Maison Moët

Once a hunting lodge for Champagne's royal family, Chateau de Saran now allows a select few to sample life among the vineyards and at the table of Chef Bernard Dance.

In the vast formal dining room at the historic Château de Saran, home to Moët & Chandon, you'll rarely find Richard Geoffroy popping the cork of a thick, black Champagne bottle for a sweet, fruity dessert or a dinner built on caviar and classical French cream sauces. Instead, Geoffroy, the winemaker of Moët & Chandon's Dom Pérignon, daringly embraces cuisines and ingredients from all over the world, stretching the definition of what makes for an appropriate match. He will pair a rare bottle of vintage Dom Pérignon Champagne, for example, with the likes of chilled beet gelée, duck breasts with a Japanese roasted sesame paste, and aged Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Geoffroy 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 Bernard Dance, an executive chef at Moët & Chandon. Dance has been there 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," said Dance about working at Moët & Chandon. "Normally, at a restaurant you look at the menu and decide what you want, then the sommelier goes to your table, 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 Dom Pérignon Oenothèque and the 1990 Rosé) and isolating the various flavor components of each one. From there, they worked back toward the food. For example, the deep red-berry notes of the rosé Champagne were heightened by a tart, salty raspberry coulis that surrounded grilled langoustines. Bright-green teardrops of chervil oil added a final flourish to the simple dish.

"Clearly it's a play on the fruitiness of the wine," Geoffroy said of this particular combination, "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. Herbs and red berries are good together because anything red in nature, be it flowers or fruit, comes from green vegetation. I think green herbs are just outstanding. This has chervil, but it could be basil, cilantro, even mint."

This, after all, is the real art of food and wine pairing. It's not just matching the similar taste of fruit in the wine and raspberries on the plate; it's finding a new flavor (in this case the chervil) that will unite all the disparate elements of the wine and the food to make the mouth sing. Doing this requires as much talent, experience, and knowledge as the assemblage, or the blending, of wines to make Champagne itself.

Château de Saran, just a few miles outside of Epernay in the Champagne region of France, was once a family residence belonging to Moët, one of the most venerable Champagne houses in France. Today it's a venue where the company entertains visiting royalty, dignitaries, VIPs, and friends. You need to know someone who knows someone to secure an invitation to Saran (see How To Reserve), 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 was purchased in 1801 by Jean-Rémy Moët, who used its modest 17th-century lodge as a base for hunting parties. They roamed the oak forests nearby to shoot deer and hunt grouse. The Château de Saran itself was built in 1846, when the Moëts began entertaining in the country, as was the fashion at that time.Today the hosts who treat guests so generously are part of the Moët family—or rather, the extended family of Moët & Chandon.

Patrick and Micheline Vandermarcq take up the challenge of entertaining strangers almost every night of the week through an extended summer season. As they greet guests on the stone steps of the courtyard, the house staff stands behind them, lined up as if in military formation. Clad in black jackets and bow ties, they're ready to drag luggage out of cars and up flights of stairs to the bedrooms, offer tea or wine, and generally see to everyone's needs. In these days of studied casual elegance, the choreographed welcome comes across as refreshingly formal and old-world.

On warm evenings, guests congregate on the vast terrace just opposite the entryway for Champagne and hors d'oeuvres passed on silver trays by waiters in white gloves. The rose gardens surrounding the terrace were added in the 1970s, when parts of the château were redecorated by Countess Camilla Chandon de Briailles, granddaughter of the noted interior designer Syrie Maugham. One of Countess Chandon's aims was to showcase 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 poised on an oak chest off to the side in the main sitting room, is easy to miss but a fascinating piece of history. Other treasures are more evident, including the 1893 oil portraits of Count and Countess Pierre-Gabriel Chandon that bookend the marble fireplace. The sitting room itself was decorated by Jean Monroe of London, who covered the deep sofas and armchairs in green-and-pink chintz—a fabric perfectly suited to the summer season, when a good many of the château's special Dom Pérignon tasting dinners are held.

Dom Pérignon is the tête de cuvée of Moët & Chandon—in other words, their top-of-the-line vintage Champagne. The meal featuring the langoustines was built around Dom Pérignon's new releases of Oenothèque. Simply put, these are vintage Champagnes that have only recently been disgorged. Usually, after a bottle of Dom Pérignon has aged for upwards of seven years, it is uncorked, allowing a frozen block of yeasty sediment to pop out in a process 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 uncorked, so for the most part, a late-disgorged wine will be more flavorful and rich than normal. Dom Pérignon has just begun releasing these Champagnes with vintages dating back to 1959.

Creating menus around such rare bottles is one of Dance's most enjoyable challenges. He and Geoffroy always keep in mind how both the dishes and the wines will work in succession.

"The first dish should always be the simplest," Geoffroy said, "because you're usually starting with the most straightforward wine and from there, you progress."

Thus, at the Oenothèque 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, deep-brown characteristics of the earth. In it, scallops were grilled until they took on the burnished marks of the pan, then served with curls of salty aged Parmesan and a drizzle ofwhite-truffle oil. The 1985 Champagne is scented with sweet, toasted hazelnuts and almonds that echo the caramelization of the scallops. But it also has a touch of mushroomy loam, a low note that contrasted with the high, aromatic nuances of the truffle oil. The really outstanding part of savoring the dish, however, was 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 Pérignon is also about the texture. You have the sweet softness of the scallop, the graininess of the Parmesan, and the crunchy crystals of sea salt. The wine adds to them by allowing 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 very essence of Dom Pérignon."

Balance and precision extend beyond the meals to the château itself. As fortunate overnight guests have discovered, up the carved-oak staircase are the 11 guestrooms, each individually and luxuriously furnished—highly embellished, yes, but never overdone.

One charming room with a mahogany sleigh bed dating from the First Empire is decorated in a blue toile patterned with scenes of hot-air ballooning. Another room, hung with creamy chintz, features a pair of delicately carved beds that originated in the nearby Château de Romont, built by the Moëts around 1810. Some of the most spacious guestrooms have floor-to-ceiling windows that frame a vista of the vineyards. (The bedrooms are now being redone by French architect Anne Fourcade, who is replacing the British feel generated by the bright hues and chintzes with a more typically French style: muted colors such as whites and grays, and cotton-based fabrics by Braquenié for bedspreads, furniture, and drapes. Fourcade will continue to highlight the rooms' antique furniture, adding more pieces to the current collection.)

With the windows flung open, one can admire the vines of the Côte des Blancs, the region famous for the Chardonnay grapes that, together with varying amounts of Pinot Noir and, often, Pinot Muenier, make up Champagne. (Dom Pérignon is made exclusively of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.)

Although we take Champagne's bubbles for granted now, wine from the region wasn't always as exuberant. In and before the 17th century, it was a thin, characterless red wine. This changed with Dom Pierre Pérignon, the namesake of Moët & Chandon's wine. There are many myths surrounding this monk: that he was blind; that he was the inventor of Champagne; and that he exclaimed, upon tasting the sparkling wine for the first time, "I am drinking stars." While it's likely most of this is apocryphal, Champagne aficionados will find that the truth is just as compelling. While Dom Pérignon was probably not the creator of the wine we know of as Champagne, he did improve it and make its production more consistent, which led to its subsequent popularity.

The Abbey where Dom Pérignon lived and worked in Hautvillers has been rebuilt as a private museum celebrating the good monk and the wine he perfected. Guests of Moët & Chandon can spend the afternoon wandering the gardens and vineyards, which look just as they would have 400 years ago. Wine buffs will be interested in the collection of 17th-century winemaking equipment and the attendant explanations, but anyone would appreciate the sense of history that emanates from every stone.

A late September visit to the Champagne region is rewarded with a glimpse of the centuries-old tradition of harvesting the fruit that makes the area so rich. At Saran, where the picturesque vineyards stretch beyond the door of the château, one can look out over the vines to see straw brims, baseball caps, and floppy cotton sun hats bobbing up and down along the neat trellised rows: the grape pickers. People travel from all over the globe to help with the harvest. You can see their caravans lined up along the road as you approach the château, and indeed, dotting the roadsides anywhere grapes are grown. The pickers beneath those hats work quickly and intently, filling sticky plastic paniers (baskets) with neatly cut bunches of ripe grapes, all the while discarding leaves and stems so they won't get in the way of the crush.

The grapes themselves are sweet and almost syrupy in flavor. The taste of them—fresh from the vine, warmed by the sun—together with the scent of hot, fermented crushed fruit and the soil, makes one appreciate the winemaker's art even more.

Like the rest of the trappings, meals at Saran are the stuff of 19th-century novels, complete with a dramatically long mahogany table that accommodates up to 24. At eight o'clock sharp, the Vandermarcqs steer guests into the dining room, which is off the sitting room, hidden behind a polished wood screen and illuminated by slender amber candles in sterling holders. At each setting is a place card and the menu, printed on thick vellum for guests to take home.

After the scallops, fat pearls of beluga caviar are served, cascading over a mound of crème fraîche on top of ruby-red beet jelly. Dinner at Saran almost always includes a caviar course. People expect it, Dance said, andit works so beautifully with Champagne. But he would never serve something as simple as blini to accompany the roe—with his cuisine, there's always a twist that surprises. 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 both from the beets and the goût de terroir, taste of the earth, that the wine expresses, reflecting the soil and climate of its origin. At other times, Dance has served the caviar with sticky rice, another element that offsets 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, rather than serving turbot with a creamy Champagne sauce, which is a classic accompaniment to the fish, he pairs it with a rather piercing mix of anchovies and good salted butter. The combination, in turn, is both allayed and challenged by the citrus tang that highlights the yeasty and spicy scents of the 1973 vintage. It's a complicated match, but, as Geoffroy had mentioned earlier in the meal, the more complex the wine, the more complex the food served alongside it can be.

The desserts at Saran are also provocative, teetering on the edge of sweet and savory. An ultracreamy olive-oil ice cream, for instance, might sport a bracing drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Chef Dance has also served black-truffle ice cream and ice cream infused with, yes, tobacco (which has a slightly smoky, spicy flavor), to conclude a meal.

"It's funny, you know," Geoffroy remarked as he watched 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 entire meal. If anyone sitting at the table had imagined that the food was going to match the rather starchy atmosphere, they couldn't have been more wrong. That is 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 is the whole point of these dinners: to celebrate the union of new and old, each lending its unique perspective to a tradition that is as antediluvian as Bacchus, and as fresh and light as a recently disgorged bottle of Dom Pérignon, 1990.

Other Champagne Region Favorites

Michelin-Three-Starred Meal Chef Gérard Boyer's Les Crayères (a Relais & Châteaux property) combines hearty regional classics with a deft, modern sensibility, whether he's packaging pigs' feet and truffles in a luxurious strudellike pastry or presenting fillet of grilled sea bass, coriander-spiced vegetables, and lemon confit in a tagine. This is one of the finest meals to be had in all of France. 64 Boulevard Henry-Vasnier, 51100 Reims; 33-3-26-82-80-80; fax 33-3-26-82-65-52.

Regional Bistro With his expressive handlebar mustache and ample round belly, Chef Hervé Liégent of Le Vigneron looks the part of a jovial bistro owner as much as he lives it. Based upon regional ingredients such as Chaource cheese and grape leaves, Le Vigneron serves robust, traditional food in a dining room that celebrates the wines of the region, with more vintage Champagne posters than there are vintage Champagnes. Place Paul Jamot, 51100 Reims; 33-3-26-79-86-86; fax 33-3-26-79-86-87.

Off-the-Beaten-Track Experience At The Tool Museum in Troyes (Maison de L'Outil et de la Pensée Ouvrière), it's not just the collection of more than 7,000 traditional regional tools that is so compelling; it's the ingenious and artistic way they are displayed in this quirky museum. With a separate vitrine for each genre of tool, one can admire their form as well as learn about their function. Who could imagine that saws and vises could be so sublime? 7 Rue de la Trinité, 10000 Troyes; 33-3-25-73-28-26; fax 33-3-25-73-90-47;

Place to Stay If You Are Not Overnighting at Saran For those fortunate enough to procure a dinner invitation to Saran, but not a room, the amply elegant and comfortable Royal Champagne (a Relais & Châteaux property) will more than fit the bill. Twenty minutes from the château, this lovely hotel has a delightful restaurant and a salon full of Napoleon memorabilia to boot. 51160 Champillon; 33-3-26-52-87-11; fax 33-3-26-52-89-69; e-mail

Transport Whether you are traveling from Reims to Paris, or merely need a lift to or from the airport, Champagne Découverte is the taxi service to trust. 1 Place Aristide Briand, 51100 Reims; 33-3-26-88-53-00; fax 33-3-26-88-53-64. Also: 11 Rue Eugène Mercier, 51200 Epernay; 33-3-26-54-19-49; fax 33-3-26-54-27-97.

How to Reserve

For Platinum Card Members who are planning to be in the Champagne region of France during the months of July or October 2001, Moët & Chandon offers the opportunity to dine and stay overnight at Château de Saran, its exclusive VIP guest residence. There are some restrictions that apply to this offer. For further information, please contact Moët & Chandon's representative, Jeff Pogash, at 212-251-8337.

A regular contributor to The New York Times, Melissa Clark covered New York City's Cello restaurant for Departures' March/April issue.