Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Lover of the bubble: Champagne in Champagne

Top 10 things to do in Champagne
  1. Drink champagne (goes without saying)
  2. Eat cheese
  3. Stroll the Avenue de Champagne, and stop as often as possible along the way
  4. Eat cheese
  5. Frolic through the vineyards
  6. Drink champagne
  7. Stop into a large, wellknown winemaker knowing full well you can't afford their wines
  8. Have a picnic in the park, complete with champagne and cheese
  9. Visit a small winemaker and become an expert in the champagne making process
  10. Drink champagne

It was decided that for our birthdays, Nicole, Cory and I wanted to go away. I put a spanner in the works as I had already planned my Summer of Fun, so we had to wait until I returned. Apparently there was a conversation last year, that I may or may not have been privvy to, of going to France and drinking a specific kind of wine in a very famous region. Either way, July rolled around and we set off to the Champagne region of France for a weekend of deliciousness.

I should point out here that I really, really, really like bubbly wine. I always had my "glass of champers" in hand (although it was highly unlikely to be true champagne) and it truly is my poison of choice.

Let the good times commence.

3 July
After our plane was delayed by a number of hours, we landed in Paris long after the shuttles to our airport hotel had ended. As we were checking into our room, I couldn't help but notice the concierge boy's face as he saw Cory arrive to share a room with two girls. The expression was clearly "Go son!" and we laughed our way to the room. On the morrow, we would be heading back to the airport to jump on the train out to Reims, one of the bigger towns in Champagne.

4 July
After a surprisingly good Starbucks coffee and some free croissants, our bellies were full and our caffiene levels high for our train to Reims. Cory had everything under control as per usual and led us to where we would be staying. We had to wait in the hot sun for some time but eventually the owner arrived and let us into the apartment that would be home for the next few nights.

The apartment was grand - three bedrooms, lovely kitchen and open living space and we discovered we were able to get out onto the roof. Once we got ourselves organised, we hit the streets for the first of many wine tastings.

G.H. Mumms
Our first port of call was the Mumms cellar door. We hadn't been able to pre-book, so we rocked up and thankfully we were able to get a place. After a short wait (and a hundred selfies later), our tour started.

Our guide, a lovely French lady whose accent was ever-so-slightly too thick (rendering her largely un-understandable), led us down, down, down into the cellars after we watched a short movie. The cellars were cold and a welcome relief to the hot summer temperature outside.

Here we learnt that bubbly wine from this region is made up of three varieties of grapes:
  • pinot noir (a red grape with white juice)
  • pinot meunier (another red grape with white juice)
  • chardonnay (a white grape)
The wines themselves are then a combination of the varieties, with varying quantities and growing conditions lending the different flavours to the wine.

As the guide was reasonably difficult to understand, Cory, Nicole and I found ourselves lagging behind and taking many an artful photograph of the cellars. Row after row after row of bottles lined the walls, stacked on racks which are turned 180 degrees in the morning, and then back 180 degrees in the evening. Why? This prevents the sediment from sticking and is either a manual process (one bottle in each hand) or a less manual process (a hundred bottles on a rack that can be turned simultaneously).

Soon, it was time for the wine tasting. We crowded close, watching as the glasses were expertly filled and the bubbles frothed forth. We took our glass of wine and...spent the next 5 minutes selfying with it...before our first sip. 

Our first sip of champagne in Champagne! And it was glorious.

We had wanted to have a picnic in the park with wine and cheese this evening, but the weather took a turn for the particularly soggy and so we went to a local store, bought some [cheap] bubbly, an insane quantity of cheese and other snackables and had an evening in. We each chose a bottle of bubbles and we polished them - and all of the cheese - off. Nicole made a delicious baked camembert as well as a french pear creation, the name of which escapes me but the flavour sensation hasn't! We had a reasonably early night because in the morning, we were going to head to Epernay.

5 July.
We had one rule.
We were only allowed to consume three kinds of beverages while we were away.

After breakfast at the station we made our way to Epernay, another village that makes up part of Champagne. The day was quite grey, but continued to be hot. Cory lamented that all of his holidays have been grey, and where is the blue sky?

We wanted to explore Epernay by bike, but after wasting what was probably close to an hour at the tourist centre trying to organise a bike, we gave up and decided to walk. The main stretch of Epernay is the Avenue de Champagne, home to some of the biggest champagne producers cellar doors.

Moët and Chandon
Pol Roger

To name a few. Also many boutique wine makers and as many people know, I believe the real heart of the wine industry is in the small craftsman; those that make it with love.

As we approached Moët and Chandon, we could see there was a small commotion. What is this..a Ferrari convention? Stupid us, for forgetting our Ferrari! Red Ferraris, black Ferraris, Ferraris with Italian flag racing stripes; about 15 in total. And many poor tourists such as ourselves gawking and taking photos. We mustered our courage and went inside, but unfortunately Moët and Chandon was under construction and wasn't conducting tours or tastings. We wandered through the shop for a while and continued on down the street.

A. Bergère
We found a small cellar door that suited our tastes and chose one of each of the bubbles. A standard bubbles, a no-added-sugar bubbles, and a pink bubbles. After approximately 10 minutes taking artfully framed photographs of the flutes, it was time to finally drink the deliciousness. A sip of each, passed it around, and from there we decided which was each our favourite.

I'd like to take a small pause and say that I adore travelling with these two. We have the same travel style and one of my favourite aspects is that, in any given situation, we all instinctively know that we will take photographs of whatever it is, and not to jump in/eat/drink/move until we have all snapped our fill. It's hilarious and it would look ridiculous to anyone watching us. But I love it. And them!

Back to the bubbles.

We stayed here for a short while, basking in the warm Frenchness and yumminess of our first champagne for the day - all before lunch, no less. After a little while we continued on down the avenue until we reached Mercier. We frolicked in the vineyards before deciding that their champagnes were a bit too expensive, so returned to one we had seen earlier.

Michel Bonet
It boasted 20 for 3 glasses, including paired cheese. The cellar door had a gorgeous courtyard and so we made ourselves comfortable under an umbrella. Our wines and cheese were staggered, and each were paired to perfection. Our host explained the flavours and grapes present in the wine and the cheese, which was presented on a slice of crusty white bread. We felt very fancy.

A little while (and a smashed glass) later, with bubbles in our heads we were ready to depart. Nicole wanted to see the view from a high point, and so we started to trek up and up the hill until we reached scrolling vineyards at the top. We dispersed to take various photos and selfies, before coming together to make our way down again (by going up the steepest hill yet). It was time to leave Epernay so, after one last wine tasting experience, we caught one of the last trains back to Reims. 

We ended the day with dinner on the main street, where I had snails for entrée and a salmon and foie gras salad for mains. I felt bad, but it was rather delicious…

6 July
Our final day in the gorgeous Champagne region, and we were checked out of the apartment early to depart for a wine tasting tour. We were picked up and, with a small minivan group, were taken to the Hauteville, literally meaning 'high' or hill town. It provided a glorious view of Epernay and the vineyards to the horizon. 

We visited two winemakers and each grew Dom Perignon grapes. However, due to copyright reasons, they are unable to label themselves as such, and so have their own brands. Basically, we spent the day drinking Dom Perignon. 

Fernand Lemaire
The first cellar was situated high on a hill with the most glorious view out over the valley, and we were shown through their cellar and wine making procedure. It was similar to Mumms, but on a much smaller scale. These wines are only sold in France and out of the cellar door. Here we learnt (as we could understand our guide) all about:
  • brut = dry; the amount of sweetness (additional sugar) that has been added to the wine. If a wine says "brut" either no or a very small amount of sugar has been added. Cheap, awful wines don't say "brut" and they are super sweet, to compensate for the fact that it's not a very good wine.
  • cuvee - the first or best press of the juice
  • cru - the vineyard quality

After we were shown through their cellars, we were taken across the road and seated at a table with a lovely view. We were presented with three delicious brut champagnes, which we tasted and ahhed over which one we preferred. The last of the rosé made its rounds, and my glass was topped up with the final few drops.

"Are you married?" the lady suddenly asked me.
Confused, I looked to Cory and Nicole, not sure if she was asking if I was married to them.
"Um, no?"
"Ok! You finished off the bottle, that means that you will be married by the end of the year."

Uprorious laughter as we all know I am the least likely person to end up in that situation, but nevertheless we sante'd to my impending nuptials.

J.M. Gobillard
Our next winemaker was a short drive away and another using Dom Perignon grapes. I lost track of how many wines we tasted here; they were particularly generous and I think we polished off a couple of bottles in our "tasting" (which by now was all just oh my god, how much do I love champagne).

"Who wants to sabre the bottle open?" our guide asked, and Cory volunteered. This is an old fashioned and particularly cool way of opening the bottle where by one strikes the end with a knife and the force and pressure of which forces the cork to explode forth in a rather dramatic fashion. Cory did an excellent job and got to keep the bottle top, complete with cork and ring of glass. Opened in this way, we just had to finish the bottle which we were all so disappointed about.

I'm not sure how many wines we tasted here, but I got my bubbly on, it was delicious, I cheersed Dom Perignon with my lovely London family, the sun shone happily and life was grand.

Following this wine maker, we made a quick stop into a church just across the road, to see where the grandfather of champagne was buried, Dom Perignon himself. 

It was time for the tour to be over, and we all hopped back into the van. Our guide reached into her bag and began handing something to each of the groups, and then came to us. She passed us a full bottle and a half bottle as a gift, and they had been personally labelled by the last wine maker. We were extremely thankful and very excited at the bottle and a half of delicious champagne we had been given - but we realised that none of us had checked luggage and we couldn't bring it back to London.

So what do you do when you have 2 bottles of bubbly and no way to take it home? Why, you have a picnic, of course!

After we were deposited back in Reims, we bought a wide range of cheeses, multiple baguettes, plastic plates and champagne flutes and found a gorgeous leafy park to picnic in. Complete with Nicole's champagne jam bought, we had the finest feast. Nicole, unfortunately, discovered that a slightly shaken bubbly bottle has the tendency to explode and was hit rather dramatically in the forehead with a rogue cork. Aside from that one mishap, (oh and me snapping our one and only knife), we ate cheese until we looked like it, trying different combinations of all four and sipping on our wine until we grew sleepy in the midday sun.

Sadly, it was now time to go.

Nicole went for a journey of epic proportions to find a bathroom, I ate a chocolate gelato that I am quite sure was either off or completely spiked with chilli (needless to say, I threw it in the bin - it must have been bad for me to throw it away) and we made our way back to the train station; back to Paris; back to London.


Another biggest of thank yous to the most amazing travelling buddies for organising this lovely weekend away.

I had always loved champagne or prosecco, or whatever cheap bubbly wine I could get my hands on, and this trip re-inspired my heart. The champagne of Champagne is delicious, fresh and happy making, and I cannot recommend enough if you are a lover of the bubble to make your way there to drink in the glorious sunshine.



The end.