I recently spent several days in Champagne country in France. There is nothing too notable about this fact other than one small detail: I visited the region as a tourist, not as a wine trade professional.
This was a major concession to my wife who has been very patient over the years when I disappear into a winery for a few minutes and re-appear two hours later. My lovely wife has developed a coping mechanism to keep her sanity and to hold our marriage intact while I indulge my winery visit routines. She brings a Donna Leon mystery when we travel and has now completed the full series of Commissario Brunetti Venetian crime novels. She needs to find a new writer to follow or I need to flex my approach to wine country visits. This trip we did the flex thing.
What does visiting a wine region as a tourist entail?
Well, it involves making no advance appointments to visit wineries so one can be assured of meeting the owner, the winemaker and any other people who are part of the local winery story. It means you sleep in and have a relaxing breakfast before hitting the road – as opposed to rushing out shortly after sunrise to get to your first appointment.
We will never forget the morning trip in the Yarra Valley fog two years ago. We couldn’t find a satellite for the GPS, we got lost and fortunately recovered our path by accident. This was all happening on the way for a 9:00 am rendezvous with James Halliday, the prolific Australian wine writer and wine maker. We arrived at the crack of nine and James’ first comment was “you are punctual”, said in a way that made it clear that punctuality was important…Phew!
Tourist travel also means you get back to the hotel while the sun is still up. Perhaps most importantly it means you don’t try to return home to Canada with two cases of wine, wine that was bought along the way, often as a token of gratitude to the hosts. Bringing wine home is an excellent way to throw money down the drain – not due to duty and excise taxes but due to breakage – inevitable when you fly Air Canada. Tourists drink the wine they buy in situ, in the restaurant or their room, that evening.
So what did we do in Champagne? We visited the famous Notre-Dame cathedral in Reims. This is the place where the kings of France were crowned and a place that figured prominently in the early history of the region. The cathedral was severely damaged during artillery bombardment in the First World War but has been rebuilt and is a stunning piece of architecture – both in scale and detail.
Another site we visited was the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay. This elegant street lives true to its name. It is the address for several of the major negociant houses and is an elegant boulevard of stately and historic buildings, stylish apartments and the home of several industry bodies. It is wonderful avenue to stroll in the spring sunshine after a bistro lunch.
We also visited the small village of Hautvillers, a five minute drive out of Epernay. This is the home of the Abbey of Hautvillers, the place where the famous monk, Dom Perignon, lived and toiled. Dom Perignon is considered in folklore to be the father of Champagne, a story kept alive to this day by the folks at Moët & Chandon, the present-day owners of the Dom Perignon brand.
We visited several Champagne houses in Reims and Epernay. Nobody does tourism better than the marketing behemoths that are Moët & Chandon, Taittinger, Pol Roger, Mumm and their competitors. Each house conducts tours throughout the day, in your choice of language (you do need to book ahead for these tours as the tour groups are small). These tours are explorations of the history and traditions of the house always conducted in the limestone vaults deep under the ground.
The tour guides follow a formal script that describes the processes of winemaking using the méthode traditionelle. There is ample opportunity for questions along the way. I did find there was a resistance to technical questions that might unearth some secrets but that is a quibble that shouldn’t have arisen if I had truly tried to stay on the tourist track. Slap!
Each tour ends with a tasting and depending on your ticket you may get one glass or you may get several glasses of different wines. We shared tickets so we could do a comparison of different wines and so I didn’t consume too much (I was the designated driver). My wife was very pleased with this arrangement.
The caves at each house are spectacular and the tours make the wines and their heritage live. My wife learned a great deal on these tours (and I took lots of photographs).
I teach sparkling wines in the WSET programs and the trip to Champagne region had one simple goal: I wanted to better understand the complex geography of the region. Champagne is a region of five zones: Montagne de Reims, Vallée de La Marne, Côtes des Blancs, Côtes de Bar and Côte Sézanne. I have always has some difficulty understanding what makes each of these zones distinct and the best way I learn is to see and experience, first hand. Hence the visit.
We drove through the countryside of Champagne, stopped often, walked the vineyards, saw the different pruning and trellising methods and spoke with vineyard workers to understand what they were doing. Champagne is defined by its geography: the climate, the aspect of the slopes, the use of rolling hillsides rather than flat plains, the soils and their effect on viticulture and wine style and so on. Goal accomplished with many photos to illustrate the points to my students.
If you want to have a great time in France, there is not a better place to visit than the northern reaches of France that are Champagne and Alsace-Lorraine. Reims is a 45 minute ride on the TGV from the Gare de L’Est in Paris. But it is a continent away in culture, tradition and pace. The food was exceptional everywhere we went and travelers can dine well on a modest budget in both Reims and Epernay.
We stayed in a fine hotel in Reims but next time we will find a place to stay in Epernay. Reims is a big city which has a charming centre, all rebuilt since the end of the first and second wars, but the rest of the city is big, uninteresting and sketchy. On the other hand Epernay is a provincial city of some 25,000 residents and has a nicer ambience than its neighbour half an hour up the road. In either case there are plenty of good hotels available. Use Trip Advisor to get the skinny on places to stay.
Next time also I will do the professional thing and set up advance appointments with some small producers, the recoltants-manipulants of the region. It was amazing to see the number of grower/makers in the small villages throughout the region. These are the makers whose wines reflect place and vintage in ways the negociant wines do not. The negociant wines are made to achieve a consistent house style year-in, year-out. The grower wines reflect the style their terroir allows and they show vintage variation, both of which make these wines interesting if you are an explorer.
All-in-all this was a trip with a twist and it was a welcome change from our traditional frenetic working tours. Highly recommended and four thumbs up!
Copyright© W. John Switzer 2003 – 2012.