September 21st, I made my first ever visit to a Champagne house.
Reims, a beautiful city where kings of the past used to be crowned, is where many big Champagne houses are. Epernay, a village not far from Reims, is where one can find smaller (and/or grower) Champagne houses. I took the easy option of taking a day trip from Paris to Reims, only a 45 minutes journey by the fast rail TGV.
On arrival, I got a map from the local tourist office and went sight-seeing. There are plenty of interesting historic sights, and I decided to hit them as “starters” before my “main course”. First up was the Porte de Mars, only a 5 minutes walk from the train station. Then, I walked into the centre of the town to see the Hotel De Ville, and the Nôtre-Dame Cathedral. At the cathedral, I walked in to find that a special service was in session. If I’m not wrong, it was a remembrance service for the servicemen in the area who fought in the wars. The choir sang beautiful arias, and the atmosphere was brilliant! After that, I walked down a main road to the other side of town, finally arriving at Champagne house Taittinger.
Oh, what fortune! I arrived just 15 minutes before the English guided tour was to start. I opted for the tasting of 3 Champagnes after the guided tour. The tour started with a video presentation of the Taittinger house, from its history to its current day operations and holdings. We were then led below ground to visit their 3 levels of caves – the first cave was 12 metres below ground, the second 18 metres, and the lowest 20 metres. The temperature in these caves are constant throughout the year, at 12, 10, and 8 degrees Celsius respectively. These caves are used for aging Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne (both Blanc de Blanc & Rosé), and their large format bottles (Jeroboam & Methuselah). They have a larger site where their regular cuvees are aged, riddled by machine, and finished for sales. Here in these special caves, the bottles resting here are riddled by hand, as their odd shape cannot be handled by machines. We were told the skilled workers employed at Taittinger can each riddle 3000 bottles per hour.
Our guide had a really fun sense of humour, which made the tour even more enjoyable. As he led us through the caves pointing interesting features and carvings on the chalk walls, we walked past thousands of bottles of Comtes de Champagne in deep sleep, and rows of pupitres on which bottles were at various stages of the riddling process. The guide explained the “méthode champenoise” to us, and told us stories relating to the history of the caves in which we stand. The lowest level (at 20 metres below ground) was created in the 4th century, when chalk deposits were mined for the construction of roads and building. What a strangely wonderful feeling of standing in such an old, historic place!
At the end of the tour, we were brought to their tasting room for a tasting finale. Here are my short notes for the 3 Champagnes I tasted:
Prélude Grands Crus (cellar door price: 42€)
50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Noir.
Light and flowery. Minerals. Precision. Subtle toast and green apples. Very fresh.
Brut Millésime 2006 (45€)
50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Noir
Mix of Grand & Premier Crus fruit
Stronger on the nose, with hints of bruised apples. Marginally bigger bubbles. Good minerality. Light white flowers. Quite full, with good length.
Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2005 (120€)
Cuvée of different vineyards. 5% oak.
Brilliant yellow colour. Very expressive nose of apples, blossoms, white peaches, and very light oak. Some yeasty notes that are very pleasant. Bubbles are very fine, forming a nice moussy palate. Beautiful length, flourish on finish.
I think the tasting of 3 Champagnes (at 35€) is worth it, especially with the Comtes included. All 3 Champagnes tasted were really good. For 42€, I think the Prélude has the best quality-value ratio; unless you are wanting to impress, in which case go for the Comtes. I am not very familiar with Champagnes, and this has been a good educational exercise.
After the tour and tasting, I walked back towards the city centre to wander around, before grabbing a light dinner, then heading back to Paris by train. Next time, I would want to visit the smaller grower Champagne houses of Epernay.