I was excited about going to Champagne but not as excited as the two Americans on my train in to St Pancras who after seeing Tower Bridge out of the window raved about how famous it was and eagerly got a picture of what they still believed was ‘London’ Bridge. And I certainly couldn’t get more excited than them when a couple of minutes later they saw a folding bike and stood up to witness the ‘unfolding’ on the platform.
We met at St Pancras at 7.30am, everyone on time and everyone remembering passports, to be hosted by Guy Jones from MHUK, who was to take us to Champagne. Breakfast was arranged at Costa after a failed attempt to order coffee at their station rivals who apparently couldn’t serve us 9 coffees as they only had 2 cups left. Something about a failed delivery.
Due to Guy’s adherence to Responsible Drinking, he waited until we were on the other side of the Channel before opening up a few bottles of Moët NV, the first mostly over WDS Jon Sabido, and that certainly smoothed the journey down to the crumbling Gare du Nord nicely.
A quick two minute stroll to Gare de L’Est, a sandwich and a beer for lunch, and another train to Reims to be met by our driver and minibus to take us to Epernay, and the home of Moët & Chandon on the well titled street of Avenue de Champagne.
We were met by our guide Marie who explained that Moët was the first Champagne House on the Avenue which was a forest at the time, but now there were twenty five houses from Moët at one end and Mercier at the other, with 100km of cellars of which Moët had 28km.
Marie and her driver then took us off to the vineyards stopping first at Fort Chabreau, built in 1900, where the antidote to Philoxera was discovered, by grafting vines on to American rootstock 41b, which is still the method today.
We then had a small tour of the Cotes des Blancs, one of the three main areas in Champagne, the others being Montagne de Reims which is predominantly Pinot Noir, and Vallee de Marne for Meunier. Cotes des Blancs though is Chardonnay country and we stopped off at Avizes and Cramant, two Grand Cru vineyards out of a total of 17. The difference between the value of land in these areas is staggering, where the South Eastern facing slopes ideal for grape growing are worth 1 million euros per acre whereas the bottom of the valleys where cereals are grown are only worth 10,000 Euros per acre.
We also saw Chateau Moët, built by Victor Moët but closed for a three year refurbishment and many properties where the 3,000 people employed by Moët each year to help with the harvest, stay.
After the tour, it was off to the Cellars, the deepest ones being 30m underground, and where the millions of bottles were stored, and where even more millions worth of money was tied up. Marie wasn’t a lady for specifics when it came to numbers!
She did however explain that the two most important processes in Champagne were the blending and the maturation.
Bottles of DP are aged for an extended period on their side with traditional corks and metal staples rather than crown cap. These wines will later be disgorged for P2 and P3 after around 16 and 24 years aging on their lees to show the different ‘Plenitudes’ or stages of development and expression of Dom Perignon from P2’s power and P3’s mature complexity.
These wines are all hand riddled, a time consuming, labour intensive process which ensures the handling of the wines is as gentle as possible to preserve these delicate and complex wines.
After the cellar tour we rode in the very grand new lift to the surface to enjoy a comparative tasting of Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage 2006 and 1999.
As it was mildly sunny and having left the grey of London, we grabbed the opportunity to taste in the secluded garden, making the most of any rays of sun we could find and some fresh air after the cellars.
The 2006 is fresh and floral, giving way to some more ripe tropical fruit and creamy honeyed notes. The palate is a great balance of richness and elegance, reminding us all that vintage champagne remains one of the best kept secrets for people wanting great value from their champagne.
With our taste buds awakened by the beautiful 2006, they were blown away by the 1999. On the nose the wine is much richer with sponge cake, honey, nuts and even mocha. The palate is round and creamy with ripe fruits, some savoury flavours, dried fruits and coffee in the finish which was very long. This is crying out for food and could match with white meats, rich fish in creamy sauce or ripe cheese.
Our appetites truly whetted, we headed out in the evening for a wonderful dinner at Kobus Restaurant in Epernay with plenty of champagne obviously, to accompany our frog’s legs and other artistically constructed French cuisine.
The next morning we and our slight hangovers, met Marie once again, who took us to visit the Eglise Abbatiale and the Tombeau de Dom Perignon at Hautvilliers. Here lies Dom Pierre Perignon, 1639 – 1715. The revolutionary wine maker who was the first in the area certainly to blend grapes and make white wine from black grapes. It was also Dom Perignon who founded, albeit accidentally, the champagnoise process of a second fermentation in bottle, when the remaining live yeasts were awoken in the spring when the temperatures warmed up. He was also responsible for introducing cork to close the bottles instead of wood, and used strengthened glass to cope with the increased pressure of the sparkling wine inside.
In the private grounds here, we enjoyed another tasting looking out over the beautiful vineyards, of the latest vintage of Dom Perignon 2006, and also the previous 2005.
The 2006 is still young, fresh and tightly wound, with minerality, citrus peel, peach and some bright red fruits. Richness comes through in the finish which will no doubt expand and develop over the coming years. The good news is there is plenty of the 2006 available (although Marie was still cagey on numbers). This is in contrast to the 2005, where production was around half the normal level. The wine is more open, with the fruity Pinot Noir dominating, despite this having a very high proportion of Chardonnay (62%). There is a richer more biscuit finish as well as spicy complexity. A wine with the maturity to savour now, if you can find it.
Back on the bus and a visit to La Trianon, the private residence of Moët Et Chandon, opposite their main cellars in Epernay, for an extremely privileged lunch, albeit, served by some sinister looking waiters, dressed all in black with matching gloves, not unlike the underlings of a Bond villain.
Everyone was suitably dressed up and on their best behaviour sitting in a stunning dining room that has hosted the great, the good, Napoleon and now us, we were treated to 3 courses designed by the executive chef, who tastes Dom Perignon’s range on a weekly basis in order to test the development of the wines and create dishes that will complement Dom Perignon, Rosé and P2.
We started with gently steamed cod with a squid ink sauce, paired with Dom Perignon 2006. The delicate fish and richer sauce brought out the bright saline and richer fruit character in the wine.
The second course, paired with Dom Perignon Rosé 2004, was duck with an exotic Asian spiced sauce. The fuller bodied rosé, bright pinot fruit and savoury aromas were a great match and surprisingly balanced for such an intense dish.
For the finale, we had Dome Perignon P2 1998 – aged 16 years on the lees before disgorgement – with another surprise match, chocolate sorbet with gold leaf. Chocolate is notoriously difficult to match with wine, I can’t vouch for the gold leaf, but the temperature made the dessert feel less sweet or bitter and brought out the rich fruit and brioche flavours as well as the clean refreshing minerality.
We would have happily stayed for an encore, but had to hurry back on the minibus to rush to the Gare de L’Est for the train rides home, where Guy mixed it up a little by breaking out the cans of 1664 to keep our thirsts quenched, whilst some of us who’d been working hard taking notes got some well-earned shut-eye.
Altogether, a fantastic and memorable trip to the world’s most famous and expensive sparkling wine region. A huge thank you to all at Moët and especially our host Guy Jones.