When my wife got the chance to work an event in Jasniereres, in Northern Touraine, it was the ideal opportunity to take a much-needed pilgrimage to France. Since it was technically her trip, and I was just along for the ride, I asked her what her preferred French wine destination was, and without missing a beat, she exclaimed, “Champagne! Internally, I was hoping for her to answer Burgundy or Bordeaux. Still, upon reflection, I realized that the celebratory pop of bubbles would be the perfect introduction to real-life French vignerons. Given its proximity to Paris, Champagne was an easy train ride, and we got to planning. We prefer the feel of a smaller town and so chose to visit Epernay, the heart of Champagne production, with small-town vibes and great views sporting just 1/8th the population of Reims, the region’s economic capital.
The Mission: Finding Local Assistance
In Epernay, it’s easier to find a massive commercial house, a Negociant Manipulant, with Pol Roger and Moët et Chandon never too far away, but that was never our top priority. We needed to find a way to get into smaller champagne houses; however, with limited contacts compounded with the language barrier, we decided to hire a driver. A great client of mine had remarked that she had a wonderful experience with Aÿ Champagne Tours and told us to contact them and ask for Isabelle. We listened to her advice and set up a half day of tasting with her through the countryside, visiting two grower-producers, Recoltant Manipulants, and a couple of other spots along the way to give us a little more history of the region.
The first thing we did in Epernay
Our Tour Guide
Isabelle, a smart-looking woman with short dark hair, wing-tip glasses, and comfy sneakers, warmly greeted us at the Tourism Center and quickly whisked away in her van. The first topic of discussion was a quick rundown of her life in the area. She grew up in Aÿ, a neighboring village to Epernay, and often lamented the lack of qualified drivers or tour guides in the area for many years. As she is friends with many producers in the area, she decided to start her own company and never looked back, an excellent decision for anyone looking to visit.
Isabelle is a veritable encyclopedia of champagne facts; I can’t encapsulate even a tenth of the knowledge she bestowed on us. Starting with the region’s history, she told us about the monasteries in the region controlling grape production, how Ay was the original capital of the province, and how Epernay became the bigger city in the area afterward. Epern-Ay translates to “After Ay.” Champagne has dealt with its fair share of war and conflict throughout its history, with cities being destroyed and rebuilt many times, and Epernay is part of that divisive history.
The Village of Dom Perignon
She took us first to Hautvillers, a little village in the Vallée De la Marne, or “The Valley of the River Marne.”
Hautvillers was the final resting place of the monk Dom Perignon, and he spent a significant portion of his life in the village honing his craft of viticulture. Monastic life was about dedication to prayer, study, and manual labor. Working in a monastery beside a vineyard gave him the perfect landscape in which to practice his beliefs.
Isabelle explained that Dom Perignon had very little to do with the vinification of the wine grapes into our modern version of Champagne but that he worked tirelessly in the vineyards to improve the quality of Champagne grapes. He would take meticulous notes and experiment in his vineyards with different viticultural practices, trying to improve quality to make Champagne as respected as the other famed French viticultural areas. He combatted mold and mildew while figuring out how to achieve optimal ripeness in a cold place, with average yearly temperatures around 52 F or 11C. This understanding of climate is Dom Perignon’s true achievement.
Pinot, Perignon,and Chandon
Isabelle explained some of his best contributions include focusing on Pinot Noir as a varietal, blending across multiple vineyard sites, and aggressive pruning to keep vines low to the ground to reduce crop load while reflecting ground heat. She then informed us that Moet & Chandon had co-opted his name and that the two entities have no tangible connection. I was shocked to hear this as I always connected the two in my mind, but Moet uses his name on their prestige cuvee to pay homage to a pioneer of Champagne. They have now purchased the monastery that we visited and are doing extensive historical repairs to the property. Isabelle told us they will likely use the space to hold private member events once the renovations are complete.
The Vignoble of Dom P
Dom ‘Perignon’s vineyards overlooked the River Marne, an almost iridescent turquoise streak cutting through the low countryside that gains its color from the famed decomposed chalk soils of the Champenois. Like all the best terroirs in Champagne, the abbey’s vineyards back up to the hilltop forests, like a beautiful green head of hair atop the hillside. These tiny forests are all over the region and incredibly dense with vegetation. Acting as a wind block and helping to prevent soil erosion, these forests hold practical elements on top of the aesthetic appeal.
Our next stop was a grower-producer in Hautvillers, Champagne, Joseph Desruets. The artisanal winery owns just 5.4 acres (2.2 hectares) of vineyards and is entirely organic. They also have the oldest operating press in Champagne! The press, first operated in 1888, comes with a break-neck 7-hour press cycle. This iron beauty is an authentic slice of history and a great look back at the Industrial Revolution era.
The Desruets cuvée uses 95% black grapes, a mixture of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and sparingly uses Chardonnay to remedy acid in their cuvées. With such a long press cycle, all their wines have tremendous texture and color. Even their “Blanc” wines show a light salmon color, like the palest of Provence Rosé.
One of our favorite cuvées was their NV Cuvée Nature, a Brut Nature, a zero sulfur, zero dosage, and natural ferment cuvee. This blend was an unexpected natural wine delight. Like all of their wines, it possessed a silky texture and richness. This Brut Nature felt simultaneously aged and perfectly fresh, with an interplay between fresh fruit, crushed nuts, and a blistering acidity from the lack of sugar. Another marvel was a 2018 Cuvée Soleil de Mai aged in a new oak foudre purchased for aging base wine for the next 50 years. The foudre was purchased to commemorate the birth of the current proprietor’s daughter. I thought I’d never experience a Champagne sporting a large portion of new oak. However, the slight vanilla and spice touches were profoundly delicious.
The Hill of White
After we purchased some wines, Isabelle whisked us away to the Cote des Blanc, or “Hill of White.” Here Chardonnay reigns supreme. If Pinot Noir is king, then Chardonnay is the queen, and the Cote des Blanc is her throne. No other sub-region of Champagne makes a better Blanc de Blanc (in my humble opinion).
Jean Milan, the master of Blanc de Blancs
We visited Champagne Jean Milan, a 5th generation grower producer managing 4 hectares of vineyards in Oger, a Grand Cru village. Villages, not vineyards, are classified in Champagne, so within a Grand Cru village, there is marked variability from producer to producer. That said, Champagne Jean Milan has claimed some of the finest vineyards. As Isabelle guided us through the facility, we marveled at how the press drains into the floor and how rustic the vinification equipment looks compared to the new world. Jean Milan even had a little museum of the production equipment they used over the years, a fun little time capsule to look through.
We walked down into the damp caves and gazed upon bottles sleeping on their sides, going through the magic of autolysis. All the delicious bread and biscuit-like aromas of Champagne come from the breakdown of yeast bodies in the wines while under crown cap.
One of our favorites included the 2018 Jean Milan Terres de Noel Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut made from 75-year-old Chardonnay vines. These vines were planted by the grandmother of one of the employees we met when she was just a girl. Such stories add a deeper connection between the people and the vine. This wine was golden in tone, floral, rich, and dense, with an ethereal glide. The richness, accompanied by an almost weightlessness, made us reconsider the nature of the Blanc de Blanc style. As a vintage offering at around $50 US a bottle (versus $95 in the US for the 2017 vintage), it was a personal revelation that going to the source for Champagne is what all the grower-producer hype is about.
Ratafia: Fortified Champagne?
Isabelle then gave us a personal tasting of Ratafia, a fortified white wine made from the press cycle’s first and last (heads and tail) juices. These juices are not legally allowed for Champagne, but they are still a quality base depending on the site they come from. The juice is then fermented to about 5% alcohol and fortified to about 20% abv.
Ratafia is very similar to white port vinification-wise and Sauternes in flavor, with honey and tropical notes shining through. A delectable treat to enjoy with pâté, Ratafia is the local preferred inexpensive substitute to a Barsac or Sauternes but with a bit more kick. She then let us try a grappa (or Marc) produced from the area’s pomace (left-over skins and pips after pressing)and an oak-aged brandy made from the remainder of the juice unused in wine production. The brandy was incredibly smooth; the Marc was a bit rustic, but I may not have acquired that taste yet.
A Day Well Spent
After the brandy, my wife and I were ready for a nap, and Isabelle drove us back to Epernay. If you are ever in the area, she comes highly recommended. The sheer scope of information we received was worth the price of admission, but the addition of all the different samplings of the day felt like the cherry on top. She also gave us the best restaurant recommendations for dinner that night, La Grillade Gourmande, a fantastic grill on the edge of town where a person cooks all the entrees over a wood fire. After more Champagne and a spot of red Burgundy, it was time to close the door on our adventure through Champagne’s countryside.
Seek out a local when in the area; you won’t regret it!
The Photo Galery