“What did Dom Perignon say to fellow monks after he invented champagne? … Come quickly, I am tasting the stars.”
― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
This weekend we’re going to be heading back up to Bordeaux—this time to explore the Saint-Émilion region. Thinking about the tastings we have planned, I began reminiscing to a visit we made to another wine region in early June—this one for the bubbly stuff.
We booked a day trip to Champagne through Paris Champagne Tour. When we were planning our trip to Paris, this was one of my must-dos—I had to go and visit the vineyards and taste champagne direct from the source. It just sounded so, well, romantic! (I know, I know—everything with me is all about the romance).
Our morning started very early—even earlier than the bakeries and coffee shops were opening, which had me grumbling a bit about my impending caffeine-withdraw headache.
Fortunately we were supposed to be served coffee and breakfast on the trip. Unfortunately we still had two people to pick up before we could really get on the road. And then we had to weave through Paris morning traffic until we got on the highway. Still no sign of that coffee. I’ve been up for at least two hours at this point without coffee. I’m starting to sweat. I’m starting to sink into my un-caffeinated dark hole of grouchiness. I’m trying to make sure no one notices.
Our sweet host, Muriel, who made me feel like we were being driven around by mom, chirps along cheerily telling us about our day. It sounds lovely. Now please pass the coffee.
After what seemed like at least three hours (but in reality may have been more like 30-45 minutes), breakfast service begins! We are passed orange juice boxes, bags of fresh croissants and pain au chocolate and, the piece de resistance, a big thermos of steaming, hot coffee! I eagerly down two cups of the black stuff (they were small cups!) and nosh on some baked goodies and slowly become human once again. Life. Is. Good.
Feeling much more cheerful, I engage in conversation with Matt and our fellow passengers. It is a really small group today—only four of us on the tour! That’s practically a private tour.
Our tour mates turned out to be very friendly and a lot of fun. One was a student living in Paris and her mother was with her on a visit from the U.S. We had a delightful chat as we drove through fields that soon became vineyards and, before we knew it, we were pulling off in front of a vineyard marked for Veuve Clicquot (side note, “Veuve” means “widow” in French–so the wine is named for Widow Clicquot)! These are the very grapes that will go into someone’s bottle of Champagne!
Our guide allowed us to get out of the car and explained how the terroir (soil, climate, etc.) impacts the growing of the grapes (and, ultimately, the taste of the Champagne), the regulations for growing the vines and why there are rose bushes in front of the rows of vines (a tradition that dates back to using the bushes to monitor for fungus on the vines).
We had an opportunity to get up close and personal with the grapes (look, but don’t touch!), which to me was as good as one-on-one time with a celebrity.
After admiring the vineyards, we made our way to the nearby village of Verzenay which houses gathering and pressing facilities for many of the major champagne producers—and cellars for a handful of smaller growers, including Jean-Claude Mouzon.
The village is surrounded on almost every side with vineyards—about 420 hectares of them operated by about 250 growers. The south is marked by the forest of the Montagne de Reims (pronounced “Rance”). Interestingly, though it is not on water, Verzenay boasts its own lighthouse which is now the Musée de la Vigne.
Jean-Claud Mouzon was our next stop. It has been a family-owned business for four generations and Frederique, one of the owners, gave us a tour and tasting while her husband and father did work for the winery right outside.
We first walked into a room that appeared to have been a garage transformed into a holding room for boxes of the finished bubbly stuff. It was simple, but beautiful in the sense of an artist surrounded by his or her own paintings in a workshop.
The cellar was small and wall-to-wall with bottles of fermenting wine. To get to it we descended a very narrow, metal staircase.
In one corner sat an elevated barrel with one side cut out of it where they still hand-disgorge the sediment for their reserve Champagnes (basically popping the cap with a wooden mallet and shooting the lees at the back of the barrel without spilling the rest of the bottle).
The production facility may have been modest, but the champagnes were absolutely delicious (and inexpensive by U.S. standards for a true bottle of champagne). We tasted the Brut Tradition (a blend of 70% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay and 5% Pinot Meunier), the Grand Cru (70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay) and the Cuvée Fleurie (100% Chardonnay). The owner even went and found a bottle of the Brut Integral Grand Cru, of which they only produce about 1,000 bottles—each one numbered and secured with a traditional hemp twine and wax cap. So it’s a rare treat to get to taste something that limited and special.
We couldn’t help ourselves (especially since we are suckers for craft alcohol producers) and loaded up on bottles of the bubbly stuff (and a small bottle of hand cream made from wine grapes!) and then piled back to the van to ride to Reims.
Reims was about 17 km from Verzenay and as we drove Muriel talked about the history of Reims and the Cathedral of Reims (Notre-Dame de Reims), which played a prominent ceremonial role in French royal history. It was the traditional crowning site of the kings of France, including Charles VII who was crowned with Joan of Arc looking on.
We would soon visit the Cathedral, but first we were able to enjoy a delicious, three-course lunch of brie sliders, oxtail on creamy polenta and a molten chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream. It was every bit as delicious as it looks. Of course, we washed it all down with a glass of wine.
Lunch finished, we strolled around the old town of Reims a bit while our guide pointed out interesting sites, including the more than 800-year-old Cathedral of Reims (which we had an opportunity to tour). The Cathedral was severely damaged during WWI and had to be restored. One of the key donors was, guess who? John D. Rockefeller! It was quite surprising and nice to hear such a familiar American tie to this important relic of history.
Next up was our tour of the house of Champagne Pommery. This was a fascinating tour and such a contrast in size to the smaller facility we visited just hours before.
The Pommery facilities, from the outside, are reminiscent of a fairy-tale castle, framed with towering turrets and protected by a wrought iron fence with the name “Pommery” emblazoned on it in gold.
The house was founded in 1858 by Alexandre Louis Pommery primarily for wool trading, but after Alexander’s death in 1860, the widow Jeanne Pommery took full control of the business and shaped it into the Champagne house it is today. She bought 120 limestone and chalk pits that had been carved underneath the city of Reims by Roman soldiers during their occupation during the BCs! This allowed her to store and age over twenty million bottles in a temperature-controlled environment. Apparently everyone thought she was on to something because many of the other Champagne houses in the city followed suit with their cellars.
We were able to descend the many steps and tour the cellars which are simultaneously beautiful and creepy. There was an art exhibition in place while we visited and one of the displays piped in the sound of wind, making the cellars feel even more haunted.
The amazement of the sheer number and age of bottles quickly overtook any chills produced by the music and soon we were gawking at aisle after aisle of aging Champagne with bottles as old as the 1800’s.
After wandering the cool, dark cellars for a while we were given the opportunity to return to the light and sample the Champagne Pommery Brute Royal, which was delightfully crisp and refreshing after our hike through the chalk cellars. The champagne here was a bit more expensive, but, of course, we still picked up a bottle to drink at home. When in Champagne…!
That was the end of our day and sadly it was time to go home. I think all four of us (and luckily not our driver) fell asleep on the way back. We were returned to our apartment and, if the day hadn’t been magical enough, our sweet host kindly pulled out a box of Biscuits Roses De Reims, little pink cookies that are a tradition in that region. I’d been eyeing them, but didn’t have a chance to swing into a store to pick any up, so it was as if Muriel read our mind!
Our trip to Champagne was truly one of our favorite excursions during our time in Paris and it certainly set the bar high for any future wine excursions we take. I’ll raise a glass to that!