The Veuve Clicquot vineyards
We exited the metro and were immediately presented with the grand façade of the Opéra Garnier in all its magnificence. Not a soul was in sight. It was 7:20 on a Saturday morning, so this was to be expected. A cream colored van pulled up along the curb. As we were the only pedestrians and this was the only car, we immediately recognized one another. This was the Paris Champagne Tour.
Our guide, Trong, shook our hands and checked our names off the list before opening the door and showing us our seats. Also on the tour were two friendly Australian women visiting Paris for a couple of weeks. With speakers thoughtfully placed in each row of the van, Trong began explaining to us the historical background of the prestigious buildings we passed. It was such a pleasure to drive through monumental Paris before it filled up with crowds.
Once outside of Paris, our guide handed back hot coffee, orange juice and croissants for breakfast. As we enjoyed our petit déjeuner, Trong continued to narrate our journey northeast as we passed Disneyland Paris, sprawling fields and old stone farmhouses.
The finest vineyards of Champagne
The first thing we did once we arrived in the Champagne region was to visit the vineyards. Surprisingly, there are no iron gates separating them from the public: we drove straight in. We saw the young vines of Veuve Clicquot and Mumm, among others. Trong explained how the plants were pruned and how they were harvested. As the vines grow very low to the ground, one must bend over in order to cut the grape bunches. It is a labor-intensive process that is still done by hand, and thousands of workers are employed for this task during harvest season in September and October.
Our guide emphasized that the most important climate distinctions of the Champagne region that led to making good champagne were the wet, cold weather and the chalky soil. It was indeed overcast and cold that day, and large pieces of white chalk were visible throughout the soil.
The fields rolled on into the distance as far as the eye could see. At the top of one hill was a beautiful windmill and home belonging to Mumm, on another was a small village.
First visit to a small champagne producer
Next, we drove up to this village called Verzenay, where we would visit an independent champagne producer. The operation was so small, in fact, that we knocked on the door to their home, and their small child answered the door.
The mother and champagne producer, Frédérique, opened the garage next door. This was where the magic happened. Inside were all sorts of contraptions to squeeze grapes and cork bottles, plus giant barrels and crates of champagne bottles. It was freezing inside, all the better for the champagne that was being made there.
Frédérique explained in French (Trong translated for the Australians) that each family had their own recipe (i.e. 60% pinot noir grapes, 40% chardonnay) and she had learned the art of champagne making from her father, who had learned from his father as well, going back four generations to the original Jean-Claude Mouzon for which their champagne is named.
Our guide Trong Nguyen with the Mouzon oak barrels
We then descended a winding staircase into the cave, where most of the champagne was stored.
Frédérique showed us an A-frame made of wood with rows of holes for the bottlenecks to be stuck in. At first, a bottle starts at the bottom hanging laterally, but it is periodically turned and placed at a higher rung, bringing it closer to being upside-down each time. By the end of the process, the bottle is completely upside-down and all of the sediment is resting on the cap. The top portion of the liquid is frozen and pops out with the sediment. The liquid that’s lost is replaced with sugar, less for a brut, more for a demi-sec.
Back upstairs, we gathered around a large barrel that served as a table for the tasting. Shivering from the cold, we tried the Brut Tradition, their classic blend meant for toasts and to accompany appetizers. This champagne was smooth and easy to drink.
Moving the sediment to the top of the bottles
The next one we tried was the Grand Cru, made only with grapes from the best regions, whose tiny bubbles added a pleasant crispness to the flavor. This champagne was surprising and exciting. I began to forget how cold I was.
Lastly, we tasted a pink champagne, slightly bitter with the hint of red berries. I imagine this would be very refreshing during summer, especially for an aperitif outdoors.
We ended up buying a bottle of the special Grand Cru for the astonishingly low price of 20 euros. The best part about this producer was that they only sold to private customers. As it was impossible to buy their champagne in a store, we knew that we were getting something unique.
After all the delicious champagne to whet our appetites, we were ready to drive into Reims for lunch.
Stay tuned for Part II next week!
© 2012 Pasa’s Paris