21 Lessons from a Brief Sojourn in Champagne (June 11, 2014)
by James Harbeck
Lesson 1. If you want to give your wife a great birthday, and you'll happen to be somewhere south of the English Channel at the time, schedule a side trip to Champagne. Reims is 45 minutes from Paris by high-speed train, and Épernay is a half hour from Reims by slow local train. Do some champagne tasting. Get yourself a private VIP tour at, say, Moët & Chandon. Look, this is your wife we're talking about here. Make it happen.
This is what your wife should look like on her birthday.
Lesson 2. You can eat decently in France without spending stupid amounts of money. For example, delicious (and jaw-exercising) baguette sandwiches are available at the ubiquitous boulangeries, and crepes to go are a bit of thing too. Yes, of course French cuisine is famous. So is French wine. If I don't have unlimited amounts of time and money, the wine gets higher priority.
A French lunch.
Lesson 3. You cannot drink coffee in France without spending a lot of money. But it's good coffee, served with a view of the passers-by. Start your day with a grand crème and save the rest of your money for wine.
A French breakfast (I skipped the cigarette).
Lesson 4. Leisure time is important in France. Most of France is closed on Sunday, and the stores that are open are generally open from, say, 10 to 2, except for the tourist trap luxury chain stores on the Champs-Élysées. On weekdays, if you're in a town like Reims or Épernay, many places are closed from noon to 2 – so they can go have lunch, naturally. In France, land of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the equality means that customers are not more important than storekeepers or, you know, lunch. And they close the stores by 7 or 7:30 in the evening, after which they of course go eat dinner. You can really appreciate and respect the French attitude towards taking some time to relax and eat. Until it gets in the way of what you do for relaxation, e.g., shopping.
Lesson 5. Almost everything in France is striking. The scenery is striking. The food is striking. The wines are striking. Unfortunately, at any given time, quite a few of the workers are striking too.
A village in Champagne. I can't remember which one.
Lesson 6. If you're taking pictures, you'll be sure to have one shot you missed because you weren't ready and you'll wish forever after you'd gotten it. In Reims, they have a really big really old striking and exalting Gothic cathedral with lovely stained glass windows, including some recent ones by Marc Chagall. But the picture from the cathedral I will always wish I had gotten was of a guy walking around in there wearing a Dead Kennedys T-shirt.
Note the absence of the Dead Kennedys T-shirt.
Lesson 7. Forget about finding public washrooms in France. They mostly don't exist. Where you can find them, they're unpleasant and costly (for urine in Europe, if you're down you're out: 50 cents to spend a penny). Assume you will need to make increasingly urgent trips back to your hotel room every so often. Book your hotel in a central location.
Lesson 8. Two-star hotels are fine. Fine. Save your money for wine. The hotel owner will probably be nice, the beds will be sufficiently comfy and clean, there will be an actual bathroom with an actual shower, there will probably even be free wi-fi (extremely sketchy free wi-fi, mind you), the owner may even come back from his lunch break five minutes early so you can get your bags and make your train, and anyway, think where you are. Why spend much time in your room? Except to drink the wine you've bought.
Lesson 9. In spite of the generally laid-back air of France, remember that this was the home of the Concorde and is the home of the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse = High Speed Train), a train that goes over 300 km/h. I think the French made these so they could get home to the washroom sooner. Or, of course, to wine country: Reims is only 45 minutes from Paris; Beaune is 2 hours 13 minutes away, Bordeaux 3 hours 14 minutes.
The French countryside pours past at 314 km/h.
Lesson 10. Take first class on the train. It's not as posh as flying first class; don't count on all-you-can-drink wine and hot flight attendants. But it also doesn't cost all that much more than second class, especially if you book in advance, which you should do via the SNCF site if you can; huge savings are available. For the extra few euros, you get a comfier seat and a quieter, less crowded place. No loud conversations about sports, no protracted torture of infants, no tour groups of extraverted seniors discussing in repetitive detail what they had for breakfast.
Lesson 11. The background music does not always go with the beverage. Of the two little tasting bars we visited in Épernay, one had the soundtrack from Grease playing, while the other one was playing some anonymous loud music for disemboweling neighbourhood stray cats. Later on our trip, in Belgium, we drank strong beer while classical music played. But if what you're drinking is good enough, you can survive the music. If.
Lesson 12. If you want to go taste champagne in Champagne, don't miss Épernay. We stayed in a hotel in Reims, but we did a day trip to Épernay, a half hour each way by train. In Reims you can walk up and taste champagne in approximately one producer's place (Charles de Cazenove, near the train station); all the others require you to pay for their cellar tour, and there are only so many of those you can do (but see below). Also, most of them are a bit far from the centre to walk to. There are no tasting bars in Reims, just quite a few shops that may or (probably) may not have something open to taste and lots of cafés that will sell you a small glass of low-dose fizzy-o-therapy costing half what you would pay for a whole bottle in a shop. In Épernay, on the other hand, we tasted from a small producer (Janisson-Baradon; the proprietor is a really friendly guy with some interesting stuff) and in two champagne tasting bars. There are several major labels in easy walking distance of the train station. Oh, and there was that VIP tour of Moët & Chandon's cellars...
Aina samples the goods at Janisson-Baradon.
Lesson 13. If you can arrange for a VIP champagne cellar tour, do. The big champagne labels all have cellar tours with tastings. It's educational and diverting and historical and ends with champagne, so do it at least once. You can join a group tour or you can try to arrange something more special. Here is how a VIP tour of Moët & Chandon goes: We were met, just the two of us, by this super cute young French woman, who gave us pretty much the same cellar tour as the people in the group tours, but with individual attention and not shuffling around with a herd of people including the sort who write their initials with their fingers in the dust on wine bottles on racks as they stand around pretending to listen. And at the end we went not to a stand-up bar with a dozen of our closest strangers but to a table on the back lawn with just our charming guide and the sommelier, a presentable young fellow, and had two glasses of champagne each (real glasses, not stem thimbles) under the shade of the Three Emperors' Tree, so named because three different emperors got smashed on champagne in its shade.
These bottles will in the fullness of time be sold for 34 euros each.
Lesson 14. Champagne cellars are cool. Literally, I mean. The sun was slapping down sweatily outside, so it was nice to be down there, but I was glad I had a jacket on. Our fetching hostess put on a black wrap that made her even more fetching. My wife, of course, dresses to kill everywhere and all the time, and is a former professional figure skater, so she's used to cool places.
The vaunted vaults, or vaulted vaunts, or whatever, at Moët & Chandon.
Lesson 15. Champagne is typically blended. A lot. Moët & Chandon use well over 100 different wines in their Impérial, three-quarters of which are from the most recent harvest (like most champagne, it's non-vintage). They use grapes from all 17 of the grands crus plus 30 of the premiers. (Champagne growers are classified by cru, which is really just the village they're nearest to.) Rosé champagne is normally made by blending red with white; less commonly, they do it by macerating red on the skins for just a little while, like you're supposed to when making still rosé. (Two out of the three grapes used in champagne are actually red wine grapes: Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. They press them gently and remove the skins immediately so no colour is added. Unless they want to make rosé.)
Lesson 16. The secret ingredients in champagne are added yeast, added sugar, and more added sugar. The rest is process. Does that seem like a bit of a riddle? Well, riddling comes in too. I've written an article about the champagne process and its vocabulary if you want to know more.
Lesson 17. Some champagnes have surprising flavours. Although champagne generally has a light and dry flavour, with a few main notes (such as bread, citrus, caramel, or fungus) and subtle variations that can require close attention, there are some that diverge strikingly. In my tastings, Janisson-Baradon's Conges 2006, a vintage champagne made entirely with Pinot Meunier, came forth with burnt brown sugar, lavender, and gooseberry. Charles Heston's rosé delivered a definite message of tequila. A champagne I will refrain from naming (not one you're likely ever to have anyway) had a dominant flavour of wax lips and beauty soap.
One of these has notes of berry-flavoured hard candy. The other one has notes of a 12-year-old girl's toiletry kit.
Lesson 18. There are many, many champagne makers you will never hear of or get to buy in Canada. Some of them are very good. Some of them are not. Taste as much as you can get away with, identify a few of the first kind that are well priced and buy bottles to consume in your further travels.
A grocery store in Reims. As you can see from the sign, this is the "Home" section.
Lesson 19. Make sure to leave room in your luggage for the bottles you are going to buy. Also, bring a pressure-tight stopper, just in case you open a bottle but don't want to finish it within the hour.
Lesson 20. The likelihood of having to lift your luggage over your head increases with its weight. Its weight increases with the number of bottles of wine (e.g., champagne) you have in it. Remember that all trains have overhead racks and not all of them have other places for bags.
Lesson 21. Decent means of keeping champagne chilled are not universally available in European hotels. You may have to wait a few days to drink your purchases. Do not assume they have heard of ice machines.
Come join me for a glass. In Reims.