Conquering Champagne feels pretty nice; I feel like Henry VIII, or Louis XIV, or Charlemagne. You know what I mean, right? Perhaps not. Ahh, Champagne - that region in France that produces a somewhat popular sparkling white wine that bears it’s name. A region that includes over 76,000 acres of vineyards, and nearly 14,000 growers who grow nothing but the grapes that go into producing Champagne. This was a trip like none other.
My sejour included visits to two main Champagne region villages: Epernay and Reims. Epernay houses the Moet & Chandon house, and Reims the Veuve Clicquot winery. I was kindly accompanied by my college buddy, Andy (he would have been a fool to decline the invite), who basically, at this point, owes me his first born. We had fun adventures, most of which I’ll do my best to describe to you in this article (I have video, by the way, and am just trying to figure out how best to upload it onto my blog – you won’t want to miss this!)
Let’s begin with the train ride from Paris. It’s 7am, and the ground is covered with approx. 3 inches of snow, and it’s still coming down pretty heavily. As we walk from the Metro stop to the Gare de L’est, we notice how dead the city is. Everything stops in Paris when it snows. Mind you, this was that snow storm that blanketed most of Northern Europe with several inches of snow – a storm like no other – seriously, it had been, like, 20 years since something like this happened. Snow aside, we were on a mission, and our train was just about to pull out of the station, so we booked it and made it – Champagne, here we come!
The ride couldn’t have been more scenic – passing by gently rolling hills and vineyards as far as the eye can see. Before we knew it we were in Epernay and the light, fluffy snow had turned to pouring rain. It’s to be expected, I guess. According to experts, it rains over 200 days out of the year in Champagne. We conveniently walked to Moet & Chandon, which is located on the cleverly named Avenue de Champagne. This street is basically a strip mall of Champagne houses (forgive the comparison), with several wineries lining the Avenue.
Moet is an elegant melange of the old and new, with the recently added visitor’s center greeting prospective guests, and the 18th century home called Trianon looming across the street. We began our private (yes, it was only the two of us) tour by meeting Pierre-Louis Araud, the “maitre de maison” and Moet & Chandon ambassador. Pierre-Louis began by leading the way down into the caves (cellars) that (no joke), span an expansive 28 km (that’s approx. 17 miles for us Yanks) The cellars are typical of what you’d think a wine cellar to be: brick and stone archways, dark, long corridors with stacks upon stacks of wine bottles - resting, maturing, eager to travel the long way across the Atlantic into our fridges, wine racks, and bar fridges.
We learned that Claude Moet, and later Jean-Remy Moet, both wine growers and traders, expanded the business due to the high demand of Champagne in Paris, mainly by King Louis XV and his subjects. Dom Perignon, the Benedictine monk, added to Moet’s popularity by perfecting the double-fermentation process (that which makes Champagne bubbly when opened). With the rise of Napoleon in 1802 came the international appeal of Moet & Chandon Champagne, which happened to be the Imperial Emperor’s favorite bubbly. Moet even named it’s Brut Imperial after our favorite petite French ruler.
Okay – history lesson over. Back to the tour. The cellar visit was followed by a short walk over to Trianon, a gorgeously lavish 18th century guest house that is now used to entertain VIP’s. Were we this deserving? Apparently so. Our pal Pierre-Louis led us into the private dining room, where a setting for 3 and a personal server were waiting for us. In perfectly timed rhythm, out came various courses, each of which were paired with Moet’s newest vintage, 2003. Our Cassolette de coquilles paired magnificently with the 2003 Grand Vintage Blanc Champagne, and the Crepes a l’orange seemed like it was created just for the 2003 Grand Vintage Rose. Well, that’s pretty much the case. The courses for these lunches are created to pair exlusively with the Champagne it’s partnered with. Upon completing our luncheon, we had coffee in another salon of the house, and took some photos to prove our experience to those who may not believe us. You can see some of these photos a bit further along.
Our tour of Champagne would not end here. After Moet, we boarded the train once again and headed off to Reims, barely a 30 minute ride from Epernay. Upon arrival, we took in the grandeur that is Reims, a much larger village than Epernay. We had the afternoon and evening free, for our tour of Veuve Clicquot would not occur until the following morning. We headed straight for our hotel, the Hotel de la Paix (a graciously modern, clean, convenient lodging establishment), and set on for a tour of the city. The main pedestrian walk-way was filled with bars, restaurants, and shops. It was quite lively, and we were confident there would even be some nightlife to be had a bit later on.
Our first stop was the Notre Dame de Reims, made famous for its coronations of French kings and queens, and later its near complete destruction during World War I. We dined on Andouillettes (I did not know what this was before I ordered it – if you don’t know what it is you probably don’t want to know), and later visited the only happening bar in town, the Gin Pamp. There we met some French business students and partied it up with them until all hours of the night.
The following morning we met the lovely Katarzyna Canu, a Polish native who currently heads the tours and planning at the Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin winery. Kata kindly gave us a background on the winery, which was founded in 1772 by Phillippe Clicquot-Muiron. Philippe’s son, Francois, married Nicole-Barbe Ponsardin. Philippe passed away at a young age, leaving Madame Clicquot a widow, thus giving us the Champagne’s name: Veuve (widow) Clicquot. Veuve Clicquot Champagne made it big in the early 1800′s with exports throughout Europe, and mainly Russia, believe it or not.
The cellars at Veuve-Clicquot are noticeably different than those of Moet. These are old Roman caves and tunnels, dug out completely by hand. The walls of the caves consist of moisture-filled clay, perfect for regulating the temperature of the wine. These caves were even used during World War I to protect villagers against impending attacks.
We concluded our tour with a tasting of the Veuve Clicquot non-vintage blanc and rose. For some odd reason my taste buds were particularly lively this day, and the sparkling golden liquid set up shop and held a rave in my mouth. This is the way champagne is meant to taste.
There’s no doubt as to why Moet is America’s most beloved Champagne, and there’s no comparing the history and treasure that is the Veuve-Clicquot cellars with any other in the region. This trip has greatly intensified my want, nay, my need to use Champagne in as many cocktails as I possibly can. Just don’t tell the folks in France, okay? They’ll cringe at the fact that their celebrated wines are being mixed with anything at all.
You want proof? Here ‘ya go:
This is not in Champagne, but in the Jardins du Luxembourg. Just thought it might tickle your fancy.
Our entry into the cellars.
28 km of corridors just like this one.
Our terrific host, Pierre-Louis, giving us a tasting of the goods.
Pierre-Louis, Jonathan, and Andy. Don’t we look happy, now?
Veuve Clicquot, stacked as high as can be.
Many thanks to our friends at Moet, Veuve Clicquot, and Moet Hennessy USA.
Look out for the Video Diary of this trip.