The big and small of Champagne

An easy weekend from London, the Champagne region has countless welcoming cellars to visit, both big and small. We pottered our way through the picturesque grand cru villages of the Côte des Blancs, the Montagne de Reims and the Vallée de la Marne. All three areas are unique both in terms of geography and the Champagne they produce. We rounded this out with a few visits to the larger houses in Epernay and Reims.

We started our champagne voyage with visits to both Veuve Cliquot and Lanson in Reims. Whilst they are both big houses, the visits could not have been more different. While Veuve Cliquot was all about the magic and mystique of the effervescence, Lanson was forthright and open regarding its large-scale production operation. The Veuve Cliquot visit took place in the crayères or old Roman chalk quarries that have been used to cellar champagne since the early 20th century and the visit was worthwhile even if just to explore these imposing chalk tunnels deep beneath Reims. Lanson was the much more educational of the two visits with a detailed tour of the production facility; from row upon row of stainless vats, to numerous gyropalettes that auto-riddle pallets of bottles in a week, to the disgorging and labeling production lines. This was the realistic view of large-scale champagne production – the size of the facility was truly impressive.

After these visits to the big houses of Reims, the real excitement began exploring villages and discovering some champagne gems.

Pierre Moncuit is a grower-producer in the Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-oger on the Côte des Blancs. It focuses primarily on Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) Champagne that is all the rage these days. We found the vintage 2005 non-dosage to be the most balanced of the champagnes we tasted.  The purity & ripeness of the fruit helped to neutralize the bracing acidity of the Blanc de Blanc style. Our verdict after a lot of Blanc de Blanc tasting was that this style is best served with food rather than as an aperitif. The acidity, whilst quite refreshing, can becoming gum numbing if not balanced with food. Seafood is the perfect pairing.

Champagne Ployez-Jacquemart is a grower-producer in the premier cru village of Ludes in the Montagne de Reims. They grow predominately Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in both Ludes and the Grand Cru village of Mailly. Unlike most Champagne producers, Ployez-Jacquemart does not aim to maintain a house style from year to year. Instead they let the vintage direct their style each year, even with their non-vintage champagne. Our favourite was the Extra Brut Rosé – perfect for sipping in the sunshine on the terrace overlooking the garden. The house is also a wonderful B&B where you can sleep atop the impressive cellars filled with ageing champagne. The deep cellars were the most impressive of all of the small houses we visited with all bottles stacked by hand. Some of which were stacked sur pointe (upside down) for the last years of ageing to reduce the lees contact with the wine.

 

Arguably our favourite small producer of the trip, Paul Bara was established in the Grand Cru village of Bouzy in the Montagne de Reims in 1833. With such history and experience, they have perfected the balance of their dominant Pinot Noir house style. We could not decide between the Brut Reserve at a bargain price of €17.50, the Brut Millesime 2004 at €22.50 and the Special Club 2004 at €31, so we bought them all. This is one label that you will be able to find in Vancouver at Marquis Wine Cellars – they have very good taste!

Last but not least, we literally stumbled across a new comer to the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay. Paul-Etienne Saint Germain is the creation of Jean-Michel and Agnès Lagneau who left their careers with large champagne brands like LVMH to start their own label. The beautiful house also serves as their home so they literally welcome you into their own champagne wonderland. Our favourite was the Divine Grand Cru Brut, a blend of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, rich and balanced, the name says it all. They are the full package, with sophisticated labeling and the story to go with it.

 

Travel Details

Train from London:

  • Eurostar to Paris or Lille; change for TGV to Reims or Champagne Ardenne (4 – 4 1/2 hours depending on connection).

Accommodation:

  • Champagne Ployez-Jacquemart Bed & Breakfast – highly recommended with well appointed rooms and a serene garden. They have a large “Maxi-Bar” fridge for guest use so that you can quench your thirst at any time of the day.

Restaurants:

  • Le Foch – One Michelin star providing complete decadence of all the French classics. The set menu was too much for the stomach to survive trauma free.
  • L’Assiette Champenoise – Two Michelin stars with a beautiful dining room and terrace overlooking the hotel gardens. The weekday set lunch ‘Menu Saison’ is great value at €65 for 4 courses (not including the h’orderves and petit four). The food and setting was second to none. This was our favourite meal of 2012.

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Wine truths

“In vino veritas. (In wine there is truth.)”
by Pliny, Roman naturalist

Wine Ratings

★☆☆☆☆ - Poor quality. Avoid. Save your money. Between 80-84 points.

★★☆☆☆ - Average quality or poor value. Between 84-88 points. Some expensive wines are downgraded for bad value.

★★★☆☆ - Good. Between 88-92 points. Or a good value on the lower end of the point scale.

★★★☆☆ - Excellent quality. Between 92-96 points. Or a cheap yet good quality wine which is excellent value.

★★★☆☆ - Outstanding, best examples in the world. Between 96 and 100 points. A perfect wine.