Champagne Road Trip 2018

‘Come quickly, I’m tasting stars’ exclaimed the Benedictine Monk Dom Pérignon, when talking about the worlds most celebrated fizzy drink Champagne and to be honest, I don’t think he was far off the mark.

If you like Champagne then you really must visit this most northerly of wine regions in France and experience why the French take this drink so seriously and why they are extremely proud of what they produce. It’s not until you drive through the Champagne region and catch your first glimpse of the vines growing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier that you get the feeling that you are entering somewhere special. 

This is exactly what we did for a week travelling between the two commercial capitals Epernay and Reims. The trip was organised by Clare who runs our wine forum ‘Cuvée Reserve’ she was accompanied by her husband Nick (who did most of the driving, so a big thank you to him), my wife Agnes and yours truly.

How Champagne is made

Before we get into the trip itself here is a brief description of how Champagne is made, called Method Champenoise (traditional method) the key process is a second fermentation which takes place in the bottle which creates carbonation.                                                                                                      

First, a still wine (base wine) is produced made with the grapes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Pinot Meunier this is usually high in acidity and low in alcohol.

After the still wine is made a mixture of sugar and yeast is added before the wine is bottled, capped and stored in which the second fermentation takes place, the wine will then increase slightly in alcohol and the carbon dioxide which cannot escape from the sealed bottle creates the fizz. A period of ageing then takes place, during this slow fermentation the dead yeast cells form a sediment which contributes to the flavour, this could last a number of months or even several years. If the yeasty deposits are left this would lead to the wine being hazy, so a process called disgorging takes place to remove the sediment.

To remove the yeast the bottles are slowly tipped and turned eventually causing the sediment to sink into the bottle neck, traditionally this was performed by hand (riddling) but now usually done mechanically on a Gyropalette. After a period the yeast forms a plug of sediment. To remove the plug of yeast (sediment) the neck of the bottle is frozen and when uncapped the pressure from the CO2 forces the plug out of the bottle. The bottle is then topped up with a mixture of wine and sugar, with the amount of sugar added determining the sweetness of the final bottle produced. The cork is then added and there it is a bottle of Champagne.

Most Champagnes are Non-Vintage using a blend of several vintages to achieve quality and consistency, although in exceptional years a portion of the best wine may be used to make a single vintage.

Epernay

After leaving the ferry at Calais we headed to Epernay where we stayed for 4 nights giving us time to explore the area and the Champagne houses, some of which we had pre-booked. Epernay is the home to the Avenue de Champagne, said to be one of the most expensive streets in the world, where the big brand houses are situated including Moèt & Chandon, Mercier, Pol Roger, Perrier-Jouet and De Castellane to name but a few and where millions of bottles are stored in underground cellars stretching many kilometres.

The first house we visited was Mercier where we were treated to a tour including a very enjoyable train ride through their impressive underground cellars. The founder Eugene Mercier during the reign of Napolean III embarked on a challenge to bring affordable Champagne to everyone without compromising on quality. Now one of the leading brands in the domestic French market.

De Castellane was also an impressive house and their Champagne is sold exclusively to the French market, the tour was very different to Mercier with more emphasis on actual champagne making which we all found very interesting and of course the tasting of two of their best sellers.

Champagne Autréau

Clare & Nick recently visited the London wine fair 2018  where they met representatives of this Champagne house Autréau and they organised an appointment for us to meet winemaker Eric Autréau who very kindly gave up his time to show us around. A medium sized producer who produces very good quality Champagne

Andrieux-Lefort Champagne

Whilst in Epernay town we visited the Tourist office and found they were hosting daily Champagne tastings from local smaller producers, this was a real find as most of the Champagnes we tasted were as good if not better than the bigger more established houses and a lot cheaper. One particular local house was Andrieux-Lefort who had a small 3 Hectare vineyard producing around 2,000 bottles of their Brut and 800 bottles of Rosé a year. We arranged to visit them and spent an enjoyable time tasting their delicious fizz sampling them in what looked like a garage with a bar in it. This turned out to be one of the highlights as they made us feel very welcome and were rightly proud of their Champagne

Nicolas Feuillatte

One of our favourite Champagnes has always been Nicolas Feuillatte and this trip provided us with the opportunity to visit this very modern producer, although they don’t grow their own grapes they get supplied the  from around 4,500 growers in the area. 

The hour-long tour took us into all areas including their space-aged fermentation tanks and comprehensive cellars. After a very informative and interesting walk around this impressive site we were treated to a couple of generous glasses of their bubbles, whilst wandering around their very well stocked gift shop all very reasonably priced.

Tasting Nicolas Feuillatte


Taittinger and Reims

After a very enjoyable time in Epernay it was time to head off to Reims and more Champagne. Reims itself is completely different to Epernay being a bigger city with a beautiful Cathedral in which we were lucky enough to catch a fantastic light display one evening.

Unfortunately only visited one major Champagne house in Reims and another familiar name Taittinger  

Dominque Boulard Champagne

As in Epernay the local tourist office were hosting a daily Champagne tasting where we were treated to another fabulous local producer Dominique Boulard , who again were very proud of their Champagne. They were extremely generous filling our glasses letting us taste virtually their whole range. 

Finally……

If you enjoy a glass of Bubbles you really must try to get to this region of France, we only saw a fraction of it and hopefully will return one day. Our overriding memories of this trip will not the big producers as good as they were but the smaller Champagne houses whose wines were superb and reasonably priced.  Driving through and walking amongst the vines, seeing how it’s actually made has made me see Champagne in a different light. Now when I raise a glass in celebration or just for enjoyment I will think back on our time visiting the land of fizz.

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