Fridays in France: Thanks, Champagne!

Hey, remember once upon a time when I went to Paris?! Remember how I said I wanted to blog all about it and finally finish and wrap it up? Hey, me too!

I feel like such a schlump not officially committing the amazingness that was our Paris trip to record here, so I’m really going to focus on and try to do that. That said, I went to Paris in May and plenty has happened since then that’s also worth writing about, so in favor of not totally flooding my blog with posts, I’m going to have “Fridays in France” every week from now until I’m all Paris’d out. I previously covered two of our three day trips, to Versailles (and its gorgeous gardens) and Giverny, home of Monet’s famous gardens, as well as useful tips and notes on where we shopped and ate while there.

To wrap up our trip with a bang (or a bubble? Ha!), we took a full-day tasting trip to Champagne, about an hour and a half outside of Paris, and I cannot recommend the experience highly enough. This was easily the highlight of our trip, and was something we debated doing for several weeks before we bit the bullet and booked it. It was one of our most expensive tours/activities, but it was honestly worth every euro and then some.

We booked our tour with O Chateau through Viator, and were picked up right from our apartment by beautiful Pierre, a former winemaker with a degree in vinology from UC-San Diego. We quickly rounded up another five passengers to complete our small-group tour, and set off for Reims, the heart of the Champagne region.

A quick note before we proceed: all the outstandingly good photos are by Emily, and all the blurry/unfocused/poorly-composed/tipsy-looking ones are mine!! 

Reims is not only the birthplace of champagne, but also a major player in French history as the traditional site of coronations since Clovis in 496. Joan of Arc famously crowned Charles VII in the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Reims in 1429, and the city was the site of German surrender to Allied forces on May 7, 1945.

We arrived early enough to visit the beautiful Cathedral  and explore for a bit before heading out to champagne houses. I loved the juxtaposition of the soaring gothic cathedral with the more modern Chagall stained glass.

From the Cathedral, we took a short trip to Taittinger, the first of the three champagne houses we’d be visiting. Taittinger is one of the biggest champagne producers in the region, and also one of the oldest! The Taittinger property was a great first stop, since it was a super-comprehensive tour offering a peek into the traditional production method for champagne. We started by heading through these fancy doors...and down over 300 feet underground to the Taittinger champagne caves! 

Champagne was accidentally invented by French monks in the 1500s, and production methods have remained largely unchanged since that time. The monks bottled their wine before fermentation ended, resulting in sparkles. The methode champenoise evolved about a hundred years later (thanks Dom Perignon!), where  a "secondary fermentation" in the bottle with the addition of sugar created the carbonation. There are incredibly technical aspects to the production of champagne, including the temperature at which wine is stored during the fermentation process. The tunnels under the monks' abbey at Reims proved perfect: the chalk walls dating back to Gallo-Roman times create the ideal amount of moisture and maintain a consistent temperature of  around 53 degrees. 

Once bottled, champagne has to secondary-ferment for a minimum of 1.5 years, often much longer, and further undergo the process of remouage, or "riddling." The A-frame racks seen above and below are designed to be placed at an adjustable angle, which grows wider over time as the champagne ferments. During remouage, a vintner rotates every bottle a precise quarter-turn one way and eighth-turn the other, giving them a small shake to loosen sediment and guide it to the neck of the bottle. After fermentation, the sediment is removed and the extra space is refilled with yeast and a little sugar prior to corkage, giving champagne the crystal-clarity it's known for. 

Once riddled and corked, champagne rests in the caves until it's perfectly aged and ready for shipment. While it was impressive enough to see a stack like this...

...the true scale of the production quickly became evident when we were told that each production cave held over 3,000 finished bottles. Um, HI. And there were SO many caves! 

Having frolicked with the monks in the caves and tunnels for about an hour, we ascended back to the tasting salon for our first (of many) glasses of champagne for the day! Seeing dozens of glasses lined up and waiting for us made my boozy little heart skip a beat. 

We sampled the "Brut Vintage" from 2010, a single-year bottling. Most champagnes are a blend of several years' grapes and wines to create a consistent and balanced's only in an exceptional crop or growing year that a single year is kept separate. The champagne was great, although after our next six tastings in hindsight it seemed sweet. 

Santé, Mom and Mem! 

From Taittinger, we headed deeper into the heart of Champagne to Verzy, home of our second stop! Pierre, our guide, was incredibly informative and filled us in on the history of the region as he drove, even making a pit stop so we could experience a terroir (champagne plot) for ourselves. The day couldn't have been lovelier...

Each terroir is approximately the size of my freshman dorm room (i.e. TINY), and the entire region is patchworked together due to the laws of inheritance for plots. Champagne plots are passed down through families, and as such, most have been split multiple times to go to multiple children, etcetera. The result is that many families don't have contiguous plots anymore...instead, they're scattered all over the place. The plot we stopped at was owned by Maison Penet, our second destination, and was marked out by their distinctive scrolled French cross: 

Little baby grapes (Clearly I took this photo, ignore the awful focus)!! Pierre told us that champagne grapes are typically a combination of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, and the grapes are harvested 100 days after the vines first flower. For Maison Penet, that job requires 800 workers going for over three weeks. There are only three vines per plant for champagne grapes, and the vines stay super tiny (all the vines in these pictures are mature vines). 

After getting our education in the fields, we headed to the Penet champagne house, which also happens to be the Penet family's beautiful 250-year-old home! 

While the crux of the tour was similar in content to Taittinger, Maison Penet is a boutique champagne producer, putting out an infinitesimal number of bottles compared to Taittinger. They also pride themselves on producing only brut and extra-brut champagne, which means little to no sugar is added. This allows the blend of each vintage to truly shine, according to the Penets! 

After our tour, we were treated to an absolutely gorgeous three-course lunch in the Penet family's home, hosted by Martine Penet. She and her husband Alexandre both grew up in champagne-producing families, and are raising their 12- and 10-year old daughters to take over the 300-year old Penet champagne house! She told me their 12-year old can already taste and discuss vintages--I'm so jealous. 

We were served a wide variety of food...a carrot salad, various crackers and breads, pâté and assorted crudités, and a delicious pork. We chased it all with insanely good French cheese...saboir and Chaource, a pungent one Martine's husband had just brought home from the Swiss Alps. I was lucky enough to be seated next to her, and throughout the lunch, we conversed entirely in French...what a pleasure and thrill to be able to do so! She told me all about her daughters, the family's recent roof replacement, and of course plenty about life in a champagne family. I was enchanted. 

We tasted three champagnes...their Grand Cru Extra Brut (above), the Penet Chardonnet, a delightful floral/very light champagne, and their Blanc de Blancs, a vintage that's so good that every bottle is numbered and labeled with an engraved pewter plate. Martine consistently emphasized that champagne shouldn't be a special-occasion beverage only, and pairs marvelously with almost everything. After our lunch, I was completely sold...and Mom bought a case of Penet champagne to have shipped home!! 

At this point, with a healthy buzz and full stomachs, we were perfectly primed for our third stop at Maison Lelarge Pugeot, an all-organic "campagne biologique." Smaller even than Maison Penet, Lelarge Pugeot uses all bio-friendly, pesticide-free farming techniques and is among the scant 2% of French wine producers to claim that. The operation was lovely, as was our walk through beautiful Vrigny to reach their fields and bottling facility. 

Clearly at this point we were amused by plenty...including discovering a wine barrel full of first-fermentation champagne that we could literally have stuck Mom in! 

I also enjoyed seeing the sediment we had learned about at Taittinger up close. 

Lelarge Pugeot differed from Taittinger and Penet in that all production was done with heavy reliance on technology, rather than hand-riddling and bottling. Further, champagne was aged in barrels rather than bottles for a smoother, rounder flavor. I found the difference in approaches interesting. 

How picturesque is Vrigny? It put me in mind of the first scene in "Beauty and the Beast," a true "little town, it's a quiet village" type scenario. So charmant! 

It also didn't hurt that we had an utterly adorable little tagalong companion, the Lelarge vineyard dog! She was such a sweetie pie and stuck close through the entire tour. 

It was so incredible to see acres upon acres of beautiful grapevines, knowing the history and prestige behind each plot of land. Similar to the Penets, the Lelarge family has been in the champagne business for ages. According to their website, the 8th generation just started working for the family business! Sign me up, please. 

After three more delicious tastings at Lelarge, we piled back into our van with beautiful Pierre and tucked in for the 1.5 hour drive back to Paris. It felt like my insides had turned to champagne...we must have pounded through over a bottle and a half apiece in the course of the day's tastings! I learned so much, and I'm afraid it's turned me into a total champagne snob.

We've been drinking our Penet champagnes all fall, and are saving our two engraved bottles of Blanc de Blancs for Jonathan's graduation...tres bien, n'est-ce pas??

Until next Friday, my loves!