With New Year’s Eve approaching (Champagne’s Black Friday), we had the glorious privilege to tour the storied Vranken Pommery Estate in Reims, capital of the Champagne region of France. Just 45 minutes by TGV from Paris, its grandiose cathedral was once where the French kings were crowned; but the city was bombed mercilessly in WWI, so most of its architecture dates from the 20th Century (i.e. stunning Art Nouveau, and a few too many unattractive modernist follies).
The most striking thing about the Vranken Pommery Estate, which dates back–minus the Vranken–to 1868, is its absolute lack of haute. In fact, its visually enchanting, fairytale chateau Villa Demoiselle was as recently as the 1970’s populated by squatters; "It was in a catastrophic state," our guide Maria enlightened. "It resembled a haunted house.
But as Europeans are wont to do, various architectural and historical gatekeepers stepped in to stave off its proposed demolition. Belgian Paul-Francois Vranken, of the eponymous champagne house, then came to the rescue and restored it to its original, wondrous splendor. The gorgeous Art Nouveau interiors, which manage to be both patrician and romantically florid (hallmarks of the style) are now juxtaposed with a very aware series of rotating contemporary art installations. On our visit, a whimsical collection of Steven Dix’ stuffed donkeys were scattered cleverly about the various rooms of the Estate. Touring Pommery’s extensive and rather spooky underground caves offered not only a fascinating history lesson, but was also kind of, well, goth.
For the sake of enlightenment, what first must be pointed out is that a bottle of bubbly, if not originating from this precise region, is simply not real Champagne (sorry, Napa–and, um, everyone else), and thus not allowed to use the name. A battery of lawyers employed by the region sees to this on a daily basis. Secondly, Champagne is only made from assorted (but passionately conceived) combinations of three types of grapes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. The particular mixtures produce variations of dryness, sweetness, and fruitiness. A Champagne which bears the title "vintage" is one made from grapes all of the same harvest year.
Americans, always suckers for big marketing budgets (and prone to taking the epicurean tastes of rock stars to heart) tend to gravitate to a few flashy marquee brands. But the particular lure of the house of Vranken Pommery lies in its cultivation of a more elegant air of exclusivity. And with several high-profile labels under its banner, it offers the opportunity to genuinely expand one’s palate–and thus heighten the appreciation for the everyday enjoyment of the world’s most exquisite intoxicant. For instance, the Demoiselle Tete du Cuvee Brut, mostly from chardonnay grapes, is brilliant as an aperitif–as is the Pommery Cuvee Louise. The house’s Diamant label, launched in 2006, is aged a minimum of three years and has a more refined and complex flavor–it’s highly recommended for special occasions.
But as we learned, it’s not all such serious business at Vranken Pommery. Their sexy, decidedly Warholian POP by Pommery brand has become as noted for its collectible bottle art as for what’s inside. Maria informed us that, "the latest is a series by young Australian artist Sarrita King, celebrating Aboriginal culture." Imagine that–a topical tipple.
So, when stocking up on bubbly for ushering in 2013, we strongly urge you to consider a resolution to make Champagne (with a capital C) more a staple of everyday life. As Honore de Balzac so capriciously observed, "Great love affairs start with Champagne." And who doesn’t need a little more love in their lives?