A few years ago I learned that the only wine makers who can label their sparkling wine as “champagne” are those who grow and make their wine in the Champagne region of France itself. This region, made up of small towns like Epernay and Reims have century old traditions and values instilled in their names and products.
In the summertime, all of the Champagne Houses are open, from Moet & Chandon, Verve Cliquot, Perrier-Jouet and any other brand you have ever heard of, but in the winter, a lot of the big houses are closed, leaving smaller crowds and bringing more attention to the smaller champagne houses as well. Braving the cold in favor of smaller crowds and celebrating a friend’s birthday, a small group of us headed to Epernay for the weekend to explore this land of bubbles with The Great Champagne Experience.
We stayed at a cute & quircky B&B on the “Avenue de Champagne” just a few feet from Moet & Chandon and Perrier-Jouet… The B&B even had its own house champagne, which our hosts happily poured for us during breakfast to start our day.
Then we were off on a pre-coordinated tour exploring the region with our guide Pascal and tastings at 3 champagne houses.
We started the day at Philippe Martin, where we were greeted by the 8th generation champagne maker in the family since 1892. She took us on a small tour of the facilities to see where the grapes were pressed, the juice is sorted, and where it ferments for the “double fermentation” process. From there she took us to the cellars where the wines age appropriately. She talked about how her grandfather and some of the people from the neighborhood used to hide in the cellars during WW2. Of all the places to have to hide…a room with nearly unlimited supply of champagne probably ranks among the best.
After the tour we tasted 3-4 of the different champagnes as she talked about the 3 types of grapes used in champagne and the different names based on which grapes are used. I discovered I am a fan of the Blanc de Blanc champagne, which is made entirely with chardonnay grapes.
From there we headed to Tanneux-Mahy for our second tasting. This house was more of a traditional tasting room and we did not do a tour (we were OK with this because we didn’t need to hear the champagne making process all over again). The best part of this house was the resident puppy that was happy to hang around us—what could be better than puppies & wine??? Since the host at this house spoke no English and we spoke no French, we did less learning here and more drinking. In fact, all 3 of our tastings were full size glasses (and the tasting was only $6 pp)! After this house we were all ready to break for lunch.
Lunch was a local spot in Reims with all of the traditional French food you would expect, escargot, foie gras, steak tartare… etc. Everything was absolutely delicious and we all forwent wine in favor of water and coffee to keep us going.
The final House on the tour was Pommery which is the second largest after Moet & Chandon. It is also one of the few houses connected via a vast network of caves as well as its own chalk quarry. The history of Pommery is that of a love for innovation and modern art and so the entire site has exhibits of modern art throughout it. This year the theme was “giant” so there were lots of “giant” things…some were cool, most were not (but I also hate most modern art….).
The tour of the caves was really cool and I would highly recommend anyone doing a tour of the region picks at least one spot with these caves. It was incredibly impressive walking through all of the caves and tunnels where Pommery keeps over 30 million bottles of champagne at any given time. As we walked through, every different turn had the name of a different country that the champagne is exported to. After the tour, we each had 2 tastings and none of us were able to finish them. Our tour guide was shocked but it turns out, you really can drink too much good champagne. I think we all knew that if we finished those two glasses we would be hurting later (they seemed pretty sweet).
The food we ate in Epernay was sublime (& Michelin starred). Each restaurant gave us a bible of champagnes to pick from which was totally overwhelming so we picked based on reasonability of price & cuteness of label ! Grilled Gourmande was our absolutely favorite and we found out later from the locals that it is theirs too. You can’t make a trip to Epernay without eating there first. We had our final dinner at Les Berceaux (one Michelin star) which had excellent staff and presentation of food (if not for some stinky cheese)!
If you’ve already been to Paris and are thinking of a trip back to France, a weekend in this region is certainly worth your time