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Visiting Champagne to Celebrate 50 Years

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It's easy enough to figure out what to buy for a 50th anniversary -- something with gold (and able to afford it). But where do you go for a 50th?

That's what intrigued me, as I contemplated where to take the family. And so, we went to Paris, the default city for family fun.

But then I wanted a great day out of Paris, where we could all be together, where we could celebrate. And so we took, not surprisingly, a tour of a champagne vintner. What else symbolizes good times, great moments, as well as champagne? We have been to the great wine-producing areas in Argentina, South Africa, Alsace, California and Burgundy, and Champagne in France. Invariably, these hilly areas are among the most beautiful in the country because of the terraced terrains often required to grow the grapes.

The excursion to the region took a little more than an hour by express train from Paris.

A trip to the Champagne country has its own unique settings. For many of the "cellars" in the winemakers' domains are in limestone caves, often going back to 2,000-year-old Roman times when they were carved out of the earth. And of course "champagne" can come (in France) only from this area, which measures about 90,000 acres. If you make bubbly outside of the specified region, you can't call it champagne -- at least, not in the countries belonging to the European Union, where they guard the territory names with national fervor.

We decided to visit the Piper Heidsieck caves and buildings, a huge swath of land where everything has to do with bubbles. The sprawling complex, built in 2000, is its own universe. The Heidsieck name dates to 1785 (in case you didn't know it), when Mr. Heidsieck's widow remarried -- to a Mr. Piper. It is France's third-largest champagne maker.

First things first -- what we learned about the Heidsieck Champagne brand is that Piper Heidsieck is the more universal drink. That means, simply, it is less complex and costs less. Charles Heidsieck is the upper-crust part of the family, more complex, and of course more expensive.

I hadn't realized that in fields where the better champagne grapes are grown, they are picked by hand -- so they don't break the skin of the grape. It is such a huge process, yet as small as the tiniest grape that makes its ultimate way into a bottle. Piper is the third-largest-selling champagne in France, and is aged for 30 months. Big brother Charles sits in the bottle for 40 months.

That is done in the bottle. First, though, the pressed grapes are stored in one of the two-story stainless-steel vats for up to two weeks. Then the liquid is bottled, with yeast and sugar added for fermenting. They sit in the cellars another few months.

Those cellars -- a total of six miles for Heidsieck alone -- are at once eerie and beautiful. The temperature remains at 50 degrees Fahrenheit. One of the rooms has an entrance carved in the shape of a champagne bottle, a whimsical touch.

Of course, when Charles Heidsieck, who founded firm bearing his name in the mid 19th Century, visited the United States, he was immediately dubbed Champagne Charlie. He is generally believed to have helped make champagne popular in the States. Indeed, he was lauded when he arrived in New York and became a popular figure during his many trips. The popularity of champagne may have led to the beginning of America's sparkling-wine industry when, in the 1880s, the Korbel Brothers started making their version of champagne in California.

The romance of champagne continues even today, using methods discovered by trial and error. One of the fascinating moments on a tour of the better cellars such as Heidsieck's is riddling, the winemaker turning the bottle, first left, then right, just a tad, every other day, so that the fermented yeast stays in a glob and moves closer to the neck of the bottle so that it can be disgorged more easily. They told me a good riddler (have you ever met one who wasn't?) can riddle 5,000 bottles an hour in the limestone cellars that are a constant 50 degrees.

The tasting rooms are like a bright bar at Heidsieck, where the Charles Heidsiecks are aged four years (the thinner the bubble, the older you know the champagne is). One of the fun things to do in the tasting room is to close your eyes and take a whiff as glasses from different vintages are poured in front of you. It's remarkable that after only a few sips and sniffs you are able to tell the better champagnes.

Unlike wine, champagne is never aged in wood barrels.

"The only wood we use," a Heidsieck official told me, "is on the floor."