Tasting in Champagne

R and Angela aren’t big wine drinkers, but they magnanimously let me indulge in a full day and a half of champagne tasting. R even helped me contact the champagne houses to schedule visits. Most of the producers speak a little English, but they’re obviously chattier and more comfortable in their native French, so R also took on the role of translator, facilitating a steady flow of conversation about the champagnes and the region.

While it’s definitely possible to take the TGV to Reims (the largest city in Champagne) from Paris and visit the largest Champagne houses on foot (thereby avoiding the issue of spitting out those precious bubblies), I wanted a more intimate experience and visit the smaller houses whose wines I wouldn’t easily be able to find in the US (at a fraction of the price). Indeed, at H. Billiot & Fils, we met with the owner herself, who poured us a 2003 vintage Champagne that was quite unlike most Champagnes I’ve tasted (incredible notes of honey), and which is not exported outside of France. She chatted amiably with us while her son shyly lingered in the background.

The small producers that we visited (small being a relative term, say 50,000 bottles a year vs. the large houses with over 1 million bottles a year) were in quaint villages outside of Reims, which we easily got to by car, passing along the way rolling hills covered with neat rows of chardonnay and pinot noir vines. We visited two of these villages on this trip, Ambonnay and Cramant,  which are 2 of the 17 rated Grand Cru villages, as well as Mareuil sur Aÿ, one of two highest rated Premier Cru villages at 99%.

From April in France

Under the Champagne classification system, which was developed in the mid-20th century to set the price of grapes grown in the Champagne region, Grand Crus villages are the highest rated, 100%, followed by Premier Crus, which rated from 90% to 99%. Traditionally, the percentile ratings signify the proportion of the price that vineyard owners would receive for a fixed price of a kilograms of grapes. Most of the Grand Cru villages grow only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, the exception being Sillery, so we didn’t get to try any Champagne with Pinot Meunier, the third grape that is allowed in the production of Champagne.

I’d have skipped the tours of the largest Champagne houses altogether, but friends who have been to Champagne all highly recommended going to Pommery, not for the quality of the champagnes (they were in fact, the least impressive of the wines we had on our trip), but for their cave tours. Indeed, it was impressive – the caves extend 18 kilometers underground, and during the war, served as a refuge for hundreds of people. Today, it houses the house collection of bottles, 30 of which date back to the 19th century. Alas, these bottles have already undergone second fermentation; once removed from the lees, the wines don’t keep as well and these century-old bottles are thus no longer drinkable.

From April in France

Other stops on our champagne trail:

Eric Isselée, a tiny producer in Cramant (40,000 bottles)… we stayed at their B&B, and I can think of few more pleasant ways than to wake up to the sight of vines and the taste of refreshing, bright champagnes. Their rose champagne is my absolute favorite of the trip – almost chewy mouth feel of fresh strawberries. Their blanc de blancs were pretty good too, but it was their rose that I went home with. Which is kind of funny, since the region in which the producer is based, Cote des Blancs, grows just the Chardonnay varietal; they buy their Pinot Noir from a neighboring Grand Cru village.

From April in France

Roger Pouillon is located in Mareuil sur Aÿ, incidentally, which is also where Billecart-Salmon is (when we saw the sign for Billecart-Salmon, we stopped to try our luck at a tasting, but were told that they were fully booked for the next two weeks). When we arrived at Roger Pouillon, the proprietress, a lovely old lady who doesn’t speak any English, was tallying up sales with a couple who left with stacked cases of Champagne. She had her son conduct the tasting with us, since he speaks more English. I was on a rose phase this trip, and picked up a bottle of their Rose Brut 1er Cru, which is made entirely from Pinot Noir grapes. Gorgeous pink hue, with a lovely nose of berries and flowers.

Paul Déthune When we first drove by Paul Dethune, we saw that its parking lot was full of cars. Intrigued, R went to ask if they could squeeze us in for a tasting. The proprietress was friendly but apologetic; they were full for the day, but we could stop by tomorrow morning. And so we did. One of their employees, a lovely lady who doesn’t speak much English but still had plenty of smiles for Angela and I while we tried to strike up a conversation through the dependable R. She shared with us that they are a bio-dynamic winery, and in fact would be soon burying cow horns in their fields over the next few weeks. They produce 50,000 cases a year, and export most of their bottles. They don’t have any distribution in Paris (which seems to be the case for other small-ish producers, like H. Billiot & Fils), so the Parisian customers have to make the 2-hour drive out to pick up the wines. And typically, they would have to purchase their wines by July, since the winery usually sells out by September! Paul Dethune also makes a special Blanc du Noir just for their Italians and Japanese clients. I picked up a bottle of their Prestige, which at 32 euros, was double the price of the other bottles I’d bought on the trip! The lady also brought us down to their cave for a look around, which was fun. It’s nowhere as big as the caves of Pommery, but it’s a real cave with chalky walls.

From April in France

R’s recap of the trip here, including her requisite food review of our delectable dinner at La Grillade Gourmande, can be found here.

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