I am always amazed how quickly you change from one culture to another as you travel across Europe. We drove four hours southwest of Boppard and checked into our Airbnb in Epernay France. A new country, new language, new customs, new food. France and Germany have been part of the EU from the start but the lack of borders and the globalization of their economies has not made them any less distinct, you know when you are Germany and you know when you are in France and you don’t need a border crossing to draw the distinction. Driving through the WWI battle fields of Verdun, Ardennes, and Marne passing the memorials dedicated to the millions who died in these conflicts emphasizes the folly of believing a strong border and national pride protect a country and its people. There is no perfect solution but the problems Europe is facing today with its open borders and immigration policies, to this observer, appear minuscule when compared to the millions killed in prior border disputes. But I digress.
The French countryside is beautiful this time of year, green fields, interspersed with vast fields of yellow flowers. We chose Epernay because we were meeting friends Roy Lamb and Jana Barber. Roy works for a wine and liquor distributor and had arranged for some wine tasting around Epernay, the Champagne region of France. If you are not into wine you may not know that to be called Champagne it must be made in this region of France.
Champagne was invented here by a monk named Dom Perignon back in the 1600s. It is now big business with hundreds of Champagne producers ranging from mom and pop vineyards to huge Champagne Houses like Moet & Chandon which produces 28 Million bottles a year. We only see a handful of French Champagne labels in the US, here in France there are hundreds. We never saw the Kirkland label nor did we see Chateau Kirkland so I cannot tell you where Costco gets it.
Considering the labor intensive process, Champagne in France is quite reasonable with prices starting at about $15 a bottle. Of course you can pay hundreds if not thousands depending upon the name and vintage. For the most part all Champagne is made the same. All grapes are hand picked, no machines. Champagne is generally made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. After making a basic wine the wine is bottled with additional yeast and sugar for a second fermentation.
The bottles are then stored in caves for at least 15 months and some are stored for years. Then the bottles are slowly turned and tipped upside down over several days allowing all of the yeast to settle at the top. The top inch or so of wine is then frozen solid after which the bottle is opened and the ice cube of wine and yeast is pulled out, the bottles are topped up with wine and a little sugar before they are re-capped with their final cork and ready to label and sell. A very long and labor intensive process for a bottle of wine. The process also requires a lot of underground storage which is why every Champagne house has miles of caves carved into the chalk.
We started our tasting adventure at the largest house, Moet & Chandon. Thanks to Roy we had a private tour with Lena our champagne ambassador. Lena was wonderful, dressed in a tailored black suit and carrying a matching black blanket she answered all of our questions.
We walked through the impressive main buildings listening to the history of the house through several hundred years. War, weather, economic collapse and changing climate, a history of the world and the region through the lens of Champagne.
As we made our way into the very cool caves we learned why Lena carries a blanket as she slipped it over her shoulders. Walking through just a portion of Moet’s 18 miles of caves I asked Kelly, do all French women know how to wear a blanket? Lena’s blanket was perfectly wrapped and draped, had I wrapped up in a blanket it would look nothing like Lena. The walls of the caves were lined with millions of bottles of Champagne kept at precise temperature and away from any UV. Ending our tour we returned to the ornate tasting room where we sampled the non-vintage Champagne followed by a bottle of the 2012 vintage which we all liked but at $65 a bottle we decided not to pick up a case. We couldn’t fit it in our bags anyway.
On day two we drove 45 minutes to the city of Reims where Roy treated us to a private tour and tasting at Chateaux Ruinart, the oldest Champagne house founded in 1729. This time our Champagne ambassador was Fatima, who gave us a behind the scenes look at production, a tour of the caves and she finished with a tasting four different Ruinart champagnes.
We finished the day in the small town of Bouzy where we met Quinton Paillard, wine maker, farmer and head of his family’s small Champagne house. No fancy tasting rooms or grand gardens, just a beautiful family home and winery. We barrel tasted his base wine aging in oak barrels before being made into Champagne. We also tasted his finished product. A nice family label Champagne which will cost you around $25 in the store. A very nice contrast between large and small Champagne producers.
Epernay is a great place to base yourself if you are interested in the Champagne region. It is large enough to have everything you need and small enough to walk the entire downtown in a couple hours. It has dozens of Champagne houses both large and small. Most houses give tours and/or tastings and most charge a fee. A basic group tour at Moet costs €25 and goes up from their depending on how much tasting you want to do. One of our favorite Champagnes was Charles Mignon located just around the corner from our Airbnb. A small family owned operation where we met the owner’s daughter and tasted four of their Champagnes, there was no charge if we bought a bottle. We bought two, total cost €47. Cheaper than Sonoma or Walla Walla.