My special birthday Champagne tasting itinerary as created by Grape Escapes was not for amateurs. Don’t try this at home – the Champenoise don’t believe in “tasting” measures. You are given a full flute of everything you will taste. And it would be rude not to drink every last drop. (You have probably already noticed that these posts have conspicuously less photos as compared with my other travels…)
Champagne: Day 2. Our lovely driver picked us up and took us to Moët & Chandon. (MO-wett, not MO-aye, the name is Dutch though the Champagne house is not. So stop it, please.) We were escorted to the Dom Pérignon side of the operation and treated to a private cellar tour and tasting. It started at 10am. Yes, in the morning - in case you read the previous post. Even though it was a bit early to be on the booze again, we are professionals and the tour was every bit what you would expect from such a highly-respected name in Champagne – painstaking attention to grape growing, production, and bottling, intertwined with myth, legend, and good ole local gossip concerning one Dom Pérignon. This is one of the few houses left to stick to hand-riddling and long-term cellaring before release, which explains the bottle price of about £130 currently in the UK. And it’s delicious! While the cellar history was fascinating, sitting in the sunshine in the winery’s private garden having our glasses generously refilled was the highlight of this stop.
Next up, we were taken to lunch at Au 36 in the charming village of Hautvillers, home of the legendary Dom Pérignon - the man. This wine shop/café/restaurant offers one thing you don’t get at many wineries – the ability to taste each individual grape normally blended to make most Champagnes as its own finished sparkling wine. Again, Grape Escapes had done the work for us and upon our arrival, we were presented with a flight of three Champagnes – one glass each of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Noir – plus a gourmet platter of nibbles to line our stomachs. All of it was great but I was particularly happy about the lentils (below).
We had some time to wander around the narrow village streets and take in the vast vineyard scenery before meeting our driver. The parking lot is at the bottom of the hill, so be warned if you are less mobile – the driver may drop you at Au 36 but you will have to walk back down the hill to the parking lot when you are ready to leave. There is a grassy knoll next to the lot overlooking the valley, perfect for a quick snooze if you are in need of one (we were).
So far, we are up to five flutes of Champagne consumed by 2pm. And we still have two more houses to visit. We enjoyed the scenic half-hour ride to Champagne Henry de Vaugency, in Oger (Côtes des Blancs), a house which specializes in only blanc de blancs Champagnes – that’s Champagne made only from the Chardonnay grape. It’s a personal weakness of mine, so I was very happy here with all of the wines and with the gregarious owner who was also our tour guide. This has been a family business since 1732 and it was obvious that he takes great pride in his work. They make eight different Champagnes here – we did not taste them all, but this is the point at which I lost count of the total number of flutes for the day.
And it’s far from over yet! Our faithful driver poured us into his car and drove us 40 minutes north west to Champagne Dom Cauldron in Passy-Grigny for another tour and tasting. This is Pinot Meunier country of the Vallée de la Marne and four of the five Champagnes made by this house are made from that one grape. This is very unusual because it is considered the fruitiest and least complex of the three Champagne grapes. (Read this New York Times article if you want to nerd-out over the grape.) The fifth Champagne made here is a 50/50 split of Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. We tried them all, along with a plate of nibbles graciously supplied by our hostess. We were her last tour of the day and I’m sure that she was happy to see us leave, with our large, bubble-induced smiles.
We met our driver just outside the front door and he took us back to our hotel in Reims, where we had just under an hour to sober up, shower, and dress ourselves for my birthday dinner extravaganza at Le Parc at Chateau Les Crayères. This former chateau has been made into a five-star hotel and restaurant with massive gardens just on the edge of Reims – but you wouldn’t know that there is anything near the chateau once you’ve arrived. (You must take a look at their photo gallery to believe it.) We have done a fair amount of posh eating and drinking but I am finding it hard to think of a better food or service experience EVER than Le Parc.
Upon arrival, we were invited to enjoy the sunshine on the patio overlooking the gardens, with flutes of free-flowing Laurent Perrier Grand Sicèle that lasted most of the evening. I honestly do not know how many courses of food we were given, as the menu and wine pairings were pre-arranged, but I know that we didn’t leave a crumb on our plates. Every single dish was delicious as well as beautiful. Particular favorites were the gambas tartare starter and a pigeon dish that appeared at first to be a chocolate egg – it’s on their website, check it out. Our heavier dishes were paired with a 2002 St. Estèphe which was absolutely amazing. I am ashamed that I do not remember the producer and that I was not brash enough to take photos of the food or wine during our amazing meal – it was so civilized that I was afraid they might ask me to leave if I stepped out of line. Overly stuffed with fancy food and a whole day’s worth of Champagne, we retired to the Le Rotonde glass-enclosed lounge for a wafer-thin mint. In this case, it came in the form of petit fours and snifters of Hine Cigar Reserve Cognac (another personal weakness). We nearly exploded but we were giddily content.
We slept amazingly well that night. Nothing screams “welcome to middle age!” more than an insurmountable food and booze coma. We awoke to sunshine again and wandered around Reims a little more before starting the slog back to Paris, then Birmingham. We haven’t eaten since.