Pierre Cheval leaned forward and put his nose right down into the flute of Champagne Gatinois. He inhaled deeply of the bubbling amber wine that he grows, presses, ferments and bottles here on the ancient family estate. Then he allowed himself a first swallow.
"It's well dressed," he said, meditatively swirling the flute. "It has touches of heart. It has longueur. It pushes in your mouth . . . like fireworks that last and last."
"We're not just making wine, you know. Champagne carries the values of civilization."
It is not unusual to meet Champagne makers who are reverent about their product. But these days they are not exaggerating. Civilization, as it looks ahead to New Year's Eve, seems to value Champagne more than anything else in the world except, perhaps, reservations.
For Cheval and just a few thousand of his grape-growing and wine-making neighbors in these rolling valleys east of Paris, the coming millennium eve has been a windfall of almost cosmic proportions--and one that they can't hope to profit from as fully as they would like, given strictly limited supplies from precisely 75,335 acres of chalky French soil.
But a small monopoly is still a monopoly. By possessing all of the essential fuel for the biggest cork-popping humankind has yet arranged, they have an economic stranglehold on the last night of the year that is reminiscent of OPEC--the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries--at its mightiest. It is estimated that more than 310 million bottles, a record, will be sold this year, 20 million more than in 1998.
So will there be enough Champagne to go around on New Year's Eve? Or will some revelers be forced to accept mere substitutes?
The answer is unknowable. The prediction is that yes, there will be plenty--but.
Champagne, real Champagne from Champagne country, is bound to be in sufficient supply, according to the makers and sellers. But the label might be unfamiliar.
The tightly knit Champagne industry began producing more grapes and stockpiling the wine in the early 1990s, and last year began bottling and releasing it--too slowly, to hear many retailers tell it--to meet surging customer demand. Retailers, too, have been building up their inventories for several years.
They say that as a rule the more expensive and well-known the Champagne--think of Moet & Chandon, Taittinger, Krug, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Perrier-Jouet, Piper Heidsieck--the harder it will be to find.
This is especially likely to be true in the United States, where big labels are most in demand. "They have the dollars, they want the best," said one top-tier Champagne maker with a big smile.
But exceptional vintage years of the best brands are essentially no longer available except to the rich and motivated.
"We can't match the demand," said Richard Geoffroy, cellar master of venerable Dom Perignon, Moet & Chandon's most prestigious bottle. "People accept that first growth Bordeaux wines are in short supply. Well, great Champagne is the same thing."
Geoffroy and many others worry that they will frustrate and anger their customers who find their favorite labels are not available. One small Champagne house, normally eager for publicity, declined a reporter's request to visit for fear of stoking unmeetable demand.
At the esteemed Bollinger Champagne headquarters here in Ay, executive Guy Bizot said his company could have made and sold more of its premium lines, "but we wanted to save the credibility of the wine, and our customers and distributors agree completely."
Champagne is usually made by mixing three grapes--Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay--from multiple harvest years. Champagne is "assembled" to create distinctive blends, the best-selling of which are brut, or dry, wines. The famous bubbles come from a double fermentation process and a final dollop of sugar. Unlike expensive still wines in France and elsewhere, only a small proportion (15 percent) of Champagne is vintage, or dated, wine.
Champagne dates back thousands of years, with fossil evidence to prove it, the local story goes. But Champagne as we know it is a 17th century invention that became a regional specialty here. In 19th century France, Champagne was adopted by the smart set and then the middle class as their celebratory beverage of choice. The 20th century has made Champagne a virtual cult the world over.
"It's beyond our control," Geoffroy said. "It's beyond marketing. The fundamentals are so well established."
Beyond the dramatic sales spike this year, the millennium celebrations are "a fabulous opportunity to convert new customers," said Guy de Saint-Victor of the mid-size Champagne Philipponnat house. "It's a worldwide free sampling exercise."
Retailers confirm this. "Small producers are coming out of the woodwork with bubbly you've never heard of before," observed Joe Kluchinsky, the Champagne buyer for MacArthur Beverages in Northwest Washington. "But people who walk in here want to feel comfortable that they're not getting some oddball Champagne. This is probably the one time in people's lives that they'll drink Champagne."
The Champagne that will be opened on New Year's Eve was made from grapes harvested at least 15 months ago--and 10 years or more in the case of the best vintage Champagnes.
A decade ago, the Champagne business was in a bad way--suffering from the excesses of the '80s and the ensuing recession. But by informal agreement among growers and the makers they sell to, significant reserves of the three pressed base Champagne grapes were set aside for a rainy day--Dec. 31, 1999.
Asked about the likelihood of gouging, everyone in Champagne country interviewed for this article said the price increases will be "gentle" or "modest" or even frozen. A central Paris wine merchant said the hikes had been around 10 percent so far, but he expected them to climb steeply in the weeks to come--and for bad Champagne to follow good.
"What else would you expect?" he said.
Strict regulations governing Champagne making forbid the mention of any year on a label other than the one in which the grapes were harvested. But the rule is being broadly violated to market special "2000" bottles.
Dom Perignon, most outlandishly, has created a onetime "Spirit of the Century" blend of its top 10 vintages since 1900. Philipponnat has a boxed and numbered (1-2,000) edition of millennium magnums of its earthy Clos des Goisses.
Champagne makers are glad for all the enthusiasm and the revenues that flow from it, but they worry that their beverage is still misunderstood. Behind that flashy, fizzy exterior, they insist, beats a heart of subtlety and soul.
"Sometimes we have to remind people that Champagne is a wine," lamented Saint-Victor, "and not just an accessory."
In France, where, according to the Champagne growers and makers association, 61 percent of all Champagne is sold, it is most often served as an aperitif. Elsewhere, however, Champagne is the drink of celebrations and special occasions. The industry has tried to broaden Champagne's appeal (and, of course, boost consumption) by talking it up as a wine for virtually round-the-clock enjoyment.
"We drink a lot of Champagne," said Cheval as he unwrapped the foil from another bottle. "We drink it at all times of day, with every meal. With a lot of other things you drink, you can't start first thing in the morning. But with Champagne, you can."
CAPTION: Pierre Cheval tends to some bottles of his Champagne. He and other French Champagne makers expect record sales as Millennium Eve approaches.