Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Grand Champagne Adventure (aka leaving my 20s with a bang)

For the past few years, I've dreamt of taking a bike tour of the Champagne region. It's easy to understand why I wanted to do this: I LOVE champagne, I LOVE France, and I like biking. After a few years of pestering, I was finally able to talk our good Danish friends Thomas and Thomas into joining us on the trip, and then arranged it so the trip fell on my 30th birthday. I figured that if I absolutely had to turn 30, I might as well do so surrounded by good friends and great alcohol!
So off we went to Paris to begin our trip. We spent a few days in the city, and my birthday fell on one of the Paris days. We celebrated in our ridiculously fancy hotel room (thanks, Mom!) with a bottle of Bollinger Rosé champagne. We then had a great dinner at Bistro Paul Bert.
I don't think I will ever get tired of Paris. The culture, the food, the wine, the streets... everything is simply wonderful. I have two absolute favorite things to do when in Paris: stuff my face with delicious things and walk around the city, meandering down small side streets and discovering something new at every turn.
After a few days in Paris, we took a short train ride to Reims to begin our trip. In Reims we visited the beautiful Reims Cathedral. The Cathedral was built in 1211 on the site of a burned-down basilica. In this basilica, St. Remi baptized Clovis in 496, making Clovis the first Catholic king of France.
The cathedral is really quite stunning. It is decorated with over 2300 statues, including the Smiling Angel, pictured here. We found the statue next to the Smiling Angel quite amusing, as the top of its head is very precisely lobbed off. In fact, many of the statues were decapitated during the French revolution. Restorers have tried to match the heads to the bodies, but haven't been 100% successful, so many statues are headless.
The stained glass inside the cathedral is stunning, and the styles are really varied. The area around Reims was known for its great glass production, and that tradition seems to live on today.
Both this window and the above window were created by Brigitte Simon, who was born and raised in Reims in the 1920s. She was commissioned by the cathedral from the 1960s-1980s to create windows, and they are some of my favorite.
The famous artist Marc Chagall was also commissioned to create several windows for the cathedral.  His use of primary colors in this window reminds me of the Matisse chapel in Vence (southern France, just outside of Nice).
This window is more similar to Chagall's work in the UN building, where he was commissioned to create a stained glass piece.
Ok, enough culture, let's get to the real reason for the trip: champagne! Our very first tour and tasting took place at Pommery in Reims. The tour in the Pommery cave was very interesting, even though it was in French. We learned about the three grapes used to make champagne (chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier), how the grapes are pressed and fermented, and how the the second fermentation takes place inside the champagne bottle. We got to see the pictured 'Champagne Library', where they keep bottles from every year of production. In this photo you can see bottles as old as 1898! We tasted 5 different Pommery champagnes (on a side note, I need to explain the grading system we used throughout the trip for all of the champagne we tasted. We used the Danish academic grading scale, which is a 7-point scale from -3 to 12 (yeah, I know, it makes no sense), with the following grades possible: -3, 00, 02, 04, 07, 10, and 12. In Denmark, a 02 is passing, so only -3 and 00 are 'bad' grades). Here are the five champagnes we tasted, the grapes used (if known) and their Danish grades:
Brut Royal - 1/3 of each grape - 02
Prestie - 04
Millésimé 2005 - 07
Wintertime - 10
Apanage Rosé - 04
After a really, really fantastic meal (and surprisingly not expensive) at the Reims restaurant Eveil des Sens, we rested up for the start of the biking adventure. The next day we left Reims and headed towards Tours-sur-Marne, about 50 km away. Along the way we stopped in the town of Verzenay and visited the champagne museum placed inside the Phare de Verzenay (the lighthouse of Verzenay). It was at the museum that we really learned about the process of growing, picking, making, and selling champagne. In the photo, you can see a vineyard with a windmill on top. Notice how the windmill is on top of a small hill? Well, this 'small hill' did not feel so small on a bike, and it was just a taste of what was to come in the days ahead! It turns out the Champagne region is not nice and flat, but rather hilly. In fact, the vines are only grown on inclines... all of the valleys are planted with wheat and vegetables!
After a very cold picnic in Verzenay, we continued biking towards the very small town of Trépail, where we met with champagne maker David Léclapart. David is a brilliant guy: all of his champagnes are organic (and most are biodynamic), he runs the entire operation by himself, and he makes the most amazing champagne. He is also an incredibly friendly and generous guy. He took two hours out of his day to give us a tour and tasting. He drove us to his vines and explained the entire process of growing them, picking them, and the affect of the different terroirs.
He then took us to his 'cave', which was a large garage connected to his home. Here he ages and ferments the grape juice in oak barrels, concrete containers, and steel containers. He gave us tastings of the fermenting juice in its various stages.
He then took us into his living room and let us try three of his champagnes (David produces around 11.000 bottles/year). All of his champagnes are made from 100% chardonnay grapes, and they are all vintage (the juice used to make the champagne comes from one harvest). These champagnes turned out to be our favorite of the entire trip:
L'amateur 2010 - 100% tank ages - 10
Artiste 2009 - 1/2 tank aged, 1/2 oak ages - 12 (the top grade!)
L'apôtre 2008 - 100% oak aged - 10
After spending the night in Tour-sur-Marne, we hopped back on our bikes for the shortest and easier bike day: 13 km along a very flat canal! The weather started to improve as well (previously it had been cold, rainy, and windy... in other words, very Danish-like weather). We biked through the town of Aÿ, which is a very famous champagne town. Unfortunately, we arrived in town at 11:30, and in this part of France, everything is closed from 12:00-14:30 for an extended lunch. We were therefore unable to do any tastings in Aÿ, but we did go by the Bollinger house (which doesn't have public tastings anyways). If only James Bond was with us, then I'm sure we could have had a tour.
We then continued on to Epernay, a really beautiful city in the heart of the Champagne region. Epernay is home to a lot of big champagne houses, including Mercier. Though Mercier made our least favorite champagne, they had the most impressive cave. Over 18 km of underground tunnels hold the Mercier champagnes. Eugène Mercier, who founded the champagne house in 1871, was a really interesting guy (and slightly crazy); he wanted to make the cave an enjoyable work place, so he hired an artist to create frescoes throughout the tunnels. We tasted one champagne:
Brut - 45% pinot noir, 45% pinot meunier, 10% chardonnay - 04
After visiting Mercier, we headed towards another of the big champagne houses in Epernay: Moët et Chandon/Dom Perignon. Founded by Claude Moët in 1743, Moët is the biggest producer of champagne in the world. Their cave stretches for an impressive 23 km, making it the biggest cave in the entire Champagne region.
Dom Perignon is under the Moët company, though they are very different champagnes. Dom Perignon, which is named after the Catholic monk who discovered how to make champagne in the late 1600s, is only made in vintage years (as stated above, vintage means the grape juice is from one single harvest, not a mix of years), it is hand turned (when champagne goes through its second fermentation in the bottle, the bottle needs to be turned a bit every day so that the yeast and sediment is shifted, eventually headed toward the neck of the bottle. Now days, this shifting is most often done in a machine, which you'll see below. For smaller or more exclusive makers, the turning is done by hand. A professional, experienced turner can turn up to 10.000 bottles in one hour!), and uses a cork instead of a bottle cap for the second fermentation.
Alas, we were not offered a tasting of the Dom Perignon, but we did get to try three different Moët champagnes:
Imperial - 1/3 of each grape - 04
2006 Vintage - 42% chardonnay, 39% pinot noir, 19% pinot meunier - 10
2004 Rosé Vintage - 45% pinot noir, 35% chardonnay, 20% pinot meunier - 07
After a really good meal at Hostellerie La Briqueterie, we headed to bed at our Epernay B&B, Parva Domus (which I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Epernay - the older couple that run it are very sweet, the B&B is fantastic, and the location can't be beat). The next morning we were back on our bikes for another 40+ km day. We headed towards the town of Vertus, but on the way we stopped at the champagne house Launois Pére et Fils. Founded in 1872, this champagne house is now run by three sisters. The old family home now hosts tasting, and filled with... well, old family stuff. It was really interesting to look around after our tasting. We tasted the following four champagnes:
Reserve - 100% chardonnay - 07+
Veuve Clemence - 100% chardonnay - 07+
Dorine - 100% chardonnay - 10
Oeil de Perdrix - 100% pinot noir - 07 (I personally really liked this one and would have given it a 10, but was over-ruled by the boys).
After our tasting, we biked to Vertus, where we attempted to have a picnic in the courtyard of this 12th century church. Do you see that beautiful swan in the photo?
Well, that beautiful swan was a mean bastard. He was protecting his female partner, who was sitting on a nest a ways away. Anytime we'd sit down to eat, the swan would charge us and try to bite us. It provided a lot of comic relief, and a bit of terror.

After our scary lunch, we did two tastings at different champagne houses in Vertus:
Doyard, which is also a B&B and where we spent the night:
Premier Cru - 100% chardonnay, 30% aged in oak - 04
Grand Cru 2007 - 100% chardonnay, 100% aged in oak - 04

André Jacquart, which has only 100% chardonnay and is 100% aged in oak:
Brut Expérience - 04
Mesnil Expérience (0 dosage, which means no added sugar after the second fermentation) - 07+
Mesnil Expérience (with dosage) - 07
2006 Expérience Millésimé (0 dosage) - 07
2006 Expérience Millésimé (with dosage) - 07+
Rosé de Saignée - 80% pinot noir, 20% chardonnay, and really beautiful raspberry red color - 07+
The next day we headed off for another long ride on our way to Chatillon-sur-Marne. This was a difficult biking day for me: lots and lots and lots of hills, including one that was, really and truly, a 2 km climb without any flat sections. By the time we got to Chatillon-sur-Marne, we were very ready to sit down and enjoy some champagne! We did a tasting at Charlier et Fils:
Brut (carte noir) - 60% meunier, 20% pinot noir, 20% chardonnay, 100% oak aged - 07

After the tasting, we headed to our B&B, Moulin de l'Etang. This is another place I'd gladly stay at again. The owners of the B&B were very lively and fun, the house itself was beautiful and filled with lots of great art, and the land surrounding the house was beautiful. There was a very large pond with lots of geese and ducks, plus horses, dogs, and cats around the property.
The next day marked our final day of biking as we headed back to Reims. We first stopped at the wonderful champagne house Moussé et Fils. Moussé was my second favorite champagne maker that we visited. We met Cédric Moussé, a fourth generation champagne maker. The Moussé family has an interesting and sad story: the family has been in the region since the 1600s, and in the 1800s started growing their own grapes and selling them to larger producers. In the 1920s, Eugène Moussé (the great-grandfather of Cédric) started to make his own champagne from his grapes. At the outbreak of World World II, he and his son Edmond were sent to a concentration camp, were Eugène was killed. Fortunately Edmond survived the concentration camp, returned home, and continued the tradition of champagne making. We met with Cédric, who was kind enough to show us his facilities. In this photo you can see the very modern press Moussé uses to extract juice from the grapes.
This photo shows where the grape juice is stored for its first fermentation. There are two different types of tanks plus a few oak barrels.
Remember where I explained above that champagne bottles need to be turned every day while going through their second (in-bottle) fermentation? This is a machine that rotates many bottles at once, which is much more efficient than rotating them by hand.
After the champagne completes its second fermentation, the bottle cap is popped off, the yeast and sediment is removed (via a really cool process that involved rapidly freezing the neck of the bottle), the dosage is added (that's the little bit of topping off the bottle; the dosage consists of wine and often sugar, depending on the bottle, maker, year, vintage, etc.), and the bottle is then labeled.
After visiting his facilities, Cédric gave us a tasting:
Rosé - 92% meunier - 10
Cuvée Or Tradition - 80% pinot meunier, 20% pinot noir, organic - 7+
Vintage 2009 - 95% pinot meunier, 5% pinot noir - 10+
We really loved the Moussé champagnes, and it was the first champagne we encountered with such a high percentage of pinot meunier. Moussé makes a 100% pinot meunier, but it's a very special bottle and sells out almost before it's even made! Luckily, we have the contact of the importer in Denmark and they have a few bottles of the 100% pinot meunier.
After visiting Moussé, we biked 40 km back to Reims, where we had our final tasting at the big champagne house Taittinger. In their cave they have many different bottle sizes aging, including the pictured Nebuchadnessar bottles, which hold the equivalent of 20 normal bottles! You can see in the picture that these bottles are wrapped in plastic. As the champagne goes through its second fermentation in the bottle, a lot of gas builds up. Around 1 in 10.000 bottles explodes from the built up pressure. For normal sized bottles, the explosion isn't too serious, but when a larger bottle like a Nebachadnezzar explodes, it can set off a chain reaction and cause the surrounding bottles to explode as well! So the larger bottles are wrapped in plastic to minimize the damage and prevent a chain reaction from starting.
And now for our final tasting:
Brut Reserve - 40% chardonnay, 35% pinot noir, 25% pinot meunier - 04

After the tasting, we had an excellent meal at Le Millenaire, which was a great way to finish an absolutely amazing trip. Thank you Bob, Thomas, and Thomas for helping me ring in 30 in the best way possible!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Trip to Southern France - Avignon

Wow, it's taken me a long time to write this post! Things have been pretty busy since the last post: lots of work for both Bob and me; a working holiday to northern Denmark; my 30th birthday trip back to France (hopefully there will be a blog about that trip before I turn 31!); friends visiting us in Copenhagen; and the best spring we've ever had in Denmark! But let's first finish talking about our trip to southern France waaaay back in April. The last part of our trip to southern France took us to Avignon.
Avignon is an old city and was occupied by Gallic tribes, the Romans, and the Holy Roman Empire. In 1309, the Catholic church's pope Clement decided to move the seat of the Papacy away from Rome to Avignon. Avignon thus became the seat of the Papacy until 1377. In 1377, the Papacy returned to Rome. This return to Rome caused quite a bit of political turmoil, which became known as the Papal Schism. During the schism, several men claimed to be the pope. Avignon once again because the primary residence for two of these 'antipopes': Clement VII (antipope from 1378-1394) and Benedict XIII  (antipope from 1394-1403).
The Avignon residence for the popes and antipopes was the Palais de Papes (Palace of Popes). Construction on the palace, which was built over an existing palace for the Avignon archbishop, began in 1335 and was completed by 1354. The palace is huge; at 15,000 sq. m (161,500 sq. ft), it is the largest Gothic palace in Europe.
In this room, the Consistory, the Pope would sit at the end of the big hall, which served as a receiving room for ambassadors, cardinals, and public audiences. The Pope would sit in a chair that was placed just so the light from the window would illuminate him.
The huge Banquet Hall sits directly above the Consistory. This room is unbelievable large (11m/36 ft by 48m/158 ft), with a giant fireplace at the end.
Close to the Banquet Hall is the Pope's bedchamber. Because of the 14th century painting in the room, it's not possible to take photos inside, but I snuck this photo from outside of the room. It gives you a sense of the beautiful painting that decorates the entire room. Interestingly enough, this room, plus the adjoining study (known as the Stag Room) feature non-religious paintings of natural scenes (the bedchamber has lots of birds and foliage, while the Stag Room has hunting scenes).
The Grand Chapel is also an enormous room at 15m/50 ft by 52m/170 ft. When the palace was the home of the Papacy, new popes were first anointed here. During the 19th century, when the palace was occupied by French troops, this room was converted into a 3 story barrack!
This beautiful door leads to the Grand Chapel. After a newly elected pope was anointed inside the chapel, he would exit these doors and address the masses for the first time via the balcony on the other side. If you look closely, you can see that all of the figures surrounding the arch are beheaded. This beheading of statues happened during the French revolution.
Here you can see the newest pope, Pope Bob, addressing me from the balcony.
On top of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-des-Doms is a huge golden statue of Mary.
Oh so beautiful.
Directly across the river Rhône is what looks like a very large fortified palace. When the Palais de Papes was constructed, the French royalty felt threatened. So they built just the facade of a grand palace across the river to intimidate the Popes.
Leading into the fortified palace is (or, rather, was) the Pont Saint-Bénézet, or Saint Benezet bridge. Built between 1177 and 1185, the bridge once spanned the Rhône. Forty years later it was destroyed by King Louis VIII. It was rebuilt, but was very expensive to maintain (the bridge tended to collapse when the river flooded). By the 1600s, the bridge was abandoned. All that remains are the 14th century-built 4 arches.
The town of Avignon is not just made up of papal palaces; in fact, Avignon has a population of around 90,000 inhabitants, 12,000 of which live within the old city surrounded by these 14th century ramparts.
Avignon is the birthplace of composer Olivier Messiaen, one of Bob's favorites. Here is a plaque commemorating the place where Messiaen was baptized.
Avignon also has a fantastic food hall, where we bought lots of yummy local items for a dinner we cooked. Fresh radishes dipped in fantastically salty butter, arugula salad with beets and fresh, soft goat cheese, roasted asparagus with butter and lemon, and thinly sliced steak rolled with spinach and goat cheese, rounded off by a nice bottle of Gigondas wine.
The area around Avignon is a fantastic wine growing region. We visited several different vintners in two different regions/appellations: Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. Here you can see where Châteauneuf-du-Pape gets its name: the castle built by Pope John XXII in the early 1300s. More of the small castle stood until the 1940s, when German troops detonated explosives in the castle as they retreated.
The Châteauneuf-du-Pape growing area covers 7,900 acres and is one of the most renowned appellations in the southern Rhône valley. The soil is extremely special: many of the grapes grow in large quartzite rocks, with vines that must reach very deep to retrieve water. The rocks retain the day's warmth and release the warmth at night, creating a very special condition for the vines.
Thirteen grape varieties can be used to create wine from Châteauneuf-du-Pape: grenache (the primary grape used, accounting for 72% of the vines), syrah (second most used grape, accounting for 10% of the vines), mourvedre (third most used grape, accounting for 7% of the vines), bourboulence, cinsaut, clairette blache, clariette rose, counoise, grenache blac, grenache pris, muscardin, picardan, piquepoul blanc, piquepoul gris, piquepoul boir, roussanne, terret noir, and vaccarèse.
We purchased several bottles in the area, most of which are to be kept in our 'cellar' for a few years before we drink them. It's exciting to start our own cellar, even if we lack an actual cellar.
After visiting Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we headed over to Gigondas. With 3,030 acreas, Gigondas is a smaller appellation and produces only red and rosé wines. Similar to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Gigondas reds are very powerful, full-bodied, and heavy on the tannins. The small village in Gigondas held this water fountain; Bob said the water tasted very fresh.

Over all, we had a fantastic trip to both Avignon and southern France in general. We ate well, drank well, got a good fill of history, culture, and wine knowledge, and discovered a new-to-us region of France.