Monday, 3 November 2008

A Weekend in Champagne

Did you know that after aging (a minimum of 1.5 years for an average bottle to a maximum of 40 years in the case of Dom Pérignon), every bottle of champagne must be turned a quarter turn every single day in a process called remuage or riddling?

Mechanical turning does greatly facilitate this mundane chore but for all prestige cuvées, a human turner still does the job. The rate for an average turner you ask??? Would you believe 40,000 bottles a day. Mindboggling! This fact, many others, and much bubbly consumption occured this past weekend when Mighty Mom and I drove up to Champagne for a tour, an education and a rip-roaring good time.

We left early on Friday and after a journey of about 5 hours arrived in Reims, the capital of the Champagne region under a threatening sky. While definitely catering to the Champagne tourist, Reims is also home to the magnificent Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral where the kings of France were crowned. The most famous of these coronations was that of Charles VII in the company of Joan of Arc.
Additionally, it was in Reims on May 7, 1945 that General Eisenhower and the Allies received Germany's unconditional surrender. A little history interwoven with a coupe or two while strolling through the many cafes and brasseries in the Place Drouet d'Erlon.

Early Saturday we joined our tour, and accompanied by several Brits and Scots set off into the Côte des Blancs, which together with the Montagne de Reims, and the Vallée de la Marne make up the 3 grape growing regions or terroirs within Champagne. Three types of grapes are grown in these regions, the Chardonney, the Pinot Noir and the Pinot Meunier; and it is the producers' proprietary blending of one or more of these grapes which produces the unique characteristics of a champagne.
The first house we visited was the medium-sized house Michel Gonet and after a rough beginning whereby the flumoxed owner raced out of his bath to greet us, we had a wonderful tour of his operation, a detailed lesson in champagne-making, and a charming tasting or degustation with never-ending refills.

The stands used by the remuers to turn the prestige cuvée bottles

We tipsily followed up our first visit with a 5-course lunch at a restaurant in a small village outside of Epernay, the unofficial capital of Champagne. Lunch was accompanied by more champagne, a Côte de Rhone Viognier, and an intense Bordeaux. We exchanged stories with our tour mates, had lots of laughs and found more than a little in common with each other.

In the caves at Moët et Chandon

Two and a half hours later, we reboarded our bus and headed to the caves of the grande marque Moët et Chandon. Needless to say, this experience was amazing. We roamed through a small part of the more than twenty kilometers of underground tunnels storing hundreds of thousands of bottles at various stages of aging and production. While informative, the tour was very corporate, and somewhat lacked the charm of our earlier visit. Still it was Moët et Chandon and an inspiring place to visit for any believer of the bubbly.

Our final tour of the day was to the small house Lanaudie-Hirault. After yet another generous degustation and resulting discussion, we all agreed that the qualities and flavours of the small producers, confined as they are to the production rules established by the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) , were equally delicious as those of the grandes marques at considerably less cost. To be sure, in the future I will not hesitate to experiment with champagnes produced by these smaller houses.

We rolled back into Reims late into the evening and shared a meal with a small group of our co-conspirators that went on until yet much later into the evening. I wouldn't have missed a minute of it.


Jen said...

sounds fab! mmmmmm!

Jawahara said...