The first time I visited France, I was a college kid. I was twenty, and I had no experience with wine whatsoever. In fact, I had almost no experience with alcohol – I’d tried a beer when I was in London, thought it was disgusting and decided that drinking alcohol back in the States was not worth risking a MIP, the loss of my college scholarships, and the inevitable wrath of my mom. When we arrived in Strasbourg for our study abroad, though, our hosts told us that we had to try the wine – apparently we would be insulting the entire country of France if we didn’t. I gingerly picked up a glass of white, sipped, made a face… and stuck to water for the rest of the evening.
Clearly my attitude towards wine has done a complete 180 – Richie and I got engaged in 2009 after tasting wines in Napa Valley, and we just returned from a trip to three of the wine regions of France – Champagne, Burgundy (Bourgogne) and Bordeaux. At this point in our travels, we’re honestly a little bit weary of sightseeing (churches and museums and artifacts, oh my) so it was wonderful to have a whole trip dedicated to nothing more than tasting wines, eating delicious food and enjoying the French countryside.
The best way to travel through French wine country is by car – we researched train options, but ultimately trains wouldn’t give us the flexibility we wanted to visit wineries on our own – so we flew into Paris, picked up a rental car, and headed out to the Champagne region. The drive was made more complicated by the fact that our GPS was stuck in Hungarian. (Who else would pick up a Hungarian GPS in France!?) We arrived in Reims, one of the two main cities in Champagne, in the late afternoon after most of the producers closed their cellars for the day, so we started off with a delicious glass of Champagne on a patio in the sunshine, and a tour of the Notre Dame of Reims.
That night, we had our “anniversary dinner” a few weeks early (since Richie would be in Singapore for work on our actual anniversary) at Le Jardin, a wonderful little brasserie in the gardens of a five-star hotel. I cannot recommend this place enough – fantastic service, delicious food, and a beautiful location.
The next day, we toured Vranken Pommery. One of the things I loved best about our time in Champagne was learning about the influential women of the region. The Pommery estate began producing champagne in 1857 – but Alexandre Pommery, the founder of the company, died just one year later, leaving behind a wife and child. Undaunted, his wife Louise Pommery took control of the company and transformed it from a small operation to a vast empire. Along the way, she instituted the first pension system in France for her employees and used her fortunes in a number of ways to help the city. She was a pretty impressive lady.
Our tour started in the vineyards, where the guides gave a quick overview of the history of the estate and the types of grapes used in Champagne production (chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier).
In the photo above, you can see a small brown vial hanging from the trellis near the vines. Our guides explained that they try to use natural methods of controlling pests wherever possible – so these vials contain super-concentrated female butterfly hormones. Males are overwhelmed by the amount of female hormones and get confused, so they flee the area, and females, sensing too much competition, stay away as well.
Another Madame Pommery innovation was the purchase of crayeres (chalk mines), dug underneath the city during the Roman times, for aging and storing her champagne. These crayeres have a constant (cool) temperature and humidity. After she began using them for this purpose, a number of other producers in Reims followed, and today most of the cellars in Reims are based in these chalk mines.
Champagne is made much the same way as regular wine, with one exception – after the wine is bottled, there is a fermentation process in the bottle, which causes the bubbles. So, while ordinary wine is fermented in barrels, champagne is blended, bottled, and aged in the bottles for several months. Each section of bottles has a label – the top part (1B58 in the photo below) is the “secret code” used by the company to identify the specific blend of the wine, and the bottom part (298 salmas) indicates how many bottles should be in the section.
Pommery also has a small section of the caves devoted to storing extremely old vintages of their champagne – they have, among other things, 1 bottle left of champagne from 1874.
We emerged from the cellars ready for the best part of the tour… the tasting!
Reims in general shuts down on Sundays, so after our lengthy tour, we took a stroll through the Sunday flea market, had a quick dinner at one of the many sidewalk cafés a few blocks from our hotel and called it a day.
The next morning, we toured the Mumm winery. We were the only two people booked on a tour that morning, so we got the VIP treatment! Our tour was very similar to that at Pommery, so I won’t bore you with those details. The highlight of that tour was definitely the tasting (I preferred Mumm’s champagne over Pommery’s), where our guide taught Richie the essentials in opening a bottle of champagne with a knife. We didn’t get to test it out there (sabering a bottle of Champagne inside a small tasting room is a bit risky) but rest assured that Richie tried it out (and succeeded!) once we got home.
Our last stop in Reims was the Porte Mars (Mars Gate), a triumphal arch from the Roman times (3rd century AD). This gate is the only remnant of Roman architecture in the city (other than the chalk mines, I suppose) and is in fairly good condition, given how badly Reims was damaged during WWII.
That afternoon, we drove about 30 minutes away to Epernay, the other main city in the Champagne region. Epernay and Reims feel totally different – the major champagne producers in Reims have their vineyards on the edges of the city, with production, aging, tours and tastings all taking place on the estate. In Epernay, however, there is an Avenue de Champagne, where many of the producers in Epernay have a house for tastings. In the case of some of the major champagne houses (Moët, de Castellane, Mercier), this “house” is massive, with production, bottling, aging and tastings/tours located on site, even though their vineyards may be spread throughout the countryside. For the smaller companies, though, the residence on the Avenue de Champagne simply houses a small tasting venue. One place that we visited said that it’s more for marketing purposes than anything else – you’ll have far more visitors tasting your wine if you have an address on the Avenue de Champagne than if you require potential tasters to drive to your vineyards outside of town.
We started our afternoon with a tour of Moët (really, you can’t come all the way to the Champagne region and not visit the most famous of names, right?!)
This tour was again pretty similar to the previous ones we’d done – although this one had the added benefit of having once hosted Napoleon.
At the end of our tour, we had a tasting – surprisingly, Moët champagne was my least favorite of all the ones we’d tasted thus far. Perhaps that was because they didn’t break out the good stuff for us.
Afterwards, we took a stroll down the Avenue de Champagne and stopped in at a handful of houses that offered tastings.
That evening, we had dinner at a little restaurant recommended by the owner of our B&B. It was truly a local’s place – the menu was only in French, and our waitress spoke very limited English, so it was a true test of my French reading skills. I passed the test, though – everything we ordered arrived as expected, and the food was incredibly good.
The next day, we had a few tastings scheduled in smaller villages in the region. The first was a place called Larmandier-Bernier, a husband-and-wife team that operate a truly natural winery, with traditional methods and no pesticides. We found this winery because of Wine Enthusiast’s list of top 100 Cellar Selections for 2013, and they definitely lived up to the hype. It was by far my favorite champagne on the trip. We were able to taste 3 different champagnes, including one that was a brut nature (no sugar added).
Our last stop in the region was at the Francis Orbán chateau. We learned of this winery from fellow expats in Budapest – Viktor Orbán is the current prime minister of Hungary, and so when they were given a bottle of Orbán champagne, they thought it was hilarious. They did a little research and learned that the family of Francis Orbán, although not related to the prime minister, is actually Hungarian. They moved to France in the 1700s and have been producing champagnes since the late 1920s.
Our visit there was completely different from our other tours – this is a small family operation, and it shows. While we were tasting, there were two men placing labels on the bottles by hand. The owner, Francis Orbán himself, showed us the stainless steel vats and the cellar where the bottles age, and he drank a glass of champagne with us. It was a fun way to end the Champagne section of our trip!
From here, we drove to Beaune in the Burgundy region… but that’s for another post.
If you plan to travel to the Champagne region, I highly, HIGHLY recommend our B&B in Epernay, Les Epicureans. We stayed in the “Noble Equestrian Suite” and absolutely loved it. Our hostess, Laure, welcomed us with glasses of champagne and tasty biscuits that she had baked that afternoon, and she was full of helpful recommendations for dining. The price was incredibly reasonable given the amenities, location, and the service.