Long before Queen frontman Freddy Mercury rhapsodized about a courtesan who “keeps Moët and Chandon in a pretty cabinet,” the French wine house had secured its reputation for the finest champagne in the world.
The company was shipping its sparkling wine to the French royal court in Paris soon after it was established in Épernay in 1743 by Claude Moët. Moët & Chandon took its modern name when Claude’s grandson, Jean-Remy Moët, partnered with Pierre-Gabriel Chandon in 1833. Its best-known vintage, Dom Perignon, named for a 17th-century Benedictine monk who was considered the “father of champagne,” was first produced in 1921.
“Our founder wanted to share the magic of champagne with the world,” said Marie-Christine Osselin, who as Moët’s wine quality manager finds herself tasting up to 50 wines a day. I caught her in the midst of her recent tour of leading American restaurants.
“Quality is in the DNA of the maison (house),” she said, noting that Moët is the oldest and largest champagne maker in the world with an annual production of 2 million cases.
Only those sparkling wines that are made in the state of Champagne, in northeastern France, may carry that name. (California sparklings, by contrast, may carry the designation “méthode champenoise.”) Osselin credits Champagne’s chalky soil and its unique climate, a meeting of Atlantic marine systems and European continental fronts that have created several terroirs and microclimates.
Moët champagnes are a blend of three varietal grapes — pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. In any year, the maison purchases 800 lots from 450 individual growers. Pinot noir is slightly dominant in most champagnes, and is typically higher in rosés. Chardonnay is the lead grape in Réserve Impériale,
Most of us regard champagne as a special-occasion beverage, to bubble up in long, tapered flutes before toasting an anniversary, a particular success or the advent of a new year.
Osselin suggested that champagne be considered a much more universal beverage — one that, when offered with meals, might be served in standard wine glasses: “It needs to breathe,” she said. It can be paired with every course of a fine dinner.
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Moët Impérial, for instance, goes perfectly with sushi and shellfish. It also was ideal for the white asparagus-and-cauliflower soup, topped with caviar, that I enjoyed to start a recent champagne tasting menu at the 5 Fusion restaurant in my hometown of Bend, Oregon.
In the ensuing course, Moët Rosé Impérial, which carries a hint more red fruit, was paired with hamachi tuna carpaccio, foie gras and strawberries. Grand Vintage 2008 was matched with traditional coq au vin, and Grand Vintage Rosé 2008 was an ideal complement for poppy-crusted lamb.
Grand Vintage wines are made with grapes from particularly worthy years—in this case, 2008. “We had very cold weather that year,” said Osselin. “This is a very focused champagne with freshness and high acid.” With 40% chardonnay, it features malolactic fermentation that brings forward its delicate fruitiness.
Desserts were matched with the exotic, demi-sec flavors of Nectar Impérial and Nectar Impérial Rosé. The former is excellent with fruit and blue-veined cheeses, the latter with petits fours and sweet-and-salty pairings.
An unusual addition to the dinner, counter to expectations, was Moët Ice Impérial. This is a drink worthy of a cocktail party. Served with three ice cubes in a large, cabernet-style glass, it may be mixed with ingredients that heighten its freshness and aromatic intensity—mint leaves, lime zest or a very thin slice of ginger, for instance.
Osselin described it as a “special blend” of hearty pinot noir and acidic chardonnay, softened with pinot meunier. “We are creating the future of tradition with champagne on ice,” she said.
At Moët & Chandon headquarters in Épernay, chefs prepare simple dishes for pairings, never putting more than three ingredients on a plate, Osselin said: The intention is to accent the featured food with one item that links it to the champagne, and a second item that differs. A serving of fresh crab, for instance, might also have grapefruit (to complement) and anise (to contrast).
“As a general rule,” she said, “sweetness or fat need a lighter drink, such as Brut. But if you want to create a food pairing, you must taste. Find a balance with dry, sweet, acidic, bitter, juicy. Champagne has a texture that must always be honored.”