I had asked the question, not thinking for a second that I would be inclined to eat my words when the answer came. I asked my good friend and traveling companion, Nikki, where she would like to go on holiday for a change. I should have guessed, it was a place she had wanted to travel to for years. A place that embodied the very substance that Nikki loved with a passion. The substance she had based her career on for years, Fruits of the vine, not wine in this instance but Champagne. Nikki wanted to visit France and in particular the Champagne region of France known as Champagne-Ardenne. I cringed inwardly. Those who know me, know that I am not much of a drinker, in fact I very seldom drink when not on holiday AND out of the country and here was Nikki asking me to base an entire holiday on alcohol. On a drink that I wasn’t very fond of unless it was pink and sweet and anti-acid tablets were on hand near by. To say the least I was a touch skeptical. Anyway, Champagne it was to be…..
Our outbound Air France flight on the amazing A380 aircraft, was made even more fabulous when the flight attendant arrived at 3am with two glasses of French Champagne in beautiful glasses with chocolates from first class to wish Nikki a very happy birthday. Dry champagne at 3am is more than I can stomach and served to add to my champagne holiday fears, but I kept all my thoughts to myself. I didn’t feel so bad when Nikki couldn’t face the champagne at 3am either. We landed in France a little after 6am, We had arrived, it was raining and so began our champagne adventure.
We rented a fabulous little apartment in a town called Epernay, about an hour and a half north of Paris by train. Epernay is to champagne what Table Mountain is to Cape Town, the very beating heart of the champagne industry in France. This little town of approx 25 000 inhabitants is home to more champagne houses than I knew existed (If for one second in my life I had actually given champagne the vaguest thought in the first place). Where London has the Underground snaking around everywhere below ground, Epernay has kilometers of chalk tunnels filled with bottles of champagne busy maturing away. I am not joking when I say kilometers as Mercier had 18kms and Moet has 28kms, any idea how many bottles of bubbly that is? Mercier alone has 15 million bottles underground….did I just rock your world?
It is almost at the tip of my fingers to go all technical on you and start talking about the makings of champagne from appelation to method champenoise to first and second fermentations as well as riddling and disgorging but I would only end up looking like a complete idiot as my knowledge is incredibly basic and is only that which I gathered trundling along next to Nikki listening to her ask all the right questions. I was like a sponge soaking up knowledge about champagne every step we took and it was fascinating. To learn about the terms I have mentioned above I would suggest using http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Champagne. I have read through the information provided there and it is helpful and incredibly informative.
There is in Epernay a street called Avenue de Champagne where many of the champagne houses are represented and one can amble happily down this road from house to house paying the entrance fee and sampling the wares which is exactly what we spent an entire day doing, in the rain no less. Some of the houses, like Mercier and Moet are very slick operations where the marketing machine runs at full steam. One is able to go on guided tours of their facilities. We opted to do the Mercier tour which starts with a brief video of the history of House Mercier, followed by a lift down into the tunnels (Caves) and a train trip underground whilst listening to a hand held gadget giving you the low down in your language of choice. The tour ends with a tasting of one of the Mercier champagnes which neither Nikki nor myself particularly enjoyed. For me it was too dry and too acidic (notice that I am now able to form opinions on the subject!)
There is a fascinating difference in the manner and styles of the different champagne houses and how they handle guest walk ins and tastings. The overall decor of the tasting rooms ranges from over the top classic to home comfort to stylish elegance or in once case, no taste at all. There is a huge amount of snobbery in the industry and it is quite a treat to listen to each house extol the virtues of their product over those of the competition. One point that was made repeatedly was whether the house was using their own grapes or buying in grapes or “must” from other champagne growers. Moet et Chandon and Mercier both produce their own grapes but they also buy in to supplement their production. There are codes on the labels of champagne bottles that indicate if the house is producing their own champagne from start to finish, working as a co-op or buying product in. Fascinating stuff.
Two of the champagne houses in particular stand out in my mind, both for the quality of their product and the manner in which they dealt with us, the public.
The very first house we visited was Collard-Picard. The set up was pure class, all white and the young lady that we dealt with was passionate about her subject. Her English was excellent and she was an absolute pleasure to deal with. This was unfortunate for everyone who followed in fact, as she definitely set the standard by which we measured everyone else. The champagne was dry, crisp and delicious.
The next stop was Champagne Michel Gonet where the set up was completely different but incredibly welcoming. The lady who handled the tastings was also incredibly knowledgeable about her products and her English was decent enough for us. The tasting room was a comfortable lounge where we encountered an Australian wine farmer and his wife which added to the relaxed tasting experience and made it far more entertaining.
Ave de Champagne is a kilometer long road with many champagne houses represented along the way. Not all are open to the public, some are only open by appointment and those that are open generally close from 12h00 to 14h00 for lunch. We walked the entire length of the road, most of the time in a light drizzle. It is unfortunately impossible to taste everything, well maybe that is rather more fortunate than unfortunate, because each house gives you a full glass of each kind to taste. It is also, with the exchange rate, a very expensive exercise so we limited what and where we tasted to just a few of the houses but we took pictures of everyone we passed or popped into (just to prove we had been there of course)
The absolute highlight of the champagne adventure was a visit to a little village, home to just 200 people and RC Lemaire, an award winning bubbly of exceptional quality. A family business for generations, we were introduced to the champagne maker and his wife, a lovely couple who spoke absolutely no English but their son Sebastian gave us a really grand tour around their facility in a lovely melange of French and English. Sebastian talked us through the entire production process from the time the grapes are harvested to the very point when the champagne is ready for distribution to various parts of the world. This farm produces 120 000 bottles a year from the first press and the balance of the must from the second press is sold off to the bigger houses that don’t produce enough of their own grapes to service their massive production. They are one of the few houses that produce their own product from start to finish and have only just signed a global distribution contract with an American company to take their product to the world at large. Such a great pity we were just too late to tie them up for the African sole agency! Their Rosé is made by the traditional Champagne method of using Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier grapes and not by adding red wine, as do so many other producers, this is self evident by looking at the colour of the RC Lemaire Rosé de Saignée which is a more pink pink than a salmon pink. Have a look at the pictures below to get a better understanding of what I mean.Of all the bubbly that I tasted their rose was my absolute best personal even with it being dry! It was delicious! Whilst the family broke for lunch we trundled down to the little village restaurant and had lunch with the local workmen and whilst they had red wine with their repast we finished off the bottle of bubbly that Sebastian had very kindly given us. We finished off the tour by spending as much money as possible in the little boutique. Unfortunately we didn’t purchase any champagne as we still had two international flights to go and we couldn’t be carrying the bottles on the planes!
We took a taxi back to our apartment and finished off the last day of our champagne adventure with whatever scraps there were in the fridge, two bottles of champagne and 12 delicious incredibly brightly coloured macarons; An adventure to remember
Please bear in mind when you read this post that I am an absolute amateur when it comes to champagne and all the information contained above has been dredged from my memories of the holiday and I had been drinking………..a whole bunch of the time, so there may well be some factual discrepancies. Please try not to hold these against me too much
Love ‘n Lollipops