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!

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