My Tour in Champagne

So what did I do on my tour, aside from learning everything from the last post, and sampling 9 delicious and semi-delicious glasses of champagne? Let me tell you! But first, if you haven’t read the last post describing the production of champagne, click here.

 

The day started early, with my friend Mel and I taking the 7:10 train from Paris out east, to the largest city in the Champagne region, Reims. We met our tour guide Justine, and tour buddies (three British women celebrating a birthday and a pair of honeymooning North Carolinians), and hopped into the “France Bubbles Tours” van.   We drove from Reims (which in French is pronounced like “Rance,” don’t ask me why or how. And make sure when you say the R that your throat is full of phlegm that you’re trying to expel) out into the heart of Champagne country, towards Épernay where we were shown the different parcels/vineyards. They really do stretch far and wide! Interestingly, where the ground and conditions are not suitable for grape growing, they plant agricultural crops, namely wheat and canola. This is primarily in the valleys and at the bottoms of the hills, where there is no slope. The canola fields were in full bloom already, and the wheat was about knee height.

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Beautiful yellow canola fields among the vineyards, where the grapes are just starting to leaf out (mid-end of April) Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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Small villages in the background. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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Hautvillers is the village to the top right, on the hill. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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April 23rd and the grape vines are just starting to leaf out. This happens later than many plants, because of how far the roots must carry nutrients up into the vines. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

After learning about the parcels (and how much they are worth), crus, and terroir, we drove to the nearby village of Hautvillers, or “High village.” This is a charming, quaint little village of a couple hundred people, and notably home to the abbey and church where Dom Perignon was a monk.

Dom Perignon (1638-1715) was a Benedictine monk who is credited (by the French at least) for the discovery and first production of champagne. He served as the cellarer at the Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers, and under him the vineyard of the abbey doubled in size and worked closely with Dom Ruinart (another prestigious name in champagne). The problem at the time was when they would make wine, when the weather started cooling in the fall and then warm in the spring, a second fermentation would take place. This created a huge pressure build up in the bottle. Remember how I said previously that champagne bottles were made of very thick glass? Yeah, this is why. Come spring, when the weather warmed up, the dormant yeast would activate again, continue generating carbon dioxide, and start exploding.

Dom Perignon decided he needed to control this process somehow, and started experimenting. He ended up making a list of do’s and don’t’s for making wine that would help to prevent the wine from fermenting again, and thus preventing it from turning into champagne. So did he actually invent champagne? Well, the French certainly like to say he did. But in reality, not so much. He certainly did further their understanding of the process though.Regardless, we went to the church in Hautvillers and saw Dom Perignon’s tomb before continuing on our journey.

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L’Eglise Hautvillers. This is the village church, that was connected to the Abby (which is now owned jointly by Moët & Chandon and Hennessy (Cognac) ) where Dom Perignon was the cellar master. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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The tomb of Dom Perignon. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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The pretty view from the road leaving Hautvillers. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

We drove a few kilometers away to Épernay, la Capitale de Champagne, and drove down one of the most famous streets in France, L’Avenue de Champagne. Along this tree-lined UNESCO designated road, you will find the most beautiful, prestigious champagne houses, including Moët & Chandon, Pol Roger, Mercier, De Castellane, Perrier, etc. This is said to be the most expensive avenue in the world, even more so than the Champs-Élysees, because of the millions of bottles of champagne stored in the 120+ kms of underground cellars beneath the avenue. Our next stop was at Maison Moët & Chandon.

 

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Avenue de Champagne. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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Moët & Chandon Champagne House. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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Statue of Dom Perignon at Moët & Chandon. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

Moët & Chandon was established in 1743 by Claude Moët, and today owns 1150 hectares of vineyards and produces approximately 28,000,000 bottles of champagne annually. They hold the royal warrant to supply champagne to Queen Elizabeth II, and have a history of supplying the nobility. Claude Moët’s grandson Jean-Remy had extensive regal connections, was a very  good friend of Napoleon’s, and supplied champagne to the Imperial family. We took a tour through their extensive cellars- they have approximately 28 kilometers of them. They need a lot to be able to store and age millions and millions of bottles! It was certainly an impressive tour, and we only saw a small part. They don’t do tours through their production area, our guide Justine told us that they closely guard the secrets of their trade. But that’s ok, we weren’t disappointed as we received our first glass of champagne for tasting there!

 

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The loooooong cellars at Moët & Chandon. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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This cellar at Moët & Chandon stores their Grand Vintage collection. The bottle in the distance is their most recently released vintage, from 2006. Our guide told us that they were close to releasing a 2008 vintage. They have vintages stored here that date back to 1892! Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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Bottles in the cellar. The top line is a secret code that just the cellar master and his workers know. The second line is the cellar number. The third line is the number of bottles in that cellar, in this case, 9695. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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Another cellar, this one with over 20,000 bottles in it. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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This barrel was given to Jean-Remy Moët by Napoleon, and was apparently completely finished off in 3 days. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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Riddling Racks at Moët & Chandon. A riddler can turn up to 50,000 bottles a day! Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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Some Dom Perignon. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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There might be a little dust on the bottle. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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The Tasting Room. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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Those are some big bottles of Champagne. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

We tried Moët & Chandon’s legendary cuvee (remember what that means? Made only with the grape juice from the first of the three presses) champagne, the Moët & Chandon Impérial. It is described in their handbook as “A style characterized by brilliant fruitiness, a delicious palate and a subtle maturity. Its elegant straw yellow colour, with slight greenish highlights, is the hallmark of its sophistication. It combines the acidic intensity of green apples and citrus fruit, fresh hints of minerals and white flowers and elegant golden notes of brioche, grains, and fresh walnuts.” It is made from over 100 different wines, including 20-30% of reserve wines (vintages from previous years), and can be enjoyed with any food and any course of your meal. To put it simply, as my palate is not very refined, it was delicious. I bought a bottle.  We did not sample the Rosé Impérial, but I bought a bottle of that as well.

 

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Yum.

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Price list for one of the displays of Dom Perignon. Maybe someday…

We said goodbye to Moët & Chandon and Dom Perignon, and headed to the nearby village of Monthelon. Here, we found the independent champagne house, Champage Julien Chopin. We were not there to tour the vineyard, cellar, or production line, but to have an artisanal lunch, with a champagne pairing for each course. This is also one of the few champagne makers that specialize in making the Ratafia, he fortified wine made from the third pressing of the grapes, the “rubbish.”

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Our first round was an appetizer of Rillettes de Canard (a delicious spread made from duck meat and fat, one of my favourites here), paired with a Blanc de Noirs extra brut. It was described as deep yellow, with scents of hazelnut, ripe wheat, and a hint of cherry. Perfect as an aperitif. I liked this one so much that…..yup, I bought a bottle.

Next course was a type of vegetable patty and an unidentifiable meat slice, surrounded by puff pastry. It was ok, nothing extraordinary. It was paired with a rosé, Blanc de Rosé, scents of rose, raspberry and cream. It was pretty good too.

Dessert was a delicious strawberry tart, and a Brut champagne to go with, Julien Chopin’s Grand Millésime, a 10-year aged champagne with a blend of 60% Chardonnay, 20% Meunier and 20% Noir wines. I found it a little “sharp,” and it has notes of apples, pears, and vanilla, finishing with a hint of cocoa. At least, that’s what the book says. Maybe one day I will have a refined wine/champagne palate and can pick out the different tastes, but I’m definitely not there yet! Regardless, I didn’t care too much for that champagne.

As I said before, this particular maker is known for their Ratafia, and we had a glass of the ratafia made from chardonnay grapes as our digestif. I am not a huge fan of port, but I really liked the ratafia! So what do we do when we like something? Yup, I bought some. I bought a three pack, with small bottles of ratafia made from each of the 3 types of champagne grapes. I knew that husband is a big fan of port, so I was hoping he would like the ratafia. And he did! So that was a success. I didn’t want to be “that person” and take photos of each course, so all I have are photos of my keepers.

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Ratafia, made from juice from the third pressing of grapes and supplemented with ethyl alcohol to prevent fermentation. It is very sweet, similar to a port or an ice wine.

 

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My Blanc de Noirs, Champagne made from just the black skinned/white juice Pinot Noir and Meunier grapes. 

 

After we left Julien Chopin behind us, we headed to the village of Pierry, and to my favourite stop of the tour, the Maison de Champagne Bouché Père et Fils. We met one of the owners, Nicolas Bouché and his adorable 2 year old son. Nicolas and his father José run the champagne house. They are a small, independent maker, with their own vineyards and production house on the same property, though they do have vineyards elsewhere, and also buy grapes from independent growers. We were first given a tour of the vineyard, and then shown all aspects of production that I described in the previous post, from the pressing machines to the disgorging machines.

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The Bouché Père & Fils vineyard. Notice how the grapes are growing up towards the top of the hill. This makes it easier on the picker’s backs. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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One of the two presses at Bouché Père & Fils. This press can hold 8000 kgs of grapes, and the champagne house has wo of them. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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One of the oak barrels that Bouché Père & Fils uses to produce their Cuvée Saphir Champagne. Most champagne houses no longer use oak barrels. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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The stainless steel fermentation tanks at Bouché Père & Fils. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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Wine aging in the cellars at Bouché Père & Fils. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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Bottles of Bouché Père & Fils Cuvée Saphir on the Riddling Racks. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

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The disgorgement machine, which freezes the cap end of the bottle, causing the dead yeast and sediment to form a frozen plug that is shot off once the bottle is opened. Photo copyright Crystal Hedeman

 

Then we were given 4 different champagnes to try, my favourite of the day being their Cuvée Saphir. This champagne is composed of 75% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Meunier, and is unique in the fact that first fermentation takes place in oak barrels. So it has a wonderful kind of smoky taste to it that I really liked. Yup, bought a bottle! So the best champagne of the day, coupled with the owner’s adorable son and a look at production from start to finish meant that Bouché Père et Fils was definitely my favourite stop of the day!

 

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My favourite champagne of the tour, the Cuvée Saphir. 

 

It was a quiet ride back to Reims, as everyone was tired out from our long day of touring and drinking. As I was riding shotgun, Justine told me a bit about how there are a few other areas of France now with the designation of “Champagne,” like in the area of Burgundy, where there are a couple hills growing Pinot Noir (literally just the hill) that have been designated. But of course the native “Champagners” don’t like that. And there are also new regulations, stating that the vineyards are no longer to use metal stakes to hold the wires that the vines are tied to, they have to start switching them back to wooden ones.

Also, it was long believed that grass and wildflowers growing amongst the vines would compete for nutrients in the soil, so all the other vegetation was worked up. Now, they know that this is not the case, due to long roots that the grape plants have. They stretch down 3 to 4 meters. So within a few years, growers will not be allowed to dig up the vineyards, they must let the grass grow in between the rows.

Once we arrived back in Reims, we took a short walk to the Cathedral there, figuring we may as well at least see the cathedral where all the French kings were crowned at as far back as the 1300’s. It was beautiful, of course, but the renovations on it’s large front-facing rose window obscured its view a little bit.Once we toured the Cathedral, it was time to stop at a pub to round out our day with some beers before catching the 7:00 pm train back to Paris.

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Reims Cathedral, gothic style

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Inside Reims Cathedral

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The upper rose window is undergoing renovations

 

If you are ever interested in taking the same tour that we did, it was offered through the company France Bubbles Tours, and was called “Epernay Picturesque, Champagne Day tour, 7 Champagne tasting and lunch.” Find it here