Friday, September 7, 2018

Well, we’re only halfway through our stash of champagne we brought back from our spring trip to the Champagne region of France. For some reason, champagne still seems more like a special occasion drink unlike my usual less than £10 bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

But you’ll quickly find while exploring this region is that visiting the champagne houses is not cheap. In fact, tours and tastings at the historic Maison Ruinart start at 70 euros each while Dom Pérignon only offers private tours. Moët & Chandon, home to the largest cellars in the region, offers a traditional tour starting at 25 euros. Also, tours of the Reims champagne houses and caves generally need to be prebooked. If you join a group tour, expect to pay a minimum of 120-200 euros per person, depending on the amenities offered.

So this spring, we decided to try a DIY version of champagne tasting in Reims. After taking the 6:18 a.m. Eurostar from London to Paris, hubby and I joined four other expat friends – two whom had previously visited several of the champagne houses in Reims. To avoid the whole drinking and driving situation, we hired a private driver through Chaffeur Gold. Luckily, one of our German friends, originally from Burkina Faso, Africa, speaks fluent French, so he acted as our translator.

(Note: After arriving via the Eurostar at Gare du Nord in Paris, you’ll have to walk over to Gare de l’Est to catch a TGV train to Gare de Reims. Plan your schedule accordingly because the trains run about every 2 hours.)

1 p.m. Saturday
Our private driver picked the six of us up outside of our hotel (Appart’City Reims Centre) in a black minivan. First, we headed to the small champagne house of Champagne Pascal Mazet located in the tiny village of Chigny-les-Roses, about 20 minutes south of Reims. His friendly wife met us at the front door and then took us back to the production shed where we met Pascal, who remembered our fellow American friend from a previous visit because he had worn strange webbed running shoes. Le Americain!
If I understand correctly, Pascal practices organic farming techniques on his two-hectacre estate, so he produces a cuvée unique that is certified BIO Ecocert. This champagne is made from a blend of pinot meunier, pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. He also produces an interesting, golden-hued cuvée nature that has zero sugar added, so of course we bought a bottle because it was something new to us.

Both Pascal and his wife were quite charming in showing us their humble family business. We each bought at least one bottle from them, and I regret only buying three bottles because the Mazet originel brut premier cru ended up being one of my favorites.

3 p.m. Saturday
Unfortunately, Champagne Michel Fagot, one of our friend’s favorites in the village of Rilly-la-Montagne, appeared to be closed. Actually, several of the champagne houses were shuttered in mid-March so best to plan ahead. Next, our driver took us to the nearby Champagne Delaunois F. & Fils, which he recommended. This family operation was founded in 1920. We tried a couple champagnes and a fortified wine called ratafia, which I did not like. We bought two bottles from here – a brut nature and a blanc de blanc.

4 p.m. Saturday
Well, we saved the best for last on our private tour and ended up at Champagne Alain Suisse, whom we had called in advance for our afternoon tasting. Monsieur Suisse is a jolly, rosy-cheeked champagne maker who is obviously very proud of the champagnes he produces at his independent house. He is the fourth generation running his family’s small farm in the countryside. He also speaks a little English, which helped, but his French was slow and clear enough that even I could understand him at times. Both our French translator friend and Le Americain had visited here previously and were welcomed back.
I loved all the Suisse champagnes that we tried here, especially the brut rosé, which is such a lovely shade of pink and only cost 19 euros/bottle. Most of us bought at least six bottles from Suisse, and I regret that we didn’t buy more.
Hubby with two of our good friends at Champagne Alain Suisse.
6 p.m. Saturday
After a rainy afternoon at three champagne houses, our driver dropped us and all our boxes filled with bottles at our hotel in Reims. I think we made excellent use of our driver, and the total cost was 100 euros per person for our 5-hour excursion. Then, we just had to sort out who had which bottles.



8 p.m. Saturday
How am I still drinking champagne at this point? We walked through the falling snow into the city center of Reims and found a cozy spot at Le Wine Bar by Le Vintage. Surprisingly, the town was quite busy for off-peak season and we had difficulties finding a restaurant for dinner.

12 p.m. Sunday
Since we wanted to tour one of the larger champagne houses in Reims, we joined a last-minute French tour at Domaine Vranken Pommery, a historic champagne house which achieved fame in the late 1800s under Madame Pommery. We bought the 30-euro tickets which included two champagne tastings at the end of the tour. We relied on our friend to translate again since the English tours were all sold out that day.

The Pommery estate is one of a few in the Champagne region to have crayères, chalk caves that began as quarries in the Early Middle Ages and are ranked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s absolutely stunning to walk through these historic tunnels with vaulted ceilings and look high up to see the sunlight shining down.
What’s also cool is that between the chalk quarries and tunnels, you will find a variety of contemporary art. The Vranken family has continued Pommery’s legacy in supporting artists and hosts a variety of local and international artists.
The only downside to visiting a larger champagne house is that the bottles of champagne carry higher price tags. I only bought one bottle of Pommery brut royal, which cost 34 euros compared to our previous purchases of 20-25 euros each.
The freshly fallen snow outside of Domaine Vranken Pommery was magical.
As you can probably tell, we had a whirlwind tour of Reims, but we had heaps of fun tasting different champagnes with our friends. Luckily, we can still relive some of those moments with our remaining bottles of champagne here in London.

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