vintage Champagne. Or at least, this is the philosophy of Richard Geoffroy, the Wine Maker of Dom Perignon. But it's not that he takes risks when he creates each vintage; he does not waver from the mellifluous blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes that is considered the house style. Risk enters into the equation only when he serves his wines, pairing them with food in unorthodox combinations. There, all cliches are disavowed or turned on their head. You'll rarely find Geoffroy popping the cork of a thick, black bottle for a toast with a sweet, fruity dessert, or planning a dinner based around caviar and classical French cream sauces. Instead, Geoffroy embraces cuisines and ingredients from all over the world, stretching the definition of what makes for an appropriate match. It's daring to pair a rare bottle of vintage Champagne with the likes of cold beet gelee, duck breasts with Japanese roasted sesame paste, and aged Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. But Geoffroy also knows that the very best wines can handle being pushed to the extreme, and will blossom and shine from it. And that is worth the risk.
Geoffroy's greatest ally along this rather experimental path is Moet et Chandon's Executive Chef, Bernard Dance. Dance has been their chef for over a decade, and in that time has shifted his philosophy about where the focus of a meal should lie.
"It's different here," he said about working at Moet et Chandon, "normally, at a restaurant, you look at the menu and decide what you want, then the sommelier goes to your table and looks at your choices and suggests different wines. Here we choose the wine first."
For a recent meal, he and Geoffroy spent several afternoons tasting the chosen vintages ('85,'73, '59 Oenothque and the 1990 Ros) and isolating the various flavor components of each one. From there, they worked back towards the food. For example, the deep red berry notes of the ros Champagne were heightened by a tart, salty raspberry coulis that surrounded a simple dish of grilled langoustines. Bright green tear drops of chervil oil also adorned the plate.
"Clearly it's a play on the fruitiness of the wine," he said of this dish, "but whereas I'm not so keen on fruitiness in desserts, which I find rather boring, I try to transpose the scheme of fruitiness to a starter. And then my belief is that herbs and red berries are good together because anything red in nature comes from something green. You need green vegetation to generate either flowers or fruit. Starting from that observation I will add that any green herbs are just outstanding. This has chervil, but it could be basil, cilantro, even mint."
In this statement, Geoffroy has illustrated the real art of food and wine pairings. It's not just working the obvious, like matching the similar flavors of red berries in the wine and raspberries on the plate; it's finding the outside flavor (in this case the chervil) that will unite all the disparate elements of the wine and the food to make the mouth sing. And doing this requires as much talent, experience, and knowledge as the assemblage, or the blending of wines to make Champagne, itself.
Many of the meals that Geoffroy and Dance orchestrate take place at the historic Chateau de Saran, just a few miles outside of Epernay, where Moet et Chandon is based. What was once a family residence belonging to Mot, one of the most venerable Champagne houses in France, is now a place for their parent company, LVMH (Louis Vuitton Mot Hennessey) to entertain visiting royalty and dignitaries, vacationing business executives and their spouses, important guests, and/or friends of the above. You need to know someone who knows someone to secure an invitation to Saran, and if you do, it's worth the trip, if not just for the experience of dining there, then to view the graceful building itself.
Set on a verdant hill overlooking the gently sloping vineyards, the estate of Chateau de Saran was purchased by Jean-Remy Moet in 1801. The property was home to a modest seventeenth-century hunting lodge, which the Moets used as a base for hunting parties partaking of the thickly gamed oak forests nearby. The Chateau itself was built in 1846, when the Moets began entertaining in the country, as was the fashion at that time. It's still used that way, though now the guests gather from a wider network. And the hosts who entertain them so generously are still part of the Moet family -- or, rather, the extended family of Moet et Chandon. The current hosts, Patrick and Micheline Vandermarcq are the latest in a long line of usually semi-retired Mot et Chandon executives who take up the challenge of entertaining strangers from June though September, every single night of the week.
On warm evenings, they do this on the vast terrace just opposite a grand entry way. There, guests can congregate, sip Champagne, and nibble hors d'oeuvres passed on silver trays by waiters in little white gloves. The colorful rose gardens surrounding the terrace were added in the 1970s, when the entire chateau was redecorated by Countess Camilla Chandon de Briailles. The granddaughter of the noted interior designer Syrie Maugham, Countess Chandon's aim was to accent the family's antiques, such as a wooden cutlery box used by Napoleon on several of his military campaigns. This deceptively modest piece, held together with leather strips and sitting to the side on an oak chest in the main sitting room, is easy to miss, but worthwhile to notice. Other treasures are more evident, including the 1893 oil portraits of Count and Countess Frederic Chandon which bookend the marble fireplace. The sitting room itself was decorated by Jean Monro, from London, who covered the deep sofas and armchairs in summery green and pink chintz -- just perfect for the chateau's summer season of May to September.
It is during this summer season that a good many of the Dom Perignon dinners are held. Dom Perignon is the tte de cuve of Mot et Chandon, in other words, their finest, top-of-the-line vintage Champagne. Although for the most part guests at Saran sip excellent bottles of Mot et Chandon Champagne proper, Geoffroy and Dance also host special Dom Perignon tasting dinners in its vast, formal dining room. The meal featuring the langoustines was one built around Dom Perignon's new releases of Oenothque, or late-disgorged, wines.
Simply put, these are Champagnes that have only recently been disgorged. Usually, after a bottle of Dom Perignon has aged for upwards of seven years, it is uncorked, allowing a frozen block of yeasty sediment to pop out. This is called disgorgement. The longer the wine stays in contact with that yeast, however, the further it can develop, becoming rounder and more complex on the palate. This maturation ceases once the wine is disgorged, so for the most part, a wine that is disgorged later will be more flavorful and rich than a normally disgorged wine. Dom Perignon has just begun releasing late-disgorged Champagnes with vintages dating back to 1959. And creating menus around such rare bottles is one of Bernard Dance's most enjoyable challenges.
One thing he and Geoffroy always keep in mind when planning a menu is how both the dishes and the wines work in succession.
"The first dish must always be the simplest," Geoffroy said, "because you're usually starting with the most simple wine and then from there you progress."
Thus, at the Oenothque dinner, if the first course and corresponding wine were about the fresh, subtly tart flavors of a ripe berry eaten off the stem, the next course had all the haunting, brown, deep characteristics of the earth. In it, scallops are grilled until they take on the burnished marks of the pan, then served with curls of salty aged Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of white truffle oil. The 1985 Champagne is scented with sweet, toasted hazelnuts and almonds that recall the caramelization of the scallops. But it also had a touch of mushroomy loam, a low note that in fact contrasted with the high, aromatic nuances of the white truffle oil. The really outstanding part of savoring the dish, however, is the interplay of textures.
"Everything is right about this dish when it comes to the tastes...the sharpness, the salt, the aged characteristics," Geoffroy said, "but for me here, Dom Perignon is also about the texture. You have the soft sweet texture of the scallop, the grainy texture of the Parmesan, and the crunchy crystals of sea salt. The wine adds to them by allowing an openness...an expansiveness on your palate."
"The openness is then balanced by the acidity," Geoffroy continued after another sip, which he tasted in an exaggerated way, swishing the wine very audibly down and under his tongue. "And the purity of that balance...for me this is the essence of Dom Perignon."
This kind of balance and purity of design extend themselves to Chateau de Saran as well. As fortunate overnight guests discover, beyond the carved oak staircase are the dozen or so guest rooms, each furnished individually and luxuriously with period antiques, family heirlooms, and original artwork. But although the rooms are highly embellished, they are never imbalanced or overdone.
One charming room is decorated in a blue toile that is covered with scenes of ballooning. Toile also makes up the bedspread atop the mahogany sleigh bed dating from the First Empire. Another room, hung with creamy chintz, features a pair of delicately carved beds that originated in the Chateau de Romont, built by the Moets in nearby Hautviller in 1832. Some of the most spacious guest rooms have ceiling-high windows that frame a long, verdant view of the vineyards. Stand close to the antique, wavy glass, and the scene takes on a mottled, impressionist-like cast that rivals Monet. Opened, one can see practically all of the vines of the Cotes Des Blancs, the region famous for its pristine Chardonnay grapes that make up, along with varying amounts of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, so many a bottle of the effervescent nectar we call Champagne.
Although we take Champagne's bubbles for granted now, wine from the region wasn't always as exuberant. In and before the seventeenth century, it was a thin, characterless red wine. But this changed with Dom Pierre Perignon, the namesake of Moet et Chandon's wine. There are many myths surrounding this monk: that he was blind; that he invented Champagne; and that he said, upon tasting the sparkling wine for the first time, "I am drinking stars." While it's doubtful that any of this is true, it makes a nice story. But true Champagne aficionados will find that the truth is, however, just as compelling. While Dom Perignon was not the creator of the wine we know of as Champagne, he did improve it and make its production more consistent. This led to its subsequent popularity and the status is affords today. The Abbey where the Dom lived and worked is in Hautviller. Now, it's been re-built into a museum celebrating the good Dom and the wine he perfected. Although you need to arrange a tour in advance, it's worth the afternoon spent wandering the gardens and vineyards that are planted to look as if it were four hundred years ago. Wine buffs will also appreciate the collection of seventeenth century wine-making equipment and the attendant explanations. And anyone would appreciate the almost tangible sense of history that emanates from every stone.
History emanates from a dinner at Chateau de Saran, as well. Like the rest of the trappings, the meals are the stuff of 19th-century novels, complete with the drama of a long Mahogany table that seats up to 24. At the appointed dinner hour (which is usualy 8:00 sharp), the Vandermarcqs steer the guests into the dining room, which is off the sitting room, but hidden behind a polished wood screen. In the evenings, the room is illuminated by shining amber candles in sterling holders. A seating plan is strictly followed, with couples separated, and at each place setting is the menu printed up on thick vellum for guests to take home.
Following that menu, guests of the Oenothque dinner can read ahead and find that after the scallops, fat pearls of Beluga caviar are to be served, cascading over a mound of creme fraiche on top of ruby red beet jelly. Dinner at Saran almost always includes one caviar course. People expect it, Dance said, and it works so beautifully with Champagne. But never would he serve something as simple as blini to accompany the roe. With his cuisine, there's always a twist, another layer of intrigue to take the dish to the next level of complexity. Here, as one would expect, the wine complemented the sweetness of the beets, cut the fat of the cream, and contrasted with the salinity of the caviar. But there was an unexpected earthiness that entered into the equation as well. It was from both the beets, and the gout de terroir, or taste of the earth, that the wine expresses, reflecting the soil and climate it was grown in. In the past, Dance has layered the caviar with sticky rice, another earth-driven element to offset the effervescent, evanescent quality of Champagne.
"You need to provoke," he said earlier that day, "for a chef, it's important to do something new all the time. It makes people think about what they are eating, and then perhaps enjoy it more."
This is why instead of serving turbot with a creamy Champagne sauce as is the classic accompaniment to the fish, he pairs it with a rather piercing yet compelling mix of anchovies and good salted butter. This combination, in turn, is both allayed and challenged by the vibrancy and citrus tang that highlights the yeasty brioche and spicy scents of the 1973 vintage. It's a complex match, but, as Geoffroy had said earlier in the meal, the more complex the wine, the more complex the food served alongside it can be.
Unlike many French chateaux, with their acres of formal gardens, Saran's landscaping owes its beauty to the same thing it owes its fortune: the picturesque vineyards just outside the door. It's a perfect place for a meander down the hill, past the woods, and among the vines.
Guests visiting in late September might be in time for the harvest. Looking out over the vineyards during this time, one will see straw brims, base ball caps, and floppy cotton sun hats bobbing up and down along the neat trellised rows of grape: the grape pickers. People travel from all over the globe to help with the harvest, many working in different harvests around France and even Europe. You can see their caravans lined up along the road as you approach the Chateau, and indeed, dotting the roadsides anywhere grapes are grown. The grape pickers beneath those hats work quickly and intently, filling sticky plastic baskets called paniers with neatly cut bunches of ripe grapes, all the while discarding the leaves and stems so they won't get in the way of the crush.
The grapes themselves are sweet, and almost syrupy, in flavor. Tasting these fruits on the vine, warm from the sun, along with the hot, fermented smell of broken grapes and the loamy scent of the earth, makes one appreciate the wine-maker's art even more. The sweet fruit is
So these sugary fruits are the origin of the wines I sipped last night, I thought as I handed over my panier 20 minutes later (it took the experienced pickers only 5 minutes to fill theirs). Tasting those grapes on, made me I held onto that syrupy flavor for the rest of my trip, recalling it,, with every flute of blancs de blancs I sampled. My trip to Saran was more than an extravagant dinner in a museum-like castle. It was a hands-on lesson in terroir - one that I'll picture of with every popped cork.
The desserts at Saran are also provocative, teetering on the edge of sweet and savory. For example, an ultra-creamy olive oil ice cream might sport a bracing drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Chef Dance has also served black truffle ice cream and tobacco ice cream to conclude a meal.
"It's funny, you know," Geoffroy remarked as he watched all his guests spoon up every last drop from their plates, "because you don't expect this kind of harmony. But with an older wine like the '59, it works."
An old wine that works with an innovative, new dessert; it's a tangible metaphor for the whole meal. If anyone sitting at the table thought that the food might match the rather starchy atmosphere, they couldn't have been more wrong. That's the paradox of Saran. The castle is historic, the wines of old, esteemed vintages, but Bernard Dance's cooking, in collaboration with Richard Geoffroy, couldn't be any younger or more of the moment. And that's the whole point of these dinners. To celebrate the union of new and old, each lending its unique perspective to a tradition that's as antediluvian as Bacchus, and as fresh and light as a recently disgorged bottle of Dom Perignon 1990.