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From the moment I turned 29, Austin was plotting how we would welcome my 30th. I’m his elder by a year and a month, so he sets the tone for how we celebrate new decades.
One evening, he shot up in bed as we were reading and exclaimed to me: “It’s obvious!” He continued, “where else would you celebrate turning 30 than by drinking Champagne in Champagne?!” I could toast to that.
Austin set about planning a 30th birthday celebration that would start in the Champagne region of France, eventually working up to Belgium and the Netherlands over the course of 10 days in March 2016.
He snagged some cheap mid-week tickets (YYZ to CDG), which added a couple bonus days to our initial plans for a week-long trip. We boarded a Wednesday night flight and slept/movie binged through the flight, landing mid-morning.Knowing our intent was to circumvent Paris (nothing against Paris — it’s one of our favourite cities — but that wasn’t the point of this trip) we caught a TGV to Reims from Charles de Gaulle. The ride took about an hour and led us into the quaint downtown station.
We checked into our Airbnb rental, a simple, well-designed little apartment right near the Reims city centre. We set out to find a late lunch, opting for tartine and moules frites along the main stretch, given the off-hours dining time. As we often do when we arrive timezones east, we headed home to rest and acclimate to the difference.
Reims (pronounced “rahnse”) is the big city of the Champagne-Ardenne region of northern France, and along with neighbouring town Epernay, forms the commercial hub of the region. The region has five administrative areas for grape-growing purposes, as has been drilled into my brain from these last few years of wine school: Aube, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, Montagne de Reims and Vallée de la Marne. (This Wine Folly post offers a great primer on the Champagne region.)
For our first full day in Champagne, Austin booked a private tour of some of the smaller houses that required special arrangements to visit, through a company called La Vigne du Roy. For those of us used to the North American model of wine tasting (show up and taste) the by-appointment-only system in many of France’s wine regions may come as a surprise. It’s why we opted for the services of a reputable guide to help plan our itinerary.
Our guide, Katya, a St. Petersburg native who had lived in Champagne for almost two decades, met us at our apartment just after breakfast to start the day. Through the day, she switched effortlessly between perfect French, Russian, English and Italian — I’m always impressed to see a fellow polyglot in action, but especially one with a flawless command of so many languages.
We started our day by visiting a small producer, Champagne Pascal Ponson et Fils in Coulommes la Montagne, about 45 minutes from Reims. The drive through the narrow cobblestoned streets and misty vineyards on the Montagne de Reims was incredible — stripped of their vines for the winter, you could really see the age of the old and spindly plants braced into the slope.
We walked into Ponson’s bottling facility in full swing, bottles being filled and capped for second fermentation. Descending into the small cellar, we encountered two riddlers at work — hand riddling bottles on old-style pupitres (riddling desks). This was something I’d only ever read about in textbooks! Even amongst quality producers, few modern ones undertake all their riddling by hand, due to both the expense of manual labour and expertise required.
We moved up to a small tasting room where Katya poured glasses of each house variety — Prestige (Pinot Meunier dominant) with a floral, fragrant nose; Grand Reserve (1/3 of each varietal in the classic style) with a golden hue and honeyed nose; Rose Gentes Dames (Pinot Meunier dominant rose) with a long red fruit nose; and the Cuvee de Domaine (or house blend, Chardonnay dominant) with a fine bubble and structured, toasty nose.
Another difference between wine tasting in Europe and North America — they don’t spit! I’m used to having a spit cup by my side during extended tastings, but Katya was horrified at the thought. Bottoms up!
We continued to our next stop, another small producer based out of the village Ecueil called Champagne Nicolas Maillart. Though the facilities were closed to the public, Katya had full range of the cellars, production facilities and tasting room, ensuring we took our time to explore every nook.
After touring the labyrinthine cellars beneath the property, we sat down in the tasting room for a truly extraordinary tasting of all eight wines on offer, as well as some special vintages on hand that she opened for us to taste comparatively. It’s not every day one gets to comparatively taste 10+ styles of a house’s Champagnes! Blissful.
By this time, we needed food, so Katya dropped us at a bistro back in Reims for a lunch she had arranged. Coq au vin for Austin and dorade in beurre blanc for me — with more Champagne, of course — and petits fours for dessert.
We continued our afternoon in Reims proper — where many of the big houses are located — opting to visit Taittinger. Katya noted she preferred to visit small producers because “once you’ve had a tour with one big house, you’ve seen them all” but acknowledged it was important to visit at least one commercial-scale producer, to get a sense of the sheer volume of production. (We’d visit Mumm on our own the next day, and further understand her perspective!)
We lucked out at Taittinger with a fabulous guide — an expat Brit who lived and breathed Champagne and ate up our dozens of questions with aplomb. The chalk caves beneath the property were like nothing else I’ve experienced — endless, soaring and stacked dozens deep with every last vintage, many under lock and key. It delighted me to no end to place my hand on the consistently damp and chilled chalk walls of the caves, nature’s perfect temperature regulator for these special wines.After exploring the caves, we returned to the tasting room to sample Taittinger’s Chardonnay-dominant house style. I’ve always enjoyed their house style on previous occasions, so it was fun to experience a familiar wine in place.
We returned to our apartment sated from a day of bubbles (“When again will we drink so much Champagne in one day?!” I gushed to Austin… “Tomorrow?” he replied. Touche…) for an afternoon nap.
With evening’s arrival, we dressed for dinner at a restaurant just down the street, L’Alambic, whose dining room is housed in an old Champagne cave once part of Reims’ vast networks. It was a simple little seasonal menu executed with care, which we paired with what else but more Champagne — a zero dosage style bracing with salinity.
The next morning, we again set out with a guide to explore two small Premier Cru producers based in the town of Hautvillers, where Dom Perignon is entombed. We started at a truly mom-and-pop operation, Champagne Fernand Lemaire — so small they lack a website — to tour their tiny cave and taste their wines. These were of exceptional value and perfectly suited as a food wine.From there, we took time to explore Hautvillers on our own by foot, notably the abbey where Dom Perignon first “tasted the stars”, as in the infamous (if fictitious) tale. Perignon is entombed at the abbey’s altar (above photo), which was something incredible to behold after reading so much about his important position in Champagne’s history and lore.Fan-girl moment passed, we continued to JM Gobillard et Fils, which was both Austin and my favourite winery over the two days. We sat at their beautiful barrel table, sampling everything on offer. We both were blown away by a 20 euro (!) Blanc de Noirs wine that drank well beyond its price point. We still regret not shipping home several cases to have on hand for anytime-celebrations…
We retuned to Reims for an afternoon us two, starting with a big lunch at Bouillon des Halles, a brasserie recommended to us a couple times during our stay. We opted for their market menu, which was impeccably fresh and well priced — with fish, fresh pasta, house-made terrine and simple salads. There’s nothing fancy about northern French fare — it’s just thoughtful and simple — which I so adore.
Post-lunch, we digested with a long walk to the part of town where all the big houses are congregated, opting to visit Mumm as a comparison to the previous day’s Taittinger experience. It very much followed the same formula — a detailed account of the house’s history, tour of the caves and finish with a few iconic offerings in its tasting room.We realized at Mumm that we lucked out with our previous day’s guide, who seemed much more knowledgeable and excited by his wines. By this point, we understood Katya’s earlier point that one or two big houses is plenty. For any visitor to the region, I would suggest picking a favourite big house, then devoting the rest of your time (and money) to the endless options amongst tiny Cru and Villages producers.That afternoon, we ambled through the city centre, along our way gathering provisions for a picnic dinner at home — the best cheeses, meats, bread and produce we could find — coupled with a bottle of that wonderful Blanc de Noirs from Gobillard.
During our walk, we stopped off at the iconic Notre Dame de Reims with its famed stained glass windows, including Chagall’s blue glass. After watching the sun set into the cathedral’s warm facade, we retreated to our apartment for a final night in Reims before heading north to Brussels the next morning.Austin and I discussed at length on our train ride — was 2.5 days and six houses of varying size and complexity enough to experience Champagne? Yes and no.
Yes, in the sense that you eventually fatigue, in two ways.
First, information fatigue. Most tours/guides assume very minimal prior knowledge of Champagne on the part of visitors, which is completely understandable. But if you’ve already studied the region, its history, production, varietals and such, it becomes tedious to hear the same entry-level information presented over and again.
Second, palate fatigue. Your tongue can only take so much bracing, acidic liquid before it stops tasting anything at all, and Champagne is as bracing and acidic as wine gets! By the second full day, I was spitting about 50% of what we consumed and even then, I was at the precipice of what I could intelligently enjoy.
No, in in terms of depth and breadth.
First, any oenophile could spend days with these small producers and still not touch the surface of Champagne’s complexity. I could see returning with a sommelier or buyer in order to visit producer after producer for tastings.
Second, we didn’t experience the breadth of the region, no doubt. With more time, I also would have visited Epernay to experience either of Moet & Chandon or Veuve Clicquot’s famous houses. There are a handful of excellent restaurants in and around Epernay that we would have tried, time permitting. Further, it would have been great to venture deeper into the distinct regions to understand their equally distinct handling of grape varietals.
All said, I return to Austin’s adage to “save something for next time.” Champagne is a special place, and one I see us returning to at all times of the year to witness the cycle of production.
We loved our reasonably-priced Airbnb rental in the heart of town
L’Alambic for simple French cooking in a beautiful setting
Bouillon des Halles for impeccable market fare (also visit the market next door!)
Consider Katya at La Vigne du Roy for an informed, personalized tour of the region’s small Cru producers
Use a guide like Cris Event to build a tour around Hautvillers, the home of Dom Perignon
See the historic Notre Dame de Reims, the seat of coronation of France’s kings