Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sipping Champagne in Reims & Epernay, France

The beverage of choice to mark special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, promotions, graduations, champagne has become synonymous with celebration, style, and luxury. Of course, you can only call champagne if, and only if, the bottle was produced in the Champagne region of France. Keenan had a business meeting just outside of Arras so we planned a last minute weekend trip to  Champagne, France via Lille on the Eurostar. I feel like these days I am spending all my paycheck on Eurostar tickets but then again, when will we ever have the opportunity to go to Champagne?


Being such a last minute trip we didn't have time to map out our itinerary, instead we just went with the flow. Based on a quick Google search, we knew most of the big champagne houses - Pommery, Mumms, Moet and Chandon - were open on the weekends but our goal was to visit smaller champagne producers along the famed 'Champagne Road' stretching between Reims and Epernay along the Marnee Valley, of which many are not open on the weekends or by appointments only.

After one night in Lille, a delightful little town close to the French-Belgian border which I'll write about later, we picked up a car and drove an hour and forty-five minutes to the heart of Champagne country. It was a beautiful warm and sunny spring day, and I was excited to learn more about this elegant light-coloured effervescent wine. While driving around the Champagne route, I was overwhelmed by the number of champagne houses in the area. Together there are over one hundred champagne houses and approximately 19,000 smaller vine-growing producers covering 32,000 hectares of vineyards.

Our first stop: J. Lassalle in Chigney-les-Rose, a small family-run champagne house producing only 6,000 bottles per year. Champagne consists of a blend of three primary grape varieties: Pinot Noir, a black grape with white juice giving the wine body and strength; Pinot Meunier, a fruity black grape with white juice that gives the wine its bouquet; and finally Chardonnay, a white grape giving the wine its freshness and elegance. The owner, speaking with a thick French accent, took his time to explain his family history and the champagne-making process. We tasted four different champagnes, all of which we liked, and bought two bottles to take home with us. 

Next stop: Gaston Chiquet, another small producer in Dizy. This was recommended by a fellow foodie and wine lover on Chowhound, my go-to source for foodie recommendations. Without an advance reservation, we weren't sure if they were open but we tried out luck anyways. The owner, Monsieur Nicholas Chiquet, greeted us thinking we were his 2:00pm business appointment whom he wrote off as a no-show. Monsieur Chiquet who is married to an American from San Francisco, was more than happy to host a tasting and even gave us a brief tour of his gorgeous family home which was once occupied by German Nazis during World War II. His champagnes were excellent, and we particularly liked his Blanc de Blanc. We were quite happy to learn that not only was he recently featured in the New York Times, but he also supplies his champagnes to the French Laundry, one of Thomas Keller's Michelin-rated restaurants. Good enough for Thomas Keller, good enough for us. We'll be sure to save these bottles for a very special occasion.

From here, we visited the quaint town of Epernay, the headquarter to many prestigous champagne houses among them Moet et Chandon, Perrier-Jouet, and Mercier. Avenue de Champagne is lined with magnificent 19th century Renaissance mansions and underground comprise of over 100 km of underground caves filled with bottles and bottles of champagne. At the drop-dead gorgeous palatial mansion that is Moet et Chandon, we paid homage to Dom Perignon, the French Benedict monk who perfected the champagne-making technique by improving its quality. It was impossibly busy at Moet with all tours booked out for the weekend.

We took a stroll along Avenue de Champagne and came across Champagne Andre Bergere and did a quick tasting there, bought a bottle of their non-vintage, and then drove to Champagne de Castellane for a tour and final tasting of the day. I love the architecture of this champagne house who is under the ownership of the Laurent-Perrier group, but I wasn't a fan of their wines. The tour was interesting and informative, giving a glimpse of the unique underground caves and champagne-making techniques. 

We drove back to Reims, the regal town where French kings were crowned at the impressive Reims cathedral, and of course, only the best of French champagne were served as part of the coronation festivities. Being such a last minute trip didn't have dinner reservations in town, but luck was on our side after an unsuccessful attempt to get a booking at Brasserie Boulingrin. We had a lovely dinner at Les Table des Halle on Rue de Mar. It was more our style; a small bistro with no more than 30 covers and filled with French locals. It had a traditional French menu with several items which I would never order and several excellent seafood options as well. Overall, the atmosphere was nice and the staff was very attentive and friendly.

The next day we continued our champagne tasting adventure. But first we spent the morning exploring the cute town of Reims. It's not very big and all the major attractions can be covered on foot. If you can pull yourself away from the world-renowned champagne houses in Reims, make a point to visit Notre-Dame de Reims - it can easily rival the Notre-Dame in Paris. There are also some Roman ruins around town such as the Porte de Mars (three arches) and lovely museums.

About a kilometres south of Reims is home to Tattinger, Veuve Cliquot, Pommery, and Ruinart. Some of the estates are beyond impressive that you can't miss them driving along the main road. Pommery has an amazing property but very commercial; we were turnoff by how impersonal the tours were. There were self-service ticket kiosks and electronic turnstiles so you were essentially on a self-guided tour for 12 (includes one glass of champagne). 

Having done a tour the day before at Castellane, we weren't interested in the tours. Tasting yes, but tours no.  In order to do a tasting, you must tour the estate. Fair enough. The same policy applies to Mumms, which is another beautiful estate in Reims. We also stopped by Cazanove, just across from Porte de Mars, for a tasting but didn't care of their wines or estate. 

On our way back to Lille we stopped off at a little town up in the hills with spectacular vistas overlooking champagne called Trigny. We went to a champagne house called Guy Blin-Laurent based on the tourism office's recommendation. They operate the tasting area in a converted office and the hostess poured us six different bottles ranging from vintage and non-vintage collection. Two bottles went home with us.

If you have a chance to visit Champagne, I highly recommend that you visit smaller Champagne houses; you'll have a stronger appreciation and knowledge for this famous sparkling wine. Be sure to make a reservation especially on weekends as visits and tastings are by appointment only at the smaller champagne houses. That said, it is definitely worth visiting at least one of the major champagne houses in either Reims and Epernay. Happy tasting!

We went back to London with a suitcase full of red and white wines from Monoprix and at least eight bottles of champagnes. We had fun exploring the Champagne region and look forward to those special occasions where we can pop a bottle of 'champers'...

Next up: Lille and the beverage of choice -- Belgium beers. More to follow soon.

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