Champagne: The Region and The Bubbles

I’m not going to lie, I was really looking forward to our champagne day. Not only did it seem like that the whole experience was going to be a little less fraught what with the tours being in English and all, and the fact that it seemed like they wanted us to be there, but also because I was going to be drinking champagne at the end of it, and what’s not to love about that?

I’ve developed a taste for champagne over the last few years, a somewhat dangerous and expensive habit, but one I am probably prepared to entertain! So this really seemed like it was going to be the perfect day.

Before we could start drinking the golden bubbles we had to get there, and then meant driving over 3 hours north, past Paris, our ultimate destination for the evening, and up to Champagne. The area is truly stunning, rolling hills with vines as far as you can see. Small villages and ornate churches complete the landscape and make it truly beautiful.

Officially we all know that only the sparkling wine produced in Champagne can be called ‘champagne’ but what does that actually mean? Well, it means that the grapes and production techniques comply with the rules set down by the AOC. You can see more about the process here. But usually, and most importantly, it means that you know that you are in for something pretty good when you get the bubbles from Reims or Épernay. Both of which were on our list of places to stop! What a coincidence!!

So after 3 hours in the car, and a lengthy history of Jeanne D’Arc and Richard III thanks to Rachel’s seemingly limitless data plan and commitment to the Wikipedia articles, we were both more than ready for some wine. Our first visit was to Moët & Chandon, established in 1743 it is one of the oldest champagne houses and is composed of over 28km of caves. It gained prominence in the 19th century becoming one of Napoleon’s favorite tipples. Moët & Chandon also produces Dom Pérignon, named in honor of the Benedictine monk often credited (erroneously) with inventing champagne. This however is their vintage offering, meaning that it is only produced in good years, using exclusively grapes from that year, consequently it is incredibly expensive. Unfortunately, we were not sampling the Dom.

The tour itself was interesting, though I must say we didn’t learn anything that we hadn’t known already, this was our 3rd sparkling wine tour of the trip and I was convinced that you could drop me in any stage of the process, at any point in the last 300 years, and I would know what to do (no one would call me overconfident!) But then came the point that we had all been waiting for, the tasting. We tried the Moët Impérial, the House’s signature offering, it’s a light straw colour in appearance and has an incredible smell of citrus and green apple, there are hints of white flowers and apparently a little brioche, though it must be a real little bit because I didn’t quite pick up on it. On the palate the citrus is not as strong as on the nose, and the white fruit really comes through, I got a lot of white and yellow peach, with touches of apple and pear. The citrus notes are still there, tempered a little by the fruit and the bubbles are extremely delicate. All in all it was a very smooth and complex glass of wine.

Leaving Moët without drinking a bottle was tricky, made ever so slightly easier by the fact that all the bottles on offer were massively out of my price range. So we moved on to Reims, and our scheduled visit to Veuve Clicquot. I’m going to admit it, this was the part that I was looking forward to the most, a few trips around Reims trying to get off the road and into the tasting room and we were there.

The tour here was very similar to the ones we had had previously, but I enjoyed it more, maybe because of the tour guide, maybe because Veuve Clicquot has a pretty amazing history. There is a book all about it, which will almost certainly feature in a post soon, but suffice to say that it is a great company started by a woman at a time when that just wasn’t the done thing. So really I’m saying that you have to like this place, or at least I did! We learnt all about the double fermentation, the riddling racks and the aging process again, before we were finally allowed to try the produce. And it wasn’t just any bottle that we were trying, it was a glass of the Grande Dame 2004, a pretty nice bottle indeed.

The colour was a light gold and the bubbles were incredibly small, the nose was mineraly with white peach and a touch of tea (and you really can’t get better than a wine that smells like tea) but the overwhelming scent was the minerals from the soil, and that it what hits you first when you taste it. But mixed in with that is a delicate balance of sweet apricot and honey. There is no domineering flavour that overpowers the others and the wine itself is incredibly smooth. If I had to identify my ‘happy drink’, it would be extremely hard not to pick one from this cellar.

After that one glass we had to get back on the road, owing to a slight miscalculation instead of the 45 minutes back to Paris it was going to be closer to 2 hours and as soon as I could be done with the car, and the tolls, and the French drivers the happier I would be. Not to mention the fact that I had promised myself some more champagne for navigating the streets of Paris to leave the rental car at Gare du Nord (the central location seemed like a good idea when we picked the car up early on a Saturday morning, not so much when we were dropping it off at rush hour on a Thursday!) But we made it, and I’m hard pressed to pick a more perfect end to our wine tour, than 4 hours spent in champagne caves, so Santé to that!