Sunday, November 30, 2008

Girls Trip to Champagne, France (Oct 11 & 12)

Since one of my friends, Stephanie Cohan, had a gal coming to visit her, we decided to do a girls trip to Champagne, France on the weekend of October 12. Also one of Shannon's coworkers, Stephanie Clark, who we also hang out with quite a bit, came along since she appreciates good champagne. Unfortunately, we had just missed Harvest, but there were still a few grapes left on the vines since they only pick the best grapes for champagne production. The region of Champagne is in the northeast of France and is only 3 1/2 hrs away from Brussels. The commercial centers of the area are Reims, Épernay and Troyes; however, we only visited Épernay and a few smaller surrounding towns. We actually preferred the smaller, lesser known champagne houses to the big name champagne houses. The quality was much better along with the prices and hospitality of the owners of the small caves. Though, we did enjoy the tour of the caves at a few of the more popular larger champagne houses, such as Mercier and de Castellane which are both located in Épernay.

We found Épernay to be a very tourist-friendly town and thus was the main reason we decided to stay there. It boasts an estimated 200 miles (322 km) or more of cellars and tunnels. These caves are vast vaults cut into the chalk rock on which the town is built. The most famous street in Épernay is the Avenue de Champagne which is lined with neoclassical villas and Victorian town houses. It features the leading Champagne manufactures, such as Moët et Chandon (the largest), Pol Roger, Mercier, and de Castellane. Moët et Chandon actually created the Dom Pérignon (inventor of champagne) brand of vintage champagne in the late 1920s and thus, is the reason why it's recognized by most individuals as the most perfect champagne available, though, also the most expensive on the market! The tour at Mercier was pretty cool since you take a train through its vast caves with a guide. Castellane also had a nice walking tour of its caves and wine-making methods. However, both of these champagne houses didn't live up to our expectations when it came to the tasting, but I felt obligated to buy one bottle which I did at Castellane.

Our favorite destination in Champagne was Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, one of the small Champagne towns outside of Épernay. The champagnes of Le Mesnil are often racy and acidic when young, but burst into exotic fruit flavors with underlying levels of toffee, almond and vanilla, when matured in the bottle. First we visited the champagne house of Launois Pére & Fils where we tasted three different kinds. I ended up buying two bottles from them since we were also heading to another place and my husband told me that I couldn't go crazy and buy a ton of bottles! The next place we went was called Robert Charlemagne which happened to be on a whim since we met the owner at a market in town (on a side note: the market had fantastic cheese and wine samples that we indulged in)! We only tried one kind here, but it was extremely good, so I ended up buying around four bottles along with two champagne flutes. We all concluded that Le Mesnil-sur-Oger had the best champagnes and will more than likely head back there once we run out!

Just some fun facts: The vines of Champagne take root in a vast layer of chalk under a thin layer of fertilized soil. The Champagne vineyards are planted only with Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay by law. The method of making "mousse" (another name for bubbles) in a bottle was invested by the efforts of Frère Jean Oudart (1654 - 1742) and Dom Pierre Pérignon (1639 - 1715), Benedictine monks and cellar masters at the respective abbeys of Saint-Pierre aux Monts de Châlons and Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers.

(We actually never went to Mailly Champagne, which is the name listed on the huge wooden wine barrel photo above. We noticed it in the middle of some vineyards and thought it would be a cool picture. It was located on the Route de Champagne which is a road going through the countryside of Champagne)

Some grapes they left for me to sample! (Harvest was over by the time we visited in Oct)One of the Champagne Houses on Avenue de Champagne in Épernay
Elaborate old wine barrel at Mercier's Champagne House - Épernay
We all took the train tour of Mercier's Caves (me, Stephanie Cohan and her friend Betsy, Stephanie Clark took the photo)
In Mercier's Caves
In Mercier's Caves
In Mercier's Caves
In Mercier's Caves
In Mercier's Caves
In Mercier's Caves at the beginning of tour
Pyramid of Mercier's Champagne in their showroom with giant wine barrel in background
Enjoying a glass of Champagne at Mercier (we were able to keep the glass, though not our favorite Champagne!)
You can buy it in a variety of sizes
Castellane Champagne House Tower (just down the road from Mercier)
Castellane Champagne House
Wine barrels at Castellane
On our tour of Castellane's Caves (notice that some bottles are from 1870! I think it's more for show than people really drinking that old of champagne!)
Castellane labeled their wine cave walkways/paths with different names
A machine that automatically rotates the bottles when needed.
Most of the big Champagne Houses use stainless steel vats instead of wooden barrels
Castellane's Champagne
Stephanie Clark, Betsy, Stephanie Cohan and me enjoying some Castellane Champagne at the end of our tour
Moët et Chandon Champagne House (makes the famous Dom Pérignon Champagne)
Dom Pérignon invented the process of Champagne
Unique structure in Épernay
Outside the Champagne House of Launois Pére & Fils in the small town of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger
Finally we found some champagne that we really liked, so we all ended up buying a few bottles at Launois Pére & Fils (the two Stephanie's hauling our cases back to the car)
At a market in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger (I love Comte fromage - cheese!)
Another good cheese, Gruyere, I think originally from Switzerland
Still yet another fine cheese, Beaufort (Can you tell I'm obsessed with cheese!)
Another form of Comte cheese ('vieux' means old)
Our second stop in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger was at the Champagne House of Robert Charlemagne
Having yet another tasting of champagne at Robert Charlemagne! (we all really liked their champagne and bought the most bottles from them)

1 comment:

the voice of melody said...

Your trip sounds like it was so much fun! Thank you for sharing all your pictures, it's "almost" like being there. I enjoyed learning a bit more about champagne (a glass might be nice too!).