The Romantic Region of Champagne

With today being Valentine’s Day, what could be a more perfect February travel post than a cyber visit to Champagne!

An ideal weekend getaway in Western Europe (only 2 hours from Paris), the region is easy to see on your own or with a tour group. Most of the major houses (Maisons) can be found in the two main villages of Reims and Epernay. Some maisons operate on an appointment only basis, but you can find a few that will allow walk ins to tour the caves, likely after a short wait. And of course, at the end of the tour, there’s the best part: the tasting.

Each house offers a slightly different tour from the next, but most of the background information is the same. Touring should be done based on which houses have the most interesting caves are and on what champagnes you prefer. Note that the caves are very cool (both in temperature at about 12° C and in general). Also, watch out for huge spiders that seem to like to make the caves their home.

In Reims, don’t miss Taittinger (pronounced Tat-in-jay). Their caves are the most interesting because they sit on top of an abbey dating back to the 1300s.

IMG_0930After they show a pointless video, you’ll tour the cave and have a tasting at the end. The tour here is cheaper than others, but you can only sample one champagne. There were no options for tasting any vintages.

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Note too that Taittinger doesn’t age their champagnes as long as some other houses. It’s worth a visit mainly because there remnants from the abbey include secret passageways and staircases to nowhere. In addition to the lesson in champagne making, you’ll be schooled in some history. Plus, the graffiti on the walls will make you chuckle.

IMG_0940I’d also check out the Maison of Mumm (pronounced Moom and not Mum). On the English tour, they play a boring, silly video about the vineyards and history of the Champagne region.

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Then you tour and taste (a good deal on the tastings, with multiple options to choose from).

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They age their champagnes here longer than Taittinger (see description below), and I have to say I preferred theirs, especially the rose.

In Epernay, you’ll find Möet, but be prepared for a longer wait.

IMG_0952 I opted against this tour (and as a result, no tasting) because after you’ve seen 1 or 2 caves, it gets old. Not every house will allow you to taste without the tour. But if you try A. Bergere, a newer house comparatively speaking, tastings when I visited were any 3 pours for 5€. It was exceptionally good, especially for the price. They don’t export to the US, so I’d recommend it for that reason as well. Or stop into De Castellane, where with the purchase of a tasting they let me into their small museum (half of their tour).

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Here’s brief tutorial of what you’ll learn on the tours so in the meantime you can sound knowledgeable:

Despite minor innovation in the bottling process, the general method for making the finest champagne has changed little over the years. There are only 3 types of grapes that can be used for champagne: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Unless it is a rose, no red from the grapes is allowed to enter the wine. A “blanc de blanc” uses only chardonnay grapes. Most bruts have wines from 3-5 different years as well as from different “crus” (the specific villages where the grapes are grown). A vintage bottle means that the grapes were grown all in that one year, and usually from one cru, although there may be more than one cru involved (the higher the price, the fewer crus).

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Bruts are aged a minimum of 3 years (5 at Mumm) and vintages are aged a minimum of 5 years (7 at Mumm). There will not be a vintage every year, as it depends on how the weather is. The cellar master (kind of like a key master) will make the champagne based on how the wine smells to him and blends several crus together with the goal of maintaining the history and flavor of the champagne from that house. It’s a guessing game where you need to remember the flavor from about a hundred years or more of making champagne and then decide which blends will result in a similar taste, after aging and adding the sparkling factor. These are skills that cannot be taught, and hence the reason the champagne is so expensive.

Because there is sediment that forms in the bottles, which is what gives the champagne flavor, it must come out before the champagne can be finished. Before technological advances, the bottles would all be placed somewhat upside down in wooden racks in the caves, which are made of chalk and keep the temperature even, humid and cool. The bottles are rotated and turned on a daily basis until the sediment falls to the top of the bottle and it is completely upside down. This process is called riddling, and the people who do this are referred to as “riddlers.” Not like in Batman. They are highly skilled individuals, turning about 6000 bottles an hour — every day in a very precise manner.

The white marks are how the riddlers tell where to turn the bottles.

The white marks are how the riddlers tell where to turn the bottles.

Although most of this is now done by machine, some of the more expensive champagnes and vintages continue to be riddled by hand, and these are what you see in the caves. So if you’re paying more for a particular vintage, now you know why. (Also, those magnums that you see in the clubs are too big to be riddled. Basically they’re just smaller bottles poured into the larger ones, and you’re paying more for a champagne that is nothing special.) When the riddling process is complete, the sediment is then frozen so it pops out and then a bit of wine and sugar are added. If more sugar is added, it is a demi-sec, otherwise, it’s a brut. The bottles are then stacked by hand to continue the aging and storing process. This process is the same at all houses with variations on the amount of time for aging and the vintages because each house will have different crus and different weather. There’s more to it, but you can learn about the rest on a tour or through wikipedia.

Amazingly these do not fall.

Amazingly these do not fall.

After you’re exhausting day of trapsing through dark and cold basements, being packed with information and tasting lots of champagne, try dinner in Reims at Brasserie Flo. Oysters (huitres) and steak au poivre are on a reasonably priced prix fixe menu, which you’ll find to be similar at most places in the area. There are a ton of bars and restaurants on the main pedestrian street, as well as a few Michelin places nearby if you want to splurge.

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Tips: There are lots of inexpensive places to stay in Reims. If this is a truly special occasion or you can afford it, you can also stay at one of the Chateaus in the area. A quick google search will show you several options. Dining wise, watch out for post-lunch/pre-dinner closures. In most brasseries, eat before 2 or you may be stuck with having pastries instead of foie gras for lunch. If that happens, you can spend time visiting the spectacular 800 year old cathedral in Reims.

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