Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Champagne for a Day!

"My only regret in life is that I did not drink more Champagne." - John Maynard Keynes  (Don't let this happen to you!)

Today we are off to the Champagne region on a day tour called "The Paris Champagne Tour."  Our guide, Trong Nguyen, picked us up right outside our apartment at 7:00 a.m.  This is a small group tour, and we were soon joined by two nice young couples: Kim & Lloyd from Australia (but now living in Hong Kong) and Wilson and Sheree from Seattle.  Trong provided us with a bag of yummy pastries, juice, espresso, and bottled water -- indicative of how well he would look after us all day long.

As he drove us northeast of Paris, Trong gave us a mini-Paris tour and then talked about the history of the Champagne Region, an area so devastated in WWI (think trenches and mustard gas) that the people here are distrustful of any strangers even today.  We rode past the Marne River, scene of horrific battles, and past Flanders Fields -- you may know the poem by John McCrae:

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow,
Between the crosses, row on row..."

But on to the fizzy stuff.  We began our education where it all starts: in the vineyard.  And what a vineyard this was!  Verzenay, an idyllic village, is renowned for its Grand Cru pinot noir grapes, growing in small plots surrounding the town.

Trong told us that what makes this region so special is the chalk.  The soil is riddled with the stuff with a chalk layer that can be as deep as 3 football fields.  The chalk forces the vines to dig deeper to survive, but also provides protection by absorbing both rain water and warmth from the sun.  As you can see the vines are planted very low to the ground -- only short people need apply for grape-picking here!  The low planting is necessary because of the late frosts; low-lying plants gather warmth from the chalky soil that prevents damage to the vine.

Trong also explained the key difference between wine (still, unsparkling wine) and champagne.  Unlike regular wine, champagne has no vintage -- you buy a brand, not a year.  Champagne vintners blend from various year's harvests to create their own special brand of champagne (based on secret recipes).  The key is consistency, and somehow (with various adjustments that must be made each year), each Champagne brand is able to produce the same taste year after year.

Trong gets down and dirty in the chalky soil.
Although champagne is big business, the huge conglomerates still rely on small plots like the ones here in the town of Verzenay.  Interestingly, Trong told us that the biggest producers actually use lower quality grapes, relying more on their secret recipes (and their advertising!). 

All the big names are represented here: Veuve Cliquot, Dom Perignon, Bollinger, Mumm, and Moet and Chandon.

Our first champagne-house visit was to a small producer, a 5th generation Mom-and-Pop establishment called Godmé, and Madame Godmé herself conducted our tour.  Madame explained (with Trong translating) how she creates Champagne from a blend of these grapes:  55 % Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir, and 15% Pinot Meunier.

We won't bore you with the whole process, but it is fascinating.  For one thing, Champagne is bottled with the fermentation still active, and a process called riddling is necessary to gently move all the leas (dead yeast) down thru the neck of the bottle.  Years ago, workers called "riddlers" would rotate the downward angled bottles by hand.  Nowadays, the new-fangled modern riddling machines incrementally turn the bottles one notch about once every 3 hours over a 3-week period.

Of course, the highlight of any winery tour is the moment when you get to taste the product!  Initially, we thought that Madame spoke no English, but the more we drank (and the more we raved about her wine), the more she was able to understand (and even speak) l'anglais!

No question about it, we really liked Madame's champagne!  Godmé produces just 4,000 cases of champagne a year, but they were listed at #53 on Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines in the World in 2010, and apparently, this champagne has a cult following around the world.  Sign us up for the cult!

Taking a breather from the frothy stuff, our next stop was the magnificent Reims Cathedral nearby -- where the coronations of 26 French kings took place beginning with Clovis, the pagan king of the Franks.  His wise wife Clothilde persuaded him to convert to Christianity, and his statue appears near the top of the cathedral's main facade standing in what looks like a barrel (it's meant to represent his baptism). 

This is also the place where Charles VII was crowned thanks to Joan of Arc who convinced him that he would never be recognized as the true king unless his coronation was held here.  Sadly, Trong told us that Joan of Arc has become a symbol of the far right in France, and her image now invokes all kinds of political baggage.

After a marvelous 3-course lunch at a charming brasserie, we continued on to Lanson, a major champagne producer, to see how the big boys operate.  Lanson is a huge champagne house with vats that can hold 25 million bottles (I think I got that staggering figure right).  However, our tour here lacked the passion and love of the grape that we felt at Godmé this morning. 

As you can see below, the champagne is first sealed with a metal cap.  This cap is replaced with a traditional cork after the leas are removed.   (Remember that the leas were shifted to the neck of the bottle during the riddling process.)  The way they get rid of those leas is quite clever: they freeze the neck of the bottle in brine (salt water freezes at a lower temperature than the champagne), remove the metal cap, and the frozen leas pop out.  Unfortunately, we did not get to see this "disgorgement" step but definitely want to someday.

Lanson did have very pretty packaging:

Of course we enjoyed the Lanson tasting, but it did not compare to the tasting with Madame Godmé.

What a wonderful day out of Paris!  We definitely want to make a return visit to the Champagne region -- both for the champagne and for the WWI history.

Madame Godmé and our little tour group


  1. YAYYYY You made it to Reims!!!!! I'm so glad you did. My favorite place in the world.

    1. We loved it (thanks so much for recommending)! We are already talking about a return trip. Would love to stay for about a week and rent a car so that we could really explore the area. France is so endlessly appealing!