Well, cross one more wine region off the ol' travel list. (Tis a goal of mine to visit them all before I perish. Or before my liver perishes. Whichever cometh first.) I am...how do you say...a very big fan of champagne. And sparkling wine and cava and prosecco and sekt for that matter. A wine snob, I am not. If it be havin' the bubbles, I be drinkin' it. That's my motto.
So I guess you could say I was pretty excited for this trip. This trip to the birthplace of champagne. And do you know what's particularly fabulous about living in Belgium? You can drive there, door-to-door in less than three hours. No getting raped by airport security. No queueing up to be herded like cattle into a germ-ridden tin can with wings. It's all just a leisurely motorway drive away.
We arrived Friday evening and checked into the very lovely Villa Eugene (which, coincidentally, was previously a family residence of the Mercier family - champagne royalty here in the town of Epernay). And Jason, being the rock-star that he is, had called ahead earlier in the day and ordered some of the fizzy stuff to be chilling in our room.
We woke up Saturday morning and set out for Reims, the region's largest city, and home to several big champagne houses.
Like G.H. Mumm, for instance...
Let's get this thang crack-a-lackin, shall we?
Now, I actually learned this fact on our visit to Schramsberg during our trip to Napa and Sonoma over the summer but didn't mention it on that post. Maybe because I was still drunk when I wrote it? I dunno...
Anyway, all sparkling wines must go through a process called riddling. Riddling is done by a riddler. (Try to keep up kids.) Historically, all bottles were hand-riddled. By the riddler. Today, much of it is done by machines. Called riddling machines. But most of the nicer houses still have some of their bottles hand-riddled. By a riddler.
Riddling is basically turning each bottle an eighth to a quarter turn every day for two weeks (and simultaneously tilting them at increasingly steeper angles). This is what allows the sediment to gather in one place and collect in the neck of the bottle for easy removal. A skilled riddler can riddle up to (and in very few cases - more than) 50,000 bottles per day.
And one last fact, learned on this trip: Madame Cliquot (yes, of the infamous Veuve variety) herself is credited with inventing the whole process of riddling.
And these, dear students, are the riddling racks upon which riddlers do their riddling. Don't let these few fool you. In most of the caves we visited, there were loads and loads of racks. Long long hallways lined with them.
And finally, the best part of any wine tour...the tasting. Depsite the fact that it was not even 11:00 am, we went for the three-glass option. I mean, that was the only way to taste the good stuff. The vintage Grand Cru! What would you have done?!? We had no choice!! No choice, I tell you!!!
We sought out Cafe du Palais for lunch as it had been featured rather prominently on the Champagne episode of Three Sheets. (I can't recall whether I've mentioned this before, but if you aren't familiar with this show and you like arm-chair travel and you like drinking, WATCH IT. It's hilarious and informative and interesting and culturally enriching and did I mention hilarious? Back me up Suze.)
The tour at Veuve Clicquot was fantastic. Their chalk caves are unreal. They were actually dug by the Romans. You know, in Roman times - which is to say A REAL LONG LONG TIME AGO. They mined the chalk for use in building churches and such. Well, the French happened to find out that these chalk caves are ideal for holding champagne because of their year-round chilly temp. And our guide was too cute for words. You could tell she had a real passion for champagne. This amazing "sculpture" is carved into the wall of the caves. That's chalk!
Another thing I learned on this trip: some bottles of champagne are vintages and some are not. (I had never noticed.) If a bottle's label has a year on it, it's made with grapes from only that year's harvest and is classified as a vintage. If a label has no year, it's a blend of different wines from any number of years. It's one of the cellar master's jobs to create the blends. So, bottom line, you only get vintages when there is a particularly good crop.
This is Veuve's stairway of vintages. Or stairway to heaven as I am apt to call it.
I don't want to go! I'll miss you. I'll never forget you. You complete me. But alas, there is more champagne to taste...
We didn't do the tour here since we were both getting a little worn out. But we can pretty much always squeeze in a tasting.
And after that, we headed back to our hotel in Epernay
Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny and crisp - a perfect fall day. Which was good, because we were hoofing it today. In Reims, you pretty much have to drive from house to house. But in Epernay, most everything is located right on one street (which you will see the name of a bit later) - and very pedestrian friendly. In fact, our hotel was right on this very street (which you will see the name of a bit later). Très convenient, non?
Epernay is precious. We stopped at a market and picked up a little take-away box of some little fried potato thingies to munch on during our walk around town. They were cooking them right there on the street and I have no willpower. Basically potatoes + frying = smell I can't resist. A couple of photos from our promenade à la pommes de terre:
And finally, (a bit later) it is time to begin the Avenue de Champagne marathon! (When I was looking for a hotel for this trip, I barely even checked to see how nice Villa Eugene was. Really, they had me at Address: 82 Avenue de Champagne.)
Starting with Mercier... Mercier was one of my favorite tours because the house came of age in the Belle Époque period and their style really captures that. What's not to love about the Belle Époque? Champagne-making techniques were perfected in this era. Parisian haute couture was born in this era. The cabarets and bohemian lifestyle depicted in the film Moulin Rouge flowered in this era. And as we all know, these are a few of my fav-o-rite things....
I love Mercier's old delivery truck. It still runs! In fact, they drive it a couple hundred yards up the street at the end of each day to park it in a gated lot across the street from our hotel. One morning from our room window, we watched them start it up and get going. It was a rather lengthy process to get that thing warmed up enough to drive it.
Though it was a bit Disney World-ish, I admit it was kind of nice to get off our feet and ride a little tram on the tour through the chalk caves. (Who am I kidding? I love a good tram ride. I jumped up and down and squealed a little when I saw the tram.)
There is a rather interesting little story about this gargantuan barrel. Eugene (as in the Villa of the same name) Mercier had this 20 tonne oak barrel pulled by twenty-four oxen all the way to Paris for the 1889 World's Fair. The journey took eight days. It took sixteen years to build and would hold the equivalent of 200,000 bottles of champagne.
To give you a hint of how impressive this thing is in person, it took the second place exhibition prize at the World's Fair. First place? A little monument you may have heard of called the Eiffel Tower.
...we had plenty of time for a tasting. (Don't worry. We shared those four glasses.) (They're not even real-sized glasses.) (I don't care what you say. I don't have a problem.) (Get off my back okay! I can stop any time I want to!)
Of course, poor Jason got stuck lugging our purchase around. We bought three bottles at Mercier too but since it was so close to our hotel, we were able to drop them off before continuing La Tour de Bubbles. But we were kind of pressed to make it to one last house so no time for that.
I give you......Moët & Chandon. And let's get something straight right now. It's pronounced Moe-ette, not Moe-ay. See those two little dots above the e? That means you pronounce the t. Say Moe-ay around these parts and somebody is liable to backhand you.
The godfather of champagne, my brother in bubbles, the accidental inventor of the nectar of life - Dom Perignon. A Benedictine monk from the Abbey of Hautvillers, he was the first to taste the sparking stuff when he was testing the bottles of wine and found some had stopped fermentation due to cold weather setting in and resumed fermentation later when it got warmer. The sugary residue left behind when the original fermentation stopped then allowed the CO2 to appear when fermentation kicked back in.
He is reported to have said "Come quickly! I am tasting stars!" Right on.
The only house that I really really wanted to visit but couldn't was Perrier-Jouët. The design of their signature bottles enthralls me. It's such an interesting story too... (per thewinedoctor.com) It was designed in the mid 1960's, inspired by the discovery of a decorated bottle, dating from 1902, found gathering dust in a cupboard. The bottle bore a motif of anemones by the glassmaker Emile Gallé. A previous owner of Perrier-Jouët had apparently commissioned it as a symbol of the Belle Epoque era. Today Gallé is renowned for the high quality of his glasswork, and is regarded as instrumental in the art nouveau movement in France.
On Monday morning we opted for another country drive en route back to Reims, where we had our final tour and tasting scheduled for the afternoon. Just follow the Route de Champagne. It's kind of like the yellow brick road, but way better. Less witches, more champagne.
When we passed through Ambonnay, we saw it was one of the few Grand Cru villages in the region (there's only 17) so we figured there was no better place to stop off for a tasting.
Turns out I chose well. Very well. This was some might tasty champagne. And it was only about 17 euro a bottle!!! Wha??? So we bought five of the one we tasted and one of their slightly higher priced vintage. Score!
Then, sadly it was time for our last hoo-rah. But Ruinart was a great way to cap off the trip. It's the oldest champagne house in France. They also have the Roman chalk caves, like Veuve. It's kind of crazy - you can see these sort of well-like openings in the ground all around the property and they're the original entrances dug by the Romans.
We tried our damnedest to figure out a way to get these pallets off the property without anyone noticing. No dice.
And there you have it. Another trip. Another anniversary. Another kick off to another best year of our lives together. Each one better than the last. With each one that passes, I fall more in love. And just when I think my heart can't get any fuller, it does. I guess that's what happens when you marry your best friend.