Upon leaving Paris I picked up a rental car and headed northeast to Reims. My companion and I went back and forth on the benefit of trains vs. cars. In the end we realized the car afforded the most flexibility plus a moving room to hold all our junk (and bottles).
Bubbles, I adore the bubbles, I secretly admit that this was the region I was most looking forward too. I have cultivated a love affair with the bubble going on a decade now, and I was finally going to get to geek-out on all the particulars around its creation and different blends.
The Champagne region encompasses two major cities: Reims and Epernay, with the latter considered the heart of operations. Small towns and villages dot the landscape providing a wonderful variety and diversity of tastes. I visited both large and small producers. Regardless of the size, they want to provide tours and they are not cheap. Vast research (thank you, Trip Advisor) indicated that the best, and most expensive tour, was at Ruinart. They claim to be the oldest producer but their oldest bottle in their vast chalk catacombs is from 1948. We can thank World War II for that one. It seems the Germans had a taste for good champs and nearly bought them out (and yes they did buy them and not just take them, granted at ridiculous discounts).
The tours range from one to two hours and start by taking you into their ‘caves’. Every house has a cave of some kind, whether it be dug deep into the chalk below or hand crafted with concrete, regardless, they are looking for a steady, moist temperature to ensure the quality of their craft. The caves themselves are impressive and vast, dug out by the Romans, circa 1st century, to provide building materials for the surrounding communities.
I wouldn’t suggest more than one or two of these tours as the information will be repetitive, though often sprinkled with added tidbits of historical relevance. After my third tour I was all filled up with knowledge and ready for them to just bring on the sparkles already. I would suggest going to one large and one small producer to get the full experience. This was the keen distinction: tasting. I was shocked at the differences that could be gleaned based on the blending of the grapes and time they either spent aging in vats, barrels or bottles. Each step in the process could alter the flavor. The big difference between the large and small houses is consistency. The large houses are trying to capture a specific taste of years gone by while the little producers allow the flavor of the grape from that season. They will sometimes fiddle with it by blending prior years together to achieve something of incredible yumminess, but mainly they let nature dictate how the champagne should taste in a given year.
Quality – Tiny bubbles, or at least this is what I heard before arriving, was how to distinguish quality. This is only partly true. It would seem that age often determines bubble size. The longer a bottle matures, the smaller the bubble. The other factors include type of grape and even the kind of glass you are using. There is a reason why we drink from flutes. The unique shape showcases the bubbles. Pour a glass of champagne into a regular cup and the bubbles die a swift death.
Beyond the bubbles, the cities, towns and villages offer much in historical fodder and just plain good atmosphere. Wandering around the tiny village of Hautvillers, where the tomb of Dom Perignon can be found, I was continually struck by the rolling countryside and the perfect upkeep of the buildings around me. It almost felt like I had stumbled onto the set of Chocolat (though that movie was based in the village of Flavigny).
Reims has it’s own Notre Dame cathedral. I can even see its iconic pinnacles from the place I rented off the square (love you, airbnb!). A pedestrian city, I walked to all the champagne houses that are just on the southern edge of the city within thirty minutes. Along the way, there are plenty of lovely shops, patisseries, and historical monuments to keep you and Google translator busy.
If you ever visit the area, I have one must do for you: á Hautvillers. In this tiny town is a café called: Au 36. This little Dégustations Champagnes provides a full experience to treasure. They provide a special ‘tapas’ plate meant to be paired with up to six different kinds of champagne. As the picture details, I did all six. Pourquoi pas? It is also a bottle shop so their assortment is vast. You can pick up bottles here at reasonable prices. I put my own ‘six pack’ together, a little something to get me through the next couple of days. 😉
One last decadence to share: I saw this loaf (yes, a loaf) of meringue and just had to share. I mean, wow.
Tomorrow we move through Chablis on our way to Burgundy, where we are staying at a tiny B&B in the middle of a vineyard.