I booked an all-day tour through Viator which took us to the Epernay area. I was excited to see the Avenue of Champagne, and also taste at some of the smaller houses that aren’t generally open to the public.
There were only 5 people (including us) in the group, plus our guide Christine, who was great. She was incredibly knowledgable but not overly preachy. As we drove through the charming (yet foggy) countryside, she told us more about the champagne traditions.
Everyone must strictly adhere to process in order to be called “champagne”. Grapes are only allowed to be harvested by hand so the skins of the grapes aren’t damaged. This means you need a LOT of people to help, since the entire champagne region has to be harvested in 10 days – people come from all over the country to help/get additional income. The grapes can only be transported 30 minutes after harvesting to the press – anything more compromises them. And there’s some kind of quota each house must produce, and since champagne needs to age for at least 15 months, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that there won’t be a champagne shortage anytime soon.
The weather wasn’t great (again – apparantly it rains 300 days per year here) so we started at a church with the tomb of Dom Perignon. He was a monk who was very passionate about champagne, and everyone credits him with making it popular.
Next was a drive down the Avenue of Champagne, which is basically one grand building after the next… pretty much all of the major champagne houses are represented there. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to just knock on the door and ask for a glass of champagne.
Our first appointment was at Moet & Chandon (which includes Dom Perignon), the largest champagne producer in the world. They say a bottle of Moet & Chandon is opened every 2 seconds. Their tour also started with a video, which I liked much better than Taittinger’s… less propoganda and a lot more champagne porn – slow motion video of champagne being poured, bottles being corked, etc. The German thought it looked like an Apple commercial.
The tour was still interesting, albeit we knew all the basics already. We did hear them say multiple times that someone from Moet was credited with the phrase “Champagne is the only wine that makes a woman more beautiful.” At the end of the tour, the tasting was done in the cave, which was a nice touch. But at the end of the day, I don’t really care for the taste of Moet & Chandon, and sadly they didn’t offer us any Dom.
From there we went to have lunch at a small producer called Julien Chopin. We had 3 courses paired with their champagnes. My vegetarian lunch was surprisingly great, and everyone else seemed to enjoy all sorts of meat like pate, veal, etc. Of course there was local cheese and bread on hand. The dessert course was entirely pink (Beth would approve)! And then we finished with some of their Ratafia, which is a bit like port but made from chanpagne grapes.
Our final stop was at Andre Goutorbe, which is about as small as it gets – they produce around 50,000 bottles/year, and don’t export anything. It’s a truly family-run house. The husband and wife team are involved in all of the day to day operations… in fact, the husband was moving bottles on a fork lift while we were there.
They showed us how the grapes get pressed. Apparantly, they save the best juice for their chapagne, and then send the second-best stuff to Krug and Moet! My favourite was the Blanc de Blanc that had been aged in oak. And instead of a cage they tie the cork with string, which is a nice touch.
So all in all, another great day drinking champagne, and I actually ate something besides bread and cheese!