Champagne, France

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Oct 13-15, 2021

Josh and I were so lucky to get away for two nights (two nights!!) without the kids to continue our 15th wedding anniversary celebration combined with birthday celebrations (I turn 40 on Oct 17th and Josh turns 41 in Nov). Aunti Meli and our favorite babysitter, Jessica, took care of our cats and kiddos and gave us peace of mind in getting in some real quality time (THANK YOU!).

Why Champagne? Well, why not? This was planned somewhat spontaneously. We’ve come to appreciate that several places in France are 4 or less hours away. Totally drive-able for quick trips. Josh and I both enjoy Champagne wines, and it has been a bucket list item for us to go, taste, and also cycle in the region. We checked all those boxes and I’m happy to say it lived up to the self-created hype in our minds. 

We left Maastricht shortly after dropping the boys off to school, getting our babysitter squared away, and picking up the rental car. I should mention here that Josh planned the majority of this trip (at least 99 percent of it)!  He reached out to The Champagne Tour Company to book a tour of 3 small, family-owned Champagne houses with a driver who we would meet in Reims. So our trip started with a drive straight to Reims to a restaurant called Aux Delices des Papilles. It was located in a sort of tall strip mall type area, a spot I would’ve easily missed, but was so worth stopping in. I went in with ideas of something semi healthy, but was overcome by the smell of french fries when we walked through the door – I was compelled to eat something not so healthy :p We had great service, great food, and there was great ambience.  Even though the place was pretty busy and fairly big, it still managed to feel cozy. 

Our impeccably dressed tour driver, Ahmed, arrived promptly to the restaurant parking lot to get us to our first destination: Champagne Forget-Chemin in Ludes, headed by Thierry Forget, a 4th generation winemaker.

Our 1st stop at one of the small, family owned Champagne houses

This place felt small and cute, but they actually produce a decent amount of wine for a small house. They are a member of the prestigious Tresors de Champagne Association of 28 top grower champagne producers in the region and are known for their sustainable practices. I have to admit, when we arrived they seemed a bit unprepared to host us. There are maybe 3 or 4 full time employees, and I believe someone didn’t inform someone else that a tour was going to happen. That being said, the young guy that took us around did a great job explaining their processes and leading us through the tasting.  We took a tour of their entire facility and then got to the business at hand…tasting some champagne. We tasted: an Extra-brut, Carte Blanche (brut), Heritage Paul Forget (playful/experimental blend), Special Club (vintage), and finally Carte Rosé Premier Cru.

Being our first stop, and feeling a bit tipsy after the tasting, we got a bit wine happy and bought a few bottles to take back to Maastricht. I mean…the holidays ARE coming! 

Our next stop was Champagne Jean Claude Mouzon, an even smaller house in Verzenay run by a husband and wife. This stop was a quick one, mostly focused on the tasting and not so much on a tour. Their physical building was much smaller, with much of the equipment stored in the same room where we stood tasting. We tasted Cœr a Cœr (rose), Candeur d’Espirit (Grand Cru blanc de blanc), and Grand Bouquin (Grand Cru 70% pinot noir, 30% chardonnay). We enjoyed these and also thought about some of our other family members who might enjoy, so, of course we grabbed a few bottles as well to bring back home.

Our final tasting stop this day was Champagne La Maison Penet in Verzy. This was the largest of the small family houses we toured. They’ve been making wine for 5 generations and this one produces exclusively Grand Cru Champagne. What is Grand Cru? Check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classification_of_Champagne_vineyards for details on this because I’ll probably get it all wrong.

One thing I loved about this house was the current winemaker, Alexandre Penet, was an automotive engineer before taking over the family business. Frustrated that most labels don’t contain what he feels is sufficient information, he, in true engineer style, leaves “data” on his bottles related to the exact blend of grapes, where it was grown, when it was harvested, dosage, disgorgement date, whether it was stored in oak or steel, the soil type of the vineyard, the elevation, and even more.

We also found it interesting that Penet is one of the few winemakers to create Liex-Dits champagnes from his specific vineyards (and he has many vineyards). It’s like saying I’m going to only use the grapes from this one street in the neighborhood (or one street in town even), and then create 7 more different champagnes based on 7 other specific streets, rather than blending from all their vineyards in “town”. This is not super common place. But it makes it very interesting to compare the way the champagnes from each vineyard taste versus each other. 

Lastly, the family lives in the house attached to where we toured and the design of the house in on several of the bottles. Penet has two daughters, one who is studying in the US right now in Minnesota (brr!!).

During this tasting, we found some champagnes we enjoyed very much, shipped a few back to the US, and bought a few to take with us back to the NL. 

After our tasting, Ahmed drove us back to the restaurant parking lot in Reims and, since our hotel restaurant was not open that evening, we grabbed dinner at Brasserie le Boulingrin recommended by Ahmed. Dinner and dessert were delicious, but we were starting to feel sleepy from the day and had a 45 minute drive ahead of us.

Our dinner spot in Reims on Wednesday

The hotel ❤️

One of the best things Josh did was reach out to our friend Christian Holthausen, who we met in 2020 at a Champagne focused Charleston Wine and Food Festival event at Circa 1886. At that time, Christian, who is NY born and living in France, represented a champagne house that was being featured at this event. The three of us hit it off that night and took the only logical next step – becoming Facebook friends 😉 Christian now runs his marketing firm specializing in Champagne houses, so if you are a Champagne house reading this blog post (fingers crossed), please 1. send me samples! and 2. contact Christian for some marketing expertise. Here’s a recent article he was featured in.

Back to the trip. Christian recommended we stay at Hotel Les Avisés in Avize, France. This renovated castle has been many things over the years, and belonged to many different people, but currently serves as a luxury boutique hotel with 10 guest rooms and a gourmet kitchen. It is now owned by Jacque Selosse, a famous winemaker in his own right.  We asked if we could try a bottle of his Champagne, but we were told we could maybe get our name on a list and then in three years or so, we might get a bottle! Guess we will just have to come back and try again.

The property sits up on a hill  and when we arrived that evening, around 9:30 pm, the village was pretty much shut down. The staff had left for the day and left our room key out for us (they’d given Josh the gate code via email prior to our arrival). The first thing we noticed when we got out of the car was the smell of fermenting grapes – a smell we love! We knew we were in the right place. We let ourselves in and found our beautiful room. And crashed.

Morning view from our room

Thursday

One of the things I love most when I get some time away from the kids (and cats) is sleeping in. I want no alarms and to just have the luxury of waking up when I want. We made it until 8, which is pretty good for us!  We first had to take in the views from our room, which we could not really appreciate when we arrived. We then enjoyed a tasty European breakfast in the hotel, after which Josh put our bikes together and we hit the road.

It may seem silly to go through packing our bikes for just one bike ride, but man I’m so glad we did it. Cycling through vineyards and cute French towns is just awesome. And you can see so much by bike! The first part of our ride was epic and gorgeous. Then we entered the town of Épernay and I thought we might die. There was so much traffic, confusing bike lanes, and a thousand stop lights. In reality it wasn’t a long part of our ride but it seemed to take forever to get through. We’d already extended our ride time by stopping for a bunch of pictures, and now we were stopping at every intersection…our 2 hour ride ended up taking more like 3 with all our stoppage time. We were ravenous when we got back to the hotel. 

Here’s the thing about France. Many places still close in the mid afternoon. So they may serve lunch until 1:30 or 2, but after that you’re SOL until dinner. We tried to rush getting ready and get back to Épernay only to find several restaurants closed. We had a wine tour to get to in Reims by 4:45 so we really needed to be conscious of the time. Luckily the 4th or 5th place we tried was open and still serving. It was 2:30 or so by this point.

The blessed place that saved me (really saved Josh) from hanger: Le Progres, in Épernay

After lunch we hopped back in the car to drive to Ruinart in Reims. Initially we’d hoped to get to  Reims with enough time to see the Cathedral Notre Dame de Reims, most famous for being the place where French kings were crowned. We’ll have to do that another time because we arrived to our wine tour at Ruinart right on time. 

Josh and I have experienced a Ruinart tasting at CHSWFF events in the past and have gifted this champagne to family members, so we already knew we liked it. It is a much larger house than the ones we visited the day prior, but a very cool experience because we toured the super old chalk mines (think man-made caves) that are used now for storing wine because of the constant temps. Ruinart has a strong connection with artists and hires them to create cool installations of art throughout their buildings and even in the caves. It took us over an hour to see all that there was to see and learn the “philosophy” of the winemaker.

We tasted 2 blanc de blancs and two rosé champagnes. One thing I learned was that even though the Dom Ruinart are all made with Grand Cru grapes, they do not put this on the bottle because the winemaker doesn’t want to lock himself into always *having* to use them. It was hard not wanting to buy many bottles after this tasting but one nice thing is that we know we can get Ruinart here in Maastricht and also back home, unlike the ones we tasted from the smaller producers the day before. We did end up buying two bottles of R de Ruinart vintage 2011 because this particular bottle is only available for sale in France. I really enjoyed this tour. It was different than the smaller houses but still more intimate with only nine of us in the group and getting so much information on the history and the business of champagne making. 

Some fun facts we learned over the two days in Champagne:

  • There are over 15,000 growers in Champagne and only 5,000 sell their own wine. The rest sell their grapes to larger wine houses who are very dependent on these smaller growers in order to produce their large quantities of wine
  • Champagne can be made from a combination of 7 different grape varietals, but most are made from some combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier (some can even be 100% of just one of those grapes).
  • Not every champagne house chooses to produce a vintage (which is when they use grapes from only that year to make the champagne). This is different from other red/white regions in the world. With champagne, wine makers can blend grapes from previous years to get the exact taste they want and will only make a vintage using only one year’s grapes if they are very happy with the grapes. All that being said, The Forget-Chemin winemaker said they do make a vintage every year, as does Maison Penet. Ruinart does not declare a vintage every year from what I understand (and I found this fun site (https://www.vinovest.co/blog/champagne-ruinart) that talks a lot more about them if you want to read some more).

After this tour was done, we drove back to our beautiful hotel in Avize, where we quickly changed and headed downstairs for our dinner. As I mentioned this place had a gourmet kitchen with one woman taking care of all the guests. She was at every meal and frequently had 5-8 or so tables. I don’t know how she did it with such high class service. Anyway, this dinner was a set menu, so all we had to decide was what to drink with it. We were served 5 courses that ranged from scallops, to tuna, to beef, to dessert! It was perfectly timed and such a cozy atmosphere. I would go back in a heartbeat. 

Friday

View from our morning run.

Our last morning there, we “slept in”, got in a quick 30 minute run in the vineyards (literally, because the sidewalk disappeared and there was no shoulder on the road so we took the run to the dirt paths in the nearby vineyard!), had our last breakfast there and then took off for Maastricht. I hated to leave so quickly. I think juuuuussssstttt one more day in Champagne would’ve been so lovely. That being said, we had a date with our kids, some pumpkins, and a bunch of other school families that afternoon. The trip was very well worth it and so was the return.

Our haul from Champagne. Not the most wine we’ve ever bought but we have much less storage space and not very good climate control!

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