Across the Continental Divide

By Darius Sanai - LE PAN | Winter 2016-2017
The varied landscapes en route from Champagne (below) to the Mosel Valley (this image) are bookended by the world’s most northerly vineyards producing fine wine

For centuries Champagne and the Mosel, just a few hundred kilometres to the east in Germany, have stood on opposite sides of a Europe in conflict. Darius Sanai drives across land that has witnessed some of history’s bloodiest battles to visit two of the world’s finest wine producers – Salon and Egon Müller.

Photography by Philip Lee Harvey

To get to Champagne, source of a drink that is a global synonym for celebration, from anywhere at all, you have to go through a distinctly non-celebratory bleakness. From Paris, to the west, London, to the north, and Burgundy, to the south, you skirt a prairie of agriculture (wheat, beet) of industrial monotony. It’s different when approaching from the east, from Germany, but that’s another story, for later.

This starkness, and exposure, is one of the key elements, say many of the Champenois – locals who grow, cellar and blend the products of the region – that make Champagne what it is. Weather fronts sweep in, unimpeded, from the Atlantic. Chill winds from the North Sea are similarly unobstructed. Champagne, along with the Mosel in Germany, is the world’s most northerly fine wine region, and its location is often cited as a primary reason why its sparkling wines are, at their best, leagues above those produced anywhere else, for their complexity and longevity.

Among the allures of any great wine are the mystery and paradox that shroud its story. It is said, for example, that the finest wines benefit from the roots of the vine working hard to gather nutrients from steep slopes – thus the appeal of Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, and some grand cru Burgundies. The counterargument, however, cites some of the legendary names of Bordeaux and Napa, produced from vineyards that are pancake flat.

Such contradictions are rife in the world of fine wine; one of my favourites pertains to Champagne itself. We are told that part of the region’s unique appeal is the complexity derived from a Champagne being a blend of dozens of base wines from around the region. And yet several of the greatest Champagnes are sourced from a single vineyard, and not blended with any others. To an outsider, this may seem disingenuous on the part of the wine industry, but the truth, like the wines it concerns, is more complex. There simply is no formula for what makes a wonderful wine.

Still, I set out on this journey partly to explore one particularly celebrated meme – that the greatest wines come from areas that are marginal, climatically. Bordeaux and Burgundy are not the hottest parts of France, let alone Europe: sometimes they are not even warm enough to make good wines; and it is precisely this fact, the argument goes, that gives their best wines their brilliance. Take this argument to its extreme and you get to Champagne, in northeastern France, and the Mosel, in western Germany, as the most northerly areas in Europe to consistently make fabulous wines.

Linking these two areas, just a couple of hundred kilometres apart, are far more profound issues. For more than a thousand years, until our lifetimes, France and Germany (or the entities that preceded them as states) were almost permanently at war. The land between Champagne and the Mosel, and in particular the region of Lorraine, changed hands so frequently, it is still in an identity crisis today, a place of Frenchified Germanic names. The front line of the most obdurate and bloody historical conflict between these two countries – in World War I – is equidistant from the two regions. The fighting stopped after World War II with the creation of what was to become the European Union, with France and Germany at its heart, and its administrative axis perfectly bisecting these two great wine regions, running from Brussels to Luxembourg to Strasbourg. A century on from the Battle of the Somme, the Union faces fresh challenges, fresh doubts.

The city of Reims in the Champagne region was devastated by bombardments during World War I, but has been rebuilt with elegant boulevards and art deco architecture, an example of which is the Cinéma Opéra, opened in 1923 (above right)

These thoughts are on my mind on the short drive from Épernay, the spiritual capital of Champagne (although Reims, to the north, is a bigger city), to the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, home to Salon, perhaps the most revered product in a region bursting with revered super-premium brands. A bottle of Salon is about five times the price of a bottle of Bollinger Grande Année, three times the price of vintage Dom Pérignon, and twice the price even of a bottle of louche nightclub favourite Cristal; it makes vintage Krug look cheap. Despite the price, so desired is Salon that this boutique Champagne house – which produces only 60,000 bottles a vintage (Dom Pérignon produces them by the several million) and which only releases, on average, four vintages a decade – sells everything it produces with no marketing or advertising.

All of which would be curious if you were, say, a California marketing man or a Hong Kong billionaire visiting Le Mesnil-sur-Oger for the first time. The village, in the Côte des Blancs – the strip of land in Champagne that produces some of the region’s finest white grapes – could be anywhere in France, with its too-narrow streets, haphazard parking, shuttered houses, and the mandatory Citroën van blocking the road, unloading cardboard boxes, the driver refusing to move until his job, done slowly, is finished.

The humble grape growers and villages of Champagne are a world away from the luxury product they produce

The home of Salon comes as a surprise: a significant mini-palace with two courtyards, sitting up against a hillside planted with vines at the edge of the village. On the day I visit, the house has, separately, invited media from local newspapers and from Japanese publications. A curious pairing perhaps, but Salon’s biggest market is Japan, and the tasting room, a marble-lined space looking out onto one of the courtyards and centred on a minimalist bar area, is buzzing.

Didier Depond is president – the equivalent of chief executive or managing director – of Salon and its sister house, Delamotte. He is a dapper, busy, articulate man. It is a warm day in northern France, and Depond leads the group up a staircase, through a couple of anterooms and out into a garden, which joins the back of the house at its first floor. Here is an idyll. Vines rise up a gentle slope for about 100 metres before cresting on top of the hill; two electric-aquamarine butterflies dance on the lawn. The journalists sip the next wine in the line-up, Delamotte 2007, while listening to Depond expound in French (and occasionally, equally agile English) on the Chardonnay grapes grown here, which give Salon its unique character, its unbearable lightness of being. The gathering looks like an ever- so-odd wedding party, each person glass in hand, listening to the groom – or the groom’s father – tell them about how happy the couple will be.

Later, alone with Depond in a drawing room in a different part of the house, I note that plenty of other producers have access to sites on the same strip of land as Salon’s 20 vineyard plots. So, I wonder, why is Salon so good? (And it is very, very good. There is no hype about Salon; just what’s in the bottle.)

Salon ages its Champagne in subterranean cellars for a decade, bringing greater complexity and depth to the wine

“It certainly has something to do with the origin of the grapes,” says Depond. “And our knowledge of winemaking.” I get the feeling he is building up to something. “Of course, it’s the selection: the work in the vineyard, the selection of the grapes, selection during the harvest, selection of the wines six months afterwards when we decide to produce a vintage.” He pauses. “Yes, selection, selection and selection. It’s not really politically correct to say that.” Why not? “Because for many people selection means excluding a great part of the population. And, yes, the guiding motto of Mr Salon when he founded the house is still true: entre privilégiés. Between privileged people.” The definition of a word-of-mouth, uber-luxury brand.

What about the much-vaunted lack of marketing? This is a surprise in itself, because Salon has for more than 25 years been part of Laurent-Perrier, a Champagne house owned (until his death, aged 90, in 2010) by Bernard de Nonancourt, one of the greatest marketeers in the history of alcoholic beverages.

“We don’t produce Salon with marketing,” says Depond. “But in fact, when I tell people there is no advertising for Salon, it is a sort of marketing in its own way. When I organise a dinner with Petrus and with Domaine de la Romanée-Conti or the top châteaux, of course it’s a kind of marketing. Exclusive marketing, selective marketing. Just because it’s not a big event with Jay Z and an American actress part naked in a swimming pool doesn’t mean it isn’t marketing.”

Didier Depond oversees the production of Salon

I ask who he considers to be his competitors: Cristal, Dom Pérignon, Krug? “Of course,” replies Depond, “but Coca-Cola is also a competitor! All beverages are competitors.” I don’t know whether he’s being glib, dismissive, jocular, or all three. He goes on to praise all of the aforementioned Champagnes, but points out that as well as being significantly cheaper, they are produced on a vastly different scale – as he puts it, “Dom Pérignon sells as many bottles in the US in one day as we do in the rest of the world in a year.”

Back to Bernard de Nonancourt. The man who turned Laurent-Perrier from a backwater label into one of the biggest drinks brands in the world over five decades – buying Salon and Delamotte in the process – was, says Depond, “really like my second father. And I was little bit like his son, and we spent a lot of good times together. Not like a boss and employee; just simple time. Sometimes it was a long afternoon of silence, but sometimes silence is powerful and means a lot of things. It was fantastic. This man for me is still very present; every day I’m with Bernard.”

Depond then drops a bombshell. “[De Nonancourt] was not such a fan of Salon; he was more happy with Delamotte.” Can this really be true? Maison Delamotte might be much older than Salon, but it certainly does not have the cachet of its younger sibling. Depond explains de Nonancourt’s thinking: “Salon was for him a little bit too rare; too much for rich people, too precious, for the privileged.”

That may seem like an odd insight into a man who built a multimillion-dollar Champagne empire, based in part on prestige brands such as Salon and Laurent-Perrier’s own flagship, Grand Siècle. But having known de Nonancourt a little, and his bear- like, down-to-earth charm, I can understand.

Salon, unlike Delamotte, produces one wine from one grape variety: Chardonnay, grown on the slopes of the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. It is not alone: Krug’s revered Clos du Mesnil vineyard is just along the hillside, and also yields what they call a mono-cépage cuvée – a wine made from a single grape variety. Salon ages its wines for, well, ages, before releasing them. It has just released its 2004 vintage; next up are 2006, 2007 and 2008. Depond says he thinks the 2008 will be the best Salon vintage ever produced, adding that it will be released only in magnum (probably the ideal format for Champagne), in 2021 or 2022.

And what of the 2015? “It’s strange because when the 2015 vintage is released, in 2030, I will no longer be in charge of Salon. It is a wine for my children or grandchildren. Because a young Salon is not very good. You need to keep it, and wait for the wine.”

The grapes hail from ‘Le Jardin de Salon’, a one-hectare vineyard,
plus 19 other small vineyard plots dotted across the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger

At a meal in the ornate dining room later, we open the 2004 vintage, which I find quite beautiful. We also taste a magnum of the 1976, which was pulled out from its dusty spot in the cellar in front of us earlier, and disgorged for us (the cellar master turning the bottle almost upside down, tapping it to send all the sediment to the bottom, and loosening the seal). Undosed (with no sugar or other wine added after disgorging), it tasted as fresh as a lime mojito on a Honduran beach. We are also served from a magnum of 1970: not Salon, but Delamotte. Rich, fresh, poetic, this was the wine of the day. Luxury’s funny that way.

I am still musing on this the following morning, as I drive east towards Germany. Ten minutes out of Épernay, the vineyards flanking the highway disappear, replaced by wheat fields. A few minutes after that, the road passes through a patch of warehouses with trucks backing into marked bays. A factory with a McCain logo appears by the roadside: from the sublime to the industrial. Champagne is just a couple of kilometres away, but it already feels far behind.

***

Reims’ 18th-century public library was destroyed in World War I, to be replaced by the Carnegie Library, built in the 1920s

“Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to articulate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!”

These are the words of an unnamed French army captain, writing in his diary during World War I in May 1916 from a farm-turned-mud pit on the front line of the Battle of Verdun. The captain would be killed by a German shell a few weeks later, one of almost a million men slain or maimed in the 10-month fight for the citadel of Verdun, between German troops on one side, and French and British on the other. Verdun, which resulted in no significant change of position for either side, became known as one of the bloodiest single battles in human history. If they were not blown apart, left to bleed to death, or killed by exposure, soldiers would drown in the toxic mud, full of their comrades’ remains, created by shells in what had previously been some of the most beautiful, fertile farmland in France.

The city’s 13th-century cathedral (above) sustained heavy damage, but was restored

Verdun is about half an hour’s drive from the McCain Foods factory. It is believed that the Germans, who started the offensive, were inspired by their victory at the Second Battle of Champagne, which took place the previous year within sight of the grand cru Pinot Noir vineyards on the Montagne de Reims, between Épernay and Reims.

The landscape is stunning here: forested hillsides plunge into hidden valleys, deep green meadows undulate and turn into dark woodland; streams run beneath the road and flow into little lakes. We are now away from the North European Plain, and into the uplands that separate France and Germany, fought over and annexed for centuries. Verdun became known to the world 100 years ago, but it was first made a fort town by Charlemagne, more than 1,000 years prior to that.

In some of the battlefields around Verdun, there is so much arsenic in the ground that trees will not grow, a century later. Paying my respects, I meet a farmer in an old Renault, who fumbles around in the back of his car and hands me a souvenir. It is the rusted remains of a cylinder, about the size and weight of a (full) half-bottle of Krug. The sides and bottom are intact and just brushed with rust; the top is missing, the join from the sides jagged and black. “Obus,” he says, gesturing. A spent mortar shell, from the Battle of Verdun. He says he finds one every week or so. I place it in the back of my car, and wonder whose life it ended, and what that young man’s great-grandchildren would be doing now, had this shell not fallen.

On the Verdun battlefield, the Douaumont national cemetery contains the graves of 15,000 identified French soldiers. The cemetery lies next to an ossuary holding the skeletal remains of at least 130,000 unidentified combatants

Steep hills of a deep green punctuate both sides of the road, as you drive down along the Saar river, over the German border, just south of Luxembourg. It takes a couple of hours’ driving through similar scenery to get here from Verdun, a journey that the French and British soldiers in World War I never made. The road outside the village of Wiltingen rises sharply up and along a hillside before dropping again; another steep, looming hill, planted with vines with a cockscomb of trees on its lid, appears to the left.

The most prominent sign on the entrance to the large house at the foot of this hill is for the Bischöfliche Weingüter Trier – the wine estate owned by the Bishopric of Trier, a city to the north. I turn in, pull up by a nifty Lotus in the car park, and ask a woman and her teenage son, unloading shopping from another car, where I would find the Egon Müller estate. “This is it,” she says, signalling a tall, statuesque man standing on the steps. In demeanour and presence he reminds me of Sir James Goldsmith, the late British financier, who had more than a touch of suave James Bond villain about him. Egon Müller gives me a hearty handshake and beckons me in while he finishes a call on his phone. “So, let’s go for a walk,” he suggests, without much in the way of small talk, after he hangs up.

On the road to the Mosel from Champagne is the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial,
the largest American cemetery in Europe

We walk out of the house, onto the main road, and turn right onto a lane leading up the crested hill. This, I realise, is the legendary Scharzhofberg, the mountain from which Müller creates what is, according to the Wine-Searcher database, the second-most expensive wine in the world (after Domaine de la Romanée- Conti’s Romanée-Conti) and the most expensive white wine. Egon Müller-Scharzhof Scharzhofberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese, to give it its full name, routinely sells for thousands of US dollars a bottle. Made from Riesling grapes afflicted by botrytis, or noble rot, it comes from the hill that starts rising sharply a few metres in front of our noses.

We walk along the road lining the bottom of the hill, Müller pointing out which parts of the vineyard planted on it are his and which belong to others. The ground seems to be composed entirely of tiny, flat stones, the grey slate for which the vineyard is renowned. As the slope fades away, we come to a ramshackle wooden structure. It is making a humming noise. “This is where my son keeps his bees,” says Müller. We step inside to be confronted by a wall of bees, rising and falling onto a row of what must be hives, but are obscured by the insects. Müller junior, 16, also named Egon, will one day take over the family estate, as the sixth generation in charge. “At the moment he is more interested in his bees,” says his father.

Nearby Verdun, on the Meuse river, was a strategic city not only during World War I but also for Prussian forces in 1792

Back inside the house, we sit on antique furniture on top of a Persian carpet in a drawing room lined with the most beautiful marquetry. Müller opens a bottle of his Riesling Auslese 2006, which tastes both dry and sweet, and very light, like an Alpine breeze. I ask if being in charge of such a highly regarded family domain can be a burden. “It’s challenging,” he says, after a short pause. “If it were not a family business, I could say, ‘Okay I like it; it’s my job, I enjoy making wine,’ or I could say, ‘No, I don’t like it.’ In which case, I could take my money and use it elsewhere.

“This property is worth a few euros; if you look at interest rates today, the return on investment is not so bad, but it used to be that if you had a farm, the return would be better with a bank,” he adds. “But with a family business, you have a big obligation to pass the business on to the next generation. I know that five generations before me could have sold the business and spent the money, but they didn’t! Every generation that it passes on to adds a bit to the burden.”

Another pause. “If you are the one who is responsible for losing it, it’s a big thing.” Plainly, Egon Müller is not planning to sell his family domain, although many equally great names in wine, from the Lur-Saluces of Château d’Yquem to the Krugs, have done so – in both cases, to Bernard Arnault and his LVMH empire.

He bears the estate’s name. Is he a brand? “I still think I’m a farmer, but of course when you hold events at the Shangri-La hotel in Hong Kong, and you have the finest wines – Pol Roger, Mouton Rothschild – it’s quite glamorous. But it’s only one aspect of my work.”

Rarity is an important element in the appeal of Egon Müller’s wines, and for any luxury good. In the marginal climate of northern Europe, ripening grapes is fraught with risk. Add to that the danger inherent in making sweet wines affected by noble rot, and it’s evident that nature is the reason for the wine’s rarity. The botrytis fungus dries out grapes, so what is left inside is concentrated and wonderful. But it is famously unpredictable; the warm, wet conditions that favour noble rot also favour grey rot, which simply kills grapes. Müller, along with Château d’Yquem, are two rare producers financially rewarded for their pursuit of this nectar at a time when demand for sweet wine is falling. “There’s still a niche, and I’m pretty confident in that niche. The style of wine we make here is quite impossible to make anywhere else. When you have something so unique, you have to stick with it.”

While Müller’s wines have become luxury goods, many of his compatriots have struggled to sell theirs in the past 30 years. “Between 1985 and 2005 [following some self-destructive national wine laws and a tainting scandal in neighbouring Austria], it was not easy being a German wine grower and selling German wine, even if you were regarded as one of the top winegrowers of the world. I still had the respect of professionals everywhere, but consumers didn’t want the wines.” What changed after 2005, I wonder. “People, probably. There’s a new generation who are not prejudiced by what happened before.”

The steep slopes of Weingut Egon Müller make grape growing particularly challenging

I recall what German friends told me: that to impress guests, they serve French wines. Sadly, Germans do not respect their own wines like the French do, Müller agrees; but he hopes things are starting to change. “In the early 1990s I exported 95 percent of my production; now it’s 80 percent.”

Müller is a thoughtful man, but quite a closed one; a man, after all, from a deep valley on the rural edge of Germany. As we step out into the courtyard where my car is parked, he asks where I have driven from today. Champagne, I tell him. “Ah, through the World War I front line,” he muses, looking out at the forested hill opposite, now dark with rain.

Villages famed for fine Rieslings dot the length of the Mosel river
Egon Müller IV (below) is continuing his family’s winemaking tradition

Salon
One village (Le Mesnil-sur- Oger), one grape variety (Chardonnay), and one great vintage condense into the singular nature of this iconic Champagne, crafted to the demanding taste of one man, founder Eugène- Aimé Salon. Throughout its 39 vintages over the course of a century, it has remained the wine of those in the know. Few Champagnes have such devoted followers, always on the hunt to catch a bottle of Salon in its prime. This beast is shy and tight in youth, going through a difficult teenage period, before blooming expressively in its adulthood, and even more majestically in its senescence.

Essi Avellan

1966
This vintage climbs to my top six due to the effortless completeness the wine shows. Smooth, gentle yet powerful in a hallmark Salon style. Fine, toasty, expressive fruit on a racy palate. Salon at its grandest.

1969
Mature bottles of Salon are becoming increasingly scarce. For this beautiful individual I travelled all the way to Canada a few years back to share the experience with likeminded Champagne aficionados. We almost caught it at its peak; I had the feeling it had just passed its greatest moment.

1995
Time and again the 1995 surprises. Shadowed by the grandeur of the 1996, this vintage delivers sheer pleasure today in its mellowed maturity and open nature. Decadent toasty and coffee richness perfectly integrates with the smoky, bitingly mineral finish.

1996
The combination of Le Mesnil- sur-Oger’s raw power, Salon’s style, and the extremities of the 1996 vintage suggest a masochistic experience. Miraculously, the result is one of the finest Salons of all time (if you love acidity, a prerequisite of any Salon fan). Razor sharp, and will age very slowly.

2002
The long wait for the 2002 was worth it. It has yet to reach its full potential, but it is starting to show some of its true, magnificent colours. Let it seduce you with its smooth generosity and weightless density. A classic keeper.

2004
A difficult vintage and an infamously large crop spelled trouble for many, but Salon 2004 shows none of the year’s problems. A long, stony mineral palate with emerging buttery generosity. Enjoy a bottle, but leave the rest of the case in the cellar for at least a decade.

Müller is continuing his family’s winemaking tradition. His great-great- grandfather Jean-Jacques Koch purchased the Scharzhof estate in 1797

Weingut Egon Müller
The world’s most expensive white wine – and one of the most concentrated beverages on the planet – is Egon Müller’s Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA), from the Scharzhofberg vineyard in the Saar. Despite the sweetness, it has great vitality and elegance. But it is not just Müller’s TBA that boasts such qualities. No list of adjectives can do the estate’s range of Rieslings justice, with even a relatively humble Kabinett metamorphosing into a wine of serious complexity and subtlety, after a decade or more in the bottle.

Stuart Pigott

1983
AUSLESE
This was one of the first wines I ever put in my cellar, back in 1985, and the penultimate bottle drunk at 32 years of age was still full of life, with honey and beeswax aromas. The harmony on the palate was near perfect, just a hint of sweetness remaining at the finish. The only problem now is when and with whom to drink that last bottle.

1990
KABINETT
Egon Müller IV presented this at a tasting of mature wines during the Riesling Downunder conference in Melbourne at the beginning of 2015. There was a sudden silence as everyone realised that although the wine tasted like it was a couple of years old, it actually had a couple of decades under its belt. As brilliant as a perfectly cut diamond and as cool as an iceberg, it stole the show.

1999
KABINETT
This was drunk with a group of winemakers in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York recently, and stunned everyone at the table. Although not generally well remembered, 1999 was a great vintage for Egon Müller, and this wine stood out for its delicacy and freshness, not its richness.

2001
AUSLESE GOLD CAP
It’s hard for me to imagine how a German Riesling Auslese could be more impressive than this wine was a year ago, at the City of Riesling event in Traverse City, Michigan. It has the full range of botrytis- derived aromas, from candied citrus peel to dried figs and dates, plus a slew of spices. Here was the combination of enormous density and great vitality that makes the TBA so sought after, but with a slightly lighter touch. We swooned.

2005
AUSLESE
Although still very young, this shows how great the 2005 vintage is for sweet German Riesling (the jury is still out on the dry wines). In spite of its enormous aromatic intensity, the wine seems weightless on the palate. Somebody much younger than I asked when else the flavours had been so fine. It made me sound very old to answer, “The 1949 vintage,” but there you go. One to cellar for another decade – at least – if you can find it.

2010
SPÄTLESE
I served this to Paul Grieco of New York’s Terroir wine bar recently, in celebration of the fifth anniversary of us becoming friends during a trip to the Mosel. Because of the characteristic steely acidity of the vintage, you barely notice what must be a considerable slug of sweetness. The complex cocktail of aromas, ranging from citrus fruits to dried herbs, kept expanding in the glass.

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