A bottle of chilled Champagne is happiness. When you uncork a bottle, pour it into a white wine glass, and allow the bubbles to breathe. It is pure bliss.
Champagne and I are great friends, but it does not compare to the distinct relationship between my dear friend Ashley (Queenie) and a good glass of bubbly. As she does not drink beer, wine or any spirits (save for an occasional rum), she has become a student of the savory, mouth watering, glass of champagne. Every day is a celebration for my wine fiend friend.
At the end of September, we happened to find ourselves in Paris with appointments to visit Champagne houses in Épernay. With our google notes synced, our CDC vaccine cards at the ready, we set off for Épernay, to learn how champagne is produced and stored. I was excited to get up close and personal with those bubbles, the food and the people.
Only having 3 days days in Épernay meant we packed in as much as possible. Given we were there during peak harvest season, some houses were closed. Studying smaller champagne producers, Ashley had an agenda to visit the likes of Deutz, Andre Clouet, Brun and Benoit Lahaye who were closed because of the harvest. Unfortunately, Bollinger, Ayala and Billecart-Salmon were completely booked or closed the days we were there. We recommend booking tastings/tours well in advance online whenever possible. Not all wineries are open on the weekend.
In three days, we visited Perrier-Jouët, Boizel, Henri Giraud, Louis De Sacy, as well as squeezing in a meal at the excellent Le Bellevue, Rotisserie Henri, and an all organic champagne bar, Brut. Every morning we enjoyed coffee and breakfast at our hotel, Villa Eugène.
Prelude: Saturday night, Orly airport in Paris. The Details.
After spending a week on a trimaran with friends in Corsica and Sardegna, we flew to Paris to start the second leg of our adventure to visit Champagne, France. We booked a car service to take us to Épernay, in the Champagne region, about 2 hours from Paris. Normally, we would have trained it, but with Covid and our extra designated champagne bottle suitcase in tow, it was a smart decision as we were punch drunk and could not possibly schlep luggage on and off trains. That’s the OPPOSITE of relaxation.
Our driver, Zak, owner of ZACAB 75, was terrific during our Saturday night drive. Not only was he prompt and polite, he quickly responded to Ashley’s near tantrum about the airport guards not allowing us back into the building to use the restroom and hit the ATM. He had a brief tête à tête with them and we were quickly ushered back into the arrivals lobby. Zak specializes in making trips quick and easy. He is obviously experienced in dealing with cranky, clueless Americans. We also booked him for another trip: Frick and Frack go to Paris!
We stayed at Hotel Villa Eugène, a magnificent 19th century manor. It is gorgeous and relaxing. The location is on the Avenue du Champagne and was a 10 minute walk to the city central. The region is “la champagne” (feminine), but the beverage is “le champagne” (masculine).
Day 1: Let’s get this party started! (but first we need to learn how to ride these bikes)
September in Épernay is beautiful. Our first morning was chilly but we were excited to go into the city center to get our bikes. That was an adventure as the bikes were E-bikes, powered by a battery to provide “assistance” over any hilly terrain. The giggles and eye rolling started right away as we were forced to wear bright yellow vests with velcro, like patrols in middle school. However, helmets were optional—Go figure. Ashley’s feet could barely reach the ground so she had to actually jump off the bike every time we had to stop, so she fell alot. Okay.
After we did test runs on the trails in the Parc de la Mairie garden, we felt confident enough to give it a go into town. We headed out around town, identifying pharmacies (always know your pharmacy location) and other places to go. As we had a 4pm wine tour at Boizel, our first stop on the bikes was Perrier-Jouët on Avenue de Champagne. It’s a gorgeous garden setting. I had the Grand Brut and Ashley had the Belle Epoque Brut. We also had some salads and of course, croquettes de foie gras. Decadent. We stumbled out of there to make our 4pm tour.
The Avenue de Champagne (formerly the Avenue de Commerce) extends for nearly one kilometre (more than ½ a mile), lined on both sides by huge, magnificent private mansions constructed over many centuries by the Champagne Houses. All of them reflect an architectural style that celebrates the brand in particular and Champagne in general. The Avenue de Champagne is now a (UNESCO) World Heritage site, listed under the heading Champagne hillsides, Houses and Cellars.
There are around 260 Champagne houses representing over 70% of production and 90% of exports. Household names like Perrier Jouet, Moët & Chandon and GH Mumm house millions of bottles of bubbly in the miles and miles of chalk cellars and tunnels under their properties, which are the perfect temperature for champagne to slowly develop (12C). Dress warmly even during the summer months.
To meet our 4pm appointment at Boizel, we left our bikes at Perrier-Jouët and walked down the block to Boizel. As this was my first visit to the Champagne region, I realized that I was standing above thousands of sleeping bottles of bubbles resting in cool damp chalk caves beneath the Avenue de Champagne. I was overcome with excitement and I was definitely ready for the journey to begin. Word of advice though, watch out for the humidity you may experience. Although the humidity is great for the storing and fermenting process of Champagne, the frizz is awful for curly hair!
At Boizel, we walked through the cellars. The guide was great explaining about the recent harvest, how the champagne is made, and how it is stored. We finished the tour with a tasting. We met a couple from Holland, who were RVing in Europe. They were having an amazing trip. I learned that champagne really does taste better in white wine than flutes. At Boizel, we had the Vintage tastings including the Joyau de France 2004 Brut, Rosé, and the Brut Blanc de Blancs. We had many questions and took lots of notes. Our guide was knowledgeable and enjoyed our curiosity. And yes, bottles were purchased for our trip back to America.
More to come on Day 2.