Wine of the month: Champagne
Champagne; synonymous with bubbles and France and good times, that’s what comes to Ruth’s mind (who looks after our online marketing at Swanny Cellars) when she drinks Champagne. What do you think of when you hear ‘Champagne’? Although it was over 3 years ago when she went, the memory of all those amazing Champagne houses lining the Avenue de Champagne and the delicious food at the restaurants in Epernay have made it a trip to remember.
A trip to Champagne
I planned a trip to Champagne over 3 years ago at the start of a week of wine tasting where we were then heading off to Beaune.
Having studied and tasted wine for over 10 years, I was thrilled to organise the Champagne stay. We didn’t have long, just one day and two nights but it was enough time to visit one Champagne house; Moët & Chandon and explore the town. As well as visiting the Champagne houses, you can also go into some of the local bars and have a Champagne degustation which I highly recommend.
Champagne is made using three grape varieties; Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Chardonnay accounts for just over 25% of grapes planted while Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir make up just under 75%. It is very much a continental climate here; cold and wet with rain and frosts a threat to the vines. The vineyards mainly face east and south east.
Where to stay
I stayed in Hotel de la Cloche, a two star hotel that at 55 euros a night was still comfortable, if not a touch hot as there was no air con in the centre of Epernay overlooking a roundabout. Their breakfasts and dinner was very tasty. There were plenty of other places to stay along the cobblestone streets but I needed a car space.
Where to visit
On a jog in the morning, running down Avenue de Champagne, I was overjoyed to see Champagne house after Champagne house line both sides of the street. I recommend hiring a car if you want to see the smaller producers as well as head to Reims and visit more of the Champagne houses there.
Being short on time and having no car I thought a tour of one of the Champagne house cellars would be the perfect way to understand more about Champagne, the history and of course to have a tasting! So I booked a tour of the Moët & Chandon’s cellar. It was fantastic to explore part of the 28 kilometres of underground tunnels and apparently some date back to 1743 when the company was established. The latticed cellars were cool, long and dark with that wonderful humidity that typifies classic French cellaring. The tunnels, carved out of white chalk stone run under the town. I can’t imagine what it must have been like down here before electricity. We saw hundreds of bottles aged in riddling racks and the guide explained the winemaking process, how the bubbles are produced in the bottle, when vintages are declared and more. Although I knew a lot about the process, hearing about it while being in the cellar and seeing the process in real time was truly educational.
The famous Veuve Clicquot was actually married in a cellar, in one of the hundreds under the city of Reims. It was too dangerous and illegal at that time, in 1798 to be married publicly in a church. If you haven’t read the book, The Widow Clicquot, I highly recommend it as it not only explains how she built the business to what it is today but the Champagne scene at the time.
Do you need to book?
I would recommend booking Champagne tours to ensure you have the tour when you want it. In the summer it can be very crowded. If you don’t have much time and are spending a few days in Paris, you could even take the fast train (TGV) from Paris to Epernay which takes just over 1 hour.
When I go back to Champagne, I want to make sure that I visit some of the smaller houses and also visit Reims which I hear is a beautiful city.
More about the region in next week’s blog.