The cork erupts. Endless tiny bubbles float up in the glass. An indulgence. A celebration. A seduction. A triumph. This is the essence of Champagne, isn’t it? But it’s not just bubbles in a glass that makes the wine and the mystique. Only sparkling wine produced within the boundaries of the Champagne region is truly “Champagne.” At first glance, the region is not an obvious source of romance. Champagne’s history is grim and bloody, swept by war and destruction from Attila the Hun to the filthy trenches of WWI, and the Nazi depredations of WWII. The environment for winemaking is desperately hard — northerly latitude, chalky soil, copious rain, frost and rot. Yet it’s these difficulties that help make the wine unique. With renowned wine importer Martine Saunier as our guide, we get a rare glimpse behind the scenes into the real Champagne through six houses, from small independent makers like Champagne Saint-Chamant, where each and every bottle is still turned by hand in the cellars, to the illustrious houses of Gosset and Bollinger which have been instrumental in shaping the image of Champagne around the world. In Champagne, they don’t sell Appellations; they sell Brands, many of which have been famous for 200 years. In the vineyard, 2012 threatened to be “the year of all our fears,” as one eminent Champagne wine-master put it. Cold. Rain. Insects. Wind. More rain. The sun had gone away and looked like it might stay away forever. What happened at the last minute, to help chase the nightmares away? What saved Champagne from ruin? Happily, unlike other great wines, non-vintage Champagne is not the product of a specific year and its weather. Style is the driver, and a signature house style is as much a creation as a movie star. Natural assets are just the starting place, and as the French say: “il faut souffrir pour être belle” (one must suffer to be beautiful). The magical transformation happens behind closed doors and in miles of cellars, cities beneath cities, which literally hold hundreds of millions of bottles. The blender of the wine works like an alchemist, mingling the brightness of one year’s summer with the difficulties of another year’s spring to create a better vision, and a taste experience that is true to the house’s style; then creating the bubbles in just the right amount, so the bottle won’t explode. After all, as customers we don’t even consider the fears of the winemakers.