Champagne the gift of life!
Champagne! The life-giving elixir of love and happiness. As Napoleon Bonaparte would say, “In victory, you deserve Champagne; in defeat, you need it.”
Champagne is the life of the party for special occasions and a gracious companion when you need to relieve stress with a bubble bath at the end of a hectic day.
Wonderful sparkling wines are too numerous to name and perhaps too numerous to drink – Even though, I’d love to try! Prosecco and Cava styles are great sparkling wines – just to name a few.
But, there really is only one Champagne. Champagne is the original sparkling wine. And, all real Champagne is only from the Champagne region of France.
This summer was my first (and definitely not my last) trip to the Champagne region in Northern France. I decided to visit 3 wineries in the commune of Épernay. First, let’s revisit the drive from Paris to Épernay. Every movie that you’ve ever seen of a quaint French countryside is accurate. We could have taken the train but, enjoyed the drive and wanted to have the freedom to stop in multiple locations.
The drive was about an hour and a half through small towns and well paved scenic winding roads. Churches, small towns, farms, and homes dot the countryside. And, the ever-popular roundabouts popped up every few miles along the highway. Perhaps one of the most beautiful sites was a flower lined bridge as we drove through La Marne.
Upon arriving in Épernay we immediately drove to La Avenue de Champagne. The beauty of each house on the avenue is indescribable. We visited two houses for tasting in order to take as much time possible to enjoy each location and a third for photos and shopping.
The first house on our visit was Champagne de Venoge. Founded in 1837 by Henri-Marc de Venoge it features a beautiful white chateau, an outdoor dining and drinking patio and indoor wine bar and tasting area. The Champagne houses in Épernay are attentive to visitors and limit the number of individuals that they host during each hour. You get full attention by the knowledgeable staff. No crowding around a wine bar for hurried tastings. We sampled 3 Champagnes, each from the Princes line. I have to say that my favorite was the Blanc de Blancs. Poured from the Champagne de Venoge’s distinctive bottle style, the Blanc de Blancs is made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes.
A Gold medal winner at The World’s Finest Bubbly Awards in 2017, the Blanc de Blancs exhibits a crispness with flavors of dry pear, a little grapefruit, and beautiful bubbles with medium acidity. Featuring aromas of white flowers and minerality this is an excellent Champagne to enjoy as a multi-course meal starter. It is light, aromatic, very flavorful and the bubbles cascade up in the flute. We were very fortunate to secure seating at Champagne de Vonage and I recommend anyone traveling to Épernay to visit this house, see the beautiful craftsmanship of their unique bottles and of course drink the Champagne!
The next Champagne house that we visited was Champagne Alfred Gratien. This house was established in 1864. The cellar master – Nicolas Jager – is the 4th generation member of his family to create cuvees from the Gratien cellars. This visit included a cellar tour deep into the damp and chilly caverns of Épernay . The Gratien house benefits from an extensive network of vineyards in the Champagne region to purchase grapes for winemaking.
The visit began by viewing the preparation work underway to clean barrels housed onsite. We visited 2 weeks before grape picking started in Champagne. The production side of the house was busy ensuring that they would be ready for the grape juice when it arrived. All grapes are picked by hand in Champagne and pressing is done at the vineyards. The region swells with an additional 150,000 people to support the short window of time for grapes to be picked and pressed. Two-thirds of the grapes are selected from Grand Cru and Cru vineyards. The cellar room is kept at an 80% humidity level, 14 degrees Celsius. The winery uses approximately 1 thousand French oak second-hand barrels shipped from the Burgundy region of France.
Our next stop on the tour was my favorite, deep into the cellars where Champagne is bottled, turned (both by machine and hand) and stored until time for labeling. The cellars are chilly with damp chalk walls. If you rub against the walls you’ll definitely come away with chalk on your clothes. It is a dark and fascinating part of the winery. I was fortunate enough to see bottles of wines locked away in caverns where they were protected and hidden away from the Germans during the occupation of France during World War II.
After touring the labeling room, we had an opportunity to sample Champagnes produced at this house. My favorite was the Brut Rosé with aromas of berries and a dry palate with berries, crème brulee and roasted almonds. This Champagne had very light acidity and tannins making it an excellent sipping wine.
Another Champagne with a taste that was an entirely new experience is the Brut Nature. This Champagne is the true definition of dry with absolutely no sweetness. There are aromas and flavors evoking hints of nuts and butter. The acidity is bright with an explosion of bubbles in the flute. Champagne lovers should experiment with food pairings to experience this bubbly.
Our final stop was the house of Moet and Chandon. My favorite part of visiting this facility was the statue of Dom Perignon gracing the main plaza of the house. Dom was a French Benedictine monk credited with major improvements to the production of Champagne at a time when most wines produced were reds. The monastery where he spent the bulk of his adult life is owned by the house of Moet and Chandon.
Épernay is a beautiful town. There are amazing and very French architectural details that are visually stunning on each house. We found the Champagne houses hosts to be very welcoming and the product is simply phenomenal.