Champagne, in northeastern France, is the home of the most famous sparkling wines in the world. The primary cities in the Champagne region are Reims and Epernay.
We had previously visited Reims on a day trip from Paris, taking tours at Tattinger, Pommery, and Veuve-Cliquot. We so enjoyed that trip that we scheduled a two-day trip to Epernay France.
Epernay proclaims itself as the capital of Champagne. Sure it is the home to over 300 Champagne houses and has over 60 miles of subterranean cellars that contain millions of bottles of Champagne. But give yourself some time to stroll down the kilometer-long Avenue de Champagne and its line of opulent 17th and 18th-century Champagne Houses. The names range from Dom Perignon to Pol Roger and Perrier Jouet.
Almost as dramatic as these historic buildings in the mid-19th century Hotel de Ville. The Moet family built and occupied this mansion and beautiful garden before turning it over to the city in 1920.
About French Champagne
France has produced sparkling wines since at least the 5th century but Champagne didn’t begin to gain popularity among the French patrician class until the 18th century. It has gone on to become a symbol of luxury ever since. While sparkling wine is made in many places, only the sparkling wines made in France’s champagne region can legally be called Champagne.
Today’s crisp and dry French champagnes were created in the 19th century with the invention of méthode champenoise. This two-step process involves the injection of yeast and sugar into still wine to spur a second fermentation to produce those beautiful bubbles.
The type of grape used in Champagne also matters and can vary. Most champagnes are non-vintage and are made using Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Menuiner grapes. But Blanc de Blancs Champagne is made entirely from white grapes, most commonly Chardonnay. Other varieties permitted in the appellation include deluxe cuvées including Cristal and Dom Perignon.
On this trip, we stopped at five of Epernay’s Champagne houses. We took moderately educational standard tours of Moet & Chandon and De Castelane cellars (with select tastings) and had more comprehensive tastings at three smaller houses.
We booked a tour of Moet & Chandon. The tour started with an overview of Champagne’s 34,000 hectares. The combination of its chalky limestone soil and the area’s 160 days of annual precipitation contribute to the minerality and the high production of its wines.
Moet & Chandon Grapes
Moet & Chandon uses Pinot Noir to contribute to its Champagne’s power and structure and Chardonnay to add elegance and minerality. Both grapes are grown on Reims and Aube hillsides. It also uses Pinot Meunier (which adds fruit) that is grown in the Marne River Valley.
Moet purchases about 75% of its grapes from more than 70 villages across the region. It presses the grapes in the field to maintain freshness and blends juice from two or three vintages to maintain consistency in its wines from year to year.
The tour then proceeded down through a few of the company’s more than 17 miles of caves. Here it stores more than 100 million bottles of Champagne for a minimum of three years at between 10 and 12 degrees Celsius (50-54 degrees Fahrenheit). Some of its bottles in the cave date from 1892!
While in the caves, we got the next episode of making champagne. Once the juice comes in from the field, it is fermented into stainless steel tanks, tasted, sorted into lots, and bottled (typically with a metal cap). The bottles are placed in huge racks and laid on their sides for over a year. During this time, the yeast ferments the juice’s sugar to turn it into alcohol, which releases tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide which are retained in the wine. When this fermentation has completed the sediment (primarily dead yeast cells) has settled in the bottom of the side of the bottle.
The bottles were traditionally rotated individually by hand at an angle with the neck down and regularly rotate for several weeks until all the residue is in the neck. Today the process is done with entire racks of champagne of several hundred bottles at one time.
The neck is then frozen and the cap popped. The pressure in the bottle immediately disgorged the frozen mass in the bottle. The expelled volume is replaced with additional juice and a “dosage” of sugar to replace the sugar that has been consumed and to produce a wine of the desired sweetness, ranging from “Brut Nature” (no added sugar), through various stages of “Brut” (dry with 12 grams of added sugar) to varying degrees of sweetness or “Sec”, to the sweetest, “Doux”, in which 50 or more grams of sugar is added. It is then recapped with its familiar cork, secured with a wire wrap, and returned to the caves for its final 15 or so months of aging (during which its flavors deepen) before release.
While most of this champagne is blended with previous vintages to maintain consistency, some vintages are determined to be so good (determined largely by warm and dry growing seasons, especially near harvest time) that juice from special vineyards is separated, bottled and hand-riddled (rather than being stored and turned in racks). It is then aged for a minimum of three years (typically 6-7 but up to 10, 15 or more years for particularly special wines) and sold as “Vintage” champagne.
Moet & Chandon also produces the premium Dom Perignon champagne. It is produced only from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (with no Pinot Meunier) grown on Grand Cru properties, hand riddled, and aged for up to 25 years.
Tasting Moet & Chandon
We then adjourned to the tasting room where we finished with a glass of Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut, a blend of roughly equal amounts of juice from the three grapes, of which 20% to 30% are reserve wines, with 7 grams per liter of dosage. It tasted of apple and pear, with a hint of banana.
A French Viscount founded De Castellane in 1895 in response to the booming demand for sparkling wine, particularly from Great Britain. It evolved through successive generations of the family until its 1999 joining of Laurent-Perrier group (under which it continues to be run by the family).
The tour started with a self-guided walk through its Museum of Champagne Tradition. Displays described each stage of the traditional Champagne-making process with primarily 19th-century equipment. It then proceeds into some of its more than 3.5 miles of caves.
Like Moet & Chandon, the tour explained the champagne-making process including how it decides on the combination of the three grape varieties. Its aging process ranges from 24 months before discouragement and 3 months after for its Brut to four years for its Vintage Millésime de Castellane champagnes which is produced only in the best years from the best grapes of its best vineyards. The tour ended with a tasting of two of their premium wine:
- Brut Croix Rouge, which consists of 15% reserve wine with its fruity taste and buttery finish; and
- 2004 Brut Millesime, with a full, peach-like taste and smooth finish.
Alfred Gratien is a restively small, premium Champagne house that complements its own 1.56 hectares of Grands Crus and Premiers Crus vines with grapes from several other sources. The producer separates the juice from each varietal, vineyard, and vintage and ferments them only once. To preserve the character of the fruit and increase the ageability of its wines Alfred Gratien does not put the juice through secondary fermentation. But it does age each lot separately in neutral, 228-liter oak barrels to permit controlled oxidation and produce a body and a rounded finish. The juice is then blended, bottled, and aged for four years for its classic brut cuvées, six to seven years for its Paradis label, and a minimum of ten for its vintage wines.
We tasted several wines here and particularly enjoyed the citrus and minerality of the Brut, the subtle sweetness of the Brut Rose, the peach, buttery brioche notes and body of the Brut Vintage 2009, and especially the creamy, umami-like complexity of its Cuvee Paradis 2013.
This small producer uses small-capacity stainless steel vats to precisely control vinification and produces wines that balance fruit and minerality. We especially enjoyed two of the wines that we tasted: Blanc de Noirs Brut with its tastes of stone fruit and the Cuvée Comte de Marne Brut Grand Cru with notes of plum and pear, balance, and a round finish
Founded in 1922, Janisson-Baradon produces roughly 80,000 bottles per year. Most of its wines are a blend of all seven of the grapes that can legally be incorporated into Champagnes. These include Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Petit Meslier, and Arbane in addition to the three primary grapes. These four less common grapes account for a total of less than one percent of total Champagne production!
The vast majority of Janisson Baradon wines consist of the same combinations of grapes. The grapes are pressed in whole clusters and are fermented in neutral oak (rather than in stainless steel). The primary differences among its wines are the amount of sugar that it adds and the length of aging.
They also produce some single varietal champagnes (primarily Chardonnay, which is also known as Blanc de Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier) and a Grand Reserve (50/50 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay which is aged for 5 years). They occasionally produce single vintage champagnes, primarily its 7C (7 Cepage) which it originally produced in 2005 and most recently in 2016 and 2017.
We tasted five of its wines, including a single-varietal (Chardonnay) 2014 Vintage 2014, a Rose, and a few Bruts. The pleasant Extra Brut and the smoother, more complex Grand Reserve especially aligned with our tastes.