It has been many years since our last trip to the Champagne region of France. We would have liked to take a few days to visit a number of small producers from around the region that we met at a recent San Francisco champagne tasting. But darn, we weren’t able to take that much time out of our time in Paris. But we discovered that we could easily arrange a day trip from Paris to Reims, the capital of the Champagne region.
How easy is such a trip? Glad you asked. It is less than one hour by train from Paris’s Gare de l’Est train station to downtown Reims. Then take a 30-45 minute walk to half a dozen Champagne houses, including Pommery, Taittinger, and Veuve-Clicquot. Not exactly small family operations, but certainly very noteworthy producers.
As a result, we were able to tour one Champagne cave, taste at four champagne houses, have a wonderful lunch (with a full bottle of Champagne), walk through the town, and visit the cathedral. And we still got back to Paris by 8:00 P.M.
The downsides of such a trip? Well, we prefer the U.S. tasting practice of getting small tastes of many wines to the French practice of purchasing full glasses to taste. But we struggled through it.
But the good part is that we just happened to go on Tom’s birthday. There could be far less pleasant ways of noting yet another year on the calendar of life. But first, onto visiting some champagne houses
Our first stop was Taittinger, which was located in a large drab warehouse setting. Although we had reserved a tour, upon arrival we discovered that tours had been canceled as the boss scheduled a private VIP tour instead. Our initial anger turned to relief, as we realized that we didn’t really need multiple tours of champagne houses. Plus they comped us each a glass of their Brut Reserve. The wine was 40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 25% Pinot Meniere, with 3.5 years of aging (compared with 6 years for vintage and 10 years for the premium Comtes Blanc de Blanc).
We also got a chance to ask some questions and found out that Taittinger is “only” a mid-large sized producer with 6 million bottles per year. Eighty percent of their production is exported primarily to England, the U.S., and Germany. We discussed how the grape composition is the single most important factor in contributing to the ultimate taste of the wine. For example, Chardonnay provides fresh fruit, but also a sharper acidity. Pinot Noir fuller provides rounder flavors. Aging is the second most important factor.
This Brut Reserve, by the way, was one of our two favorite champagnes of the eight we tasted that day.
La Villa Demoiselle
Next up was La Villa Demoiselle. It is affiliated with Pommery, but sources its grapes and makes its wines separately. We decided to go upscale with this tasting, with the Diamonte Brut, which is 50% Pinot Noir, about 35% Chardonnay, and 25% Pinot Meunier, all sourced from the winery’s six Grande Cru estates. It has been aged 15 months and contains eight percent sugar. Nice mineral and acidity, but not as full a taste as we expected from such as high percentage of Grand Cru Pinot Noir.
Touring the Pommery Caves
We did a cave tour at Pommery. Although the standard tour is information light, introductory material in the waiting area explained the production process from the blending of juice from different vineyards and years, the initial cellaring, the first fermentation and subsequent cold storage, the bottling and riddling process, the process of using the pressure of the gas to expel the yeast from the frozen neck of the bottle, the addition of the dosage, the corking and the final cellaring stage which can last from a year to 20 or more for the most select and vintage wines. It also had a HUGE beautifully-carved barrel that was previously used and could hold 100,000 bottles.
The tour began with a brief history of the winery. It was first established in 1858 as Pommery & Greno. It then became owned by the Pommery family with the incredibly active hand of Madame Pommery, and her controversial decisions. For example, she decided to forgo the currently favored sweet champagnes–approximately 150 grams of sugar per liter compared with six to eight grams in current bruts—in favor of a more purist approach.
After taking 131 steps down into the caves, we learned how more than 300 caves were originally created as chalk mines. Their consistent 10-degree Celsius temperatures are perfect for champagne.
Producing champagne initially was dangerous. Up to 30% of the bottles may explode due to a combination of untested methods and weak bottles. Workers were injured, blinded, and even killed. In fact, people would wear fencing masks to protect themselves in the caves.
We saw all the different size bottles used for champagne (up through the 9-liter, 18-kilogram Salmanazar) and the large bottle aging cellars. Although we didn’t see it, we were told that they had automated the typically labor-intensive riddling process.
But we did see the wall carvings that had been carved in the late 1800s when the caves’ only light came from candles.
The tour ended in outside the locked gate of Pommery’s Reserve Room, where commemoratory bottles are kept from each of the winery’s reserve years, dating back to 1874 (undrinkable per our guide, as champagne can’t last that long).
After taking the 131 steps back to the surface, came our tasting. We purchased tastes of three of the five different Brut wines being tasted to get a fuller understanding of the range of the company’s offerings. These were:
- Brut Silver, a Chardonnay-based Champagne that is cellared for five years, had a lot of grapefruit-like acids;
- Rose, which adds a bit of red juice for color and fruitiness; and
- 2005 Vintage Grand Cru, 50/50 Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir are exclusively from grapes from seven Grand or 1er-Cru vineyards and are cellared for seven years. It is round and smooth with nice fruit. Not surprisingly, this was our favorite of their champagnes.
Our last stop was Veuve-Clicquot. We tasted two Champagnes:
- 2004 La Grande Dame which is 64 percent Pinot Noir and 36 percent Chardonnay and has been aged for 10 years.
- 2004 Vintage Rose which was 62 percent Pinot Noir, with 15 percent of this from juice left to pick up the red color of the skins. It was aged for 9 years. Since Champagne wineries bottle vintage wines only in extraordinary years, 2004 was the first vintage year since 1998.
The Grand Dame used to be one of our favorites for toasting in the new year. But after this trip, we will seek out Taittinger instead.
A Lunch Fit for a Birthday
We had lunch at Le Jardin, a lovely brasserie in the garden area of the five-star Les Crayeres resort. We were impressed from the moment we entered when a staff member rushed to open the door for us as they saw us walking up the path.
The service remained at that level throughout our time there. It turned out to be a wonderful place for a two-hour lunch between Champagne tastings. We began with a very good pan-fried foie gras with a sweet apple and fruit jam, followed by two equally impressive main dishes: seabass on leaks with a delicate champagne sauce (although the leeks slightly overpowered the fish) and veal rib steak crusted with melted Comte cheese.
Then came a dilemma: What to drink with these dishes when you are in the middle of Champagne country and the wine list has dozens of different champagnes, many of which are priced between 60 and 70 euros? So we told the Sommelier what we were ordering and what we looked for in Champagne. After discussing a few options with him, we settled on the wonderful Comtesse de Ceres Premier Cru, which turned out to be one of our two favorite Champagnes of the day.
If you were counting, this put us at more than one bottle of Champagne per person in the course of a single day. It was a tough job. But we were only in Reims for a single day, and it was a birthday, and it was raining outside, and ….. In other words, it was an obligation that we just couldn’t shirk.
The City and the Cathedral
We did take time to walk through the center of the pleasant downtown and around and through the huge cathedral. The cathedral, which began in the year 407 AD, gained its massive, ornate entrance, and its current form was generally completed in the 13th century. Although certainly massive, it is not the most beautiful cathedral we have visited. Even though most of its windows are clear, rather than stained glass, the interior is dark and relatively uninviting. This being said it does have some pretty stained-glass windows, including a couple of modern sets and even one by Marc Chagall.
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