10 Feb The thrill of winter in Champagne
The coldest day of my life was on 20 January 2016 in France’s Champagne region, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO last year. The thermostat read -7C when I opened the front door in the morning, and for the rest of the day the temperature hovered below zero.
The crisp air, the regimented lines of white-frosted vines across the landscape, the colourful sunrises and sunsets, and the plentiful glasses of champagne gave me a winter thrill usually found only on the ski slopes.
The French have the English to thank for champagne. Back in the 17th century, at the end of the harvest, the region exported white wine to England. The wine was put into bottles over winter, rather than kept in barrels. Come the warmth of spring, the wine started to ferment again; & this double fermentation produced a fizz. The method was then developed by Dom Pérignon, a French monk, to produce what is now called champagne.
Starting at Reims
I was in the region for a 4-day whistle-stop tour to take photos for Clos Driver Wine Tours. My journey started in Reims, pronounced ‘rance’, with the ‘a’ as in ‘apple’.
The cathedral city has a history & a tradition linked to champagne, & is only 45-minutes by TGV from Paris and a 2.5-hour drive from Calais.
Reims Cathedral is not to be missed. Dating back to the 12th century, it has witnessed the coronation of 33 Kings of France. The Cathedral has over 2,300 hand-carved statues, including the only angels with open wings in a cathedral, & stained glass windows that include one by Russian-French artist Marc Chagall.
3 Michelin-star experience at L’Assiette Champenoise
Being a cold, January Monday afternoon, the Cathedral was empty, and as the clock neared 6pm, I took a taxi to the outskirts of Reims for an aperitif at L’Assiette Champenoise, home to the 3-starred Michelin restaurant of Arnaud Lallement.
For wine lovers, and especially champagne lovers, L’Assiette Champenoise is paradise, with thousands of cuvées to choose from. I sat myself in a corner of the bar and went for a Krug Grand Cuvée, which arrived with complementary tartelettes of foie gras & grapefruit and smoked fish & herb jelly. I ate both of them.
L’Assiette Champenoise is a hotel as well as a restaurant. The décor is colourful, modern and full of character, a creation of Reims-based Gregory Guillemain. In the bar, my fellow drinkers were French, and quite a few were in their 20s and 30s … it felt branché, it felt in, and it was about quality.
Then, as I was leaving, I peeped into the restaurant, crowned with its Baccarat chandelier, & the great man himself, Arnaud, said a cheerful hello across the room. That clinched it for me, I must return – especially at lunchtime, to enjoy the light coming in from the garden. The experience looked like one not to be missed in a lifetime.
Eating at Racine
That evening I was booked at Racine, a small French-Japanese restaurant in the centre of Reims run by Kazuyuki Tanaka and his wife Marine.
The restaurant offers three tasting menus; I went for the Sôgu menu, at €39, The fusion of French and Japanese cuisines works. Both these cultures, at their best, are passionately searching for perfection, have a sense of heritage and place an importance on ritual. [UPDATE January 2020: Racine was awarded two Michelin stars.]
I woke early the next morning for a quick coffee & croissant at the nearby bar-tabac, where the locals were already busy discussing the day’s flutter, whether on the horses or the lottery, and then we took to the road.
Of the 319 villages producing champagne, 17 are nominated Grand Cru, offering the best grape-growing potential, & 38 Premier Cru.
As part of our expedition, we wound our way across & around the wooded Mountain of Reims. We passed through the Grand Cru & Premier Cru villages of Merfy, Ecueil, Ambonnay, Bouzy (I found no link to the English word ‘boozy’), Trépail, Ludes, Mareuil-sur-Ay, Cramant & Villers-aux-Noeuds, visiting vignerons, descending to their dank caves, often carved out of the limestone, tasting their Champagne, & walking among the vines.
The next day it was on to Cumières and Avize, south of Épernay, & then an hour’s drive or so to the champagne offshoot of the Côte des Bar, in Aube, to Polisot & Landreville, where the weather is slightly warmer & more Pinot Noir is grown. Leaving Champagne, we then travelled down to Burgundy, to Chablis and Comblanchien.
What champagne is all about
Everyone loves champagne. I love champagne. I learnt more in my 4 days about champagne than in my entire life of wine-tasting. But as Robert Parker wrote: “Champagne is first and foremost a commodity, a celebratory beverage, a status symbol”… & its commodity value is “based on what consumers want to be seen drinking, not the quality of what is in the glass”. (Source: Parker’s Wine Buyers Guide No 7, Page 444.)
The quality of what is in the glass is about how the vignerons work with the soil, with nature, the moon, the micro-climate; & it’s about a craft, & the passion & intuition of the people who make the champagne, whether a ‘grower’ champagne, produced by the vignerons, or a champagne produced by a champagne house.
Some of the champagne producers we visited:
- Bérêche & Fils
- Charles Dufour
- David Léclapart
- Emmanuel Brochet
- Georges Laval
- Marie Courtin
- R H Coutier
- Roger Pouillon & Fils
Then, going on to Burgundy:
- Patrick Piuze – Chablis
- Julien & Fils
The vineyards in January
The vineyards never seem to sleep, & the dormant winter time is when the vines are pruned. The cuttings are then burnt, producing mystical plumes of smoke dotted across the landscape.
January is also the month of the feast of Saint Vincent, the patron saint of winegrowers. The day is celebrated in different ways in different villages, often with a special brioche, but always with a feast for the vignerons. Darn, I add to leave for London early that morning; I’ll have to celebrate next year.
OTHER EATING HOTSPOTS
- Les Crayères, on the outskirts of Reims. This Relais et Château hotel, once home to the Champagnes Pommery family, has a 2* Michelin restaurant.
- Le Bocal, with just 12 covers, adjoins the Halles du Boulingrin, the covered food market in the centre of Reims. The chef at this excellent, informal little fish restaurant used to be at the Domaine Laurent-Perrier in Tours-sur-Marne, so she also knows a thing or two about Champagne.
- L’Epicerie Au Bon Manger is not a restaurant, but a “little space for tasting with wines by the glass or by the bottle”… “un petit espace de dégustation avec des vins au verre ou à la bouteille“. This relaxed, informal space is located in the centre of the city. Closed on Mondays.
- Hotel Les Avisés in the Grand Cru village of Avize, south of Épernay, is owned by Champagne Jacques Selosse, one of the founders of the Grower Champagne movement. (See my blog post, Les Avisés: a wise place to eat in Champagne).
- Au Fil du Zinc in Chablis, overlooking the river, & with a wine list offering 2 pages of Chablis cuvées only! Another Franco-Japanese rising star, with Ryo Nagahama, formerly of Robuchon and Alléno Paris, taking care of the savoury dishes & Vanessa Chang, ex-pastry chef at Pierre Hermé of macaroon fame, the desserts.
Roses de Reims (pink) biscuits: the best are from Biscuits Fossier in the main street leading to Reims cathedral, the Cours Jean-Baptiste Langlet. The story goes that there was some biscuit mixture left over, so the baker decided to make a new type of biscuit, & colour them (naturally) pink.
WHAT I DIDn’T DO
Visit the historic cellars of the big champagne houses in Reims, including Taittinger, Ruinart & Veuve Clicquot.
Several of the big champagne houses have their base in Épernay, on the Avenue de Champagne, including Moët & Chandon, which has the biggest cellars in the region, running for 28km (17 miles).
Next time, I would also drop into McArthurGlen Designer Outlet Troyes for a spot of fashion shopping, especially to shop at Sonia Rykiel and Maje. I worked for McArthurGlen for 7 years & never quite made it to Troyes. And then I would stop off for a glass of Champagne Georges Laval or David Léclapart, or both, at Aux Crieurs de Vin in Troyes’ attractive town centre.
For my other blog posts on champagne, and for my trip to the region in summer 2017.