September 11, 2009

I had no idea that Mr. Moët invented the champagne drink, sometime around 1743 on a Wednesday.
Or that Mr. Chandon was his son-in-law.
Or that the black Pinot Noir grapes give white juice, unless you leave the shells in the mix.

I didn’t know much, but I learned a lot visiting the champagne house Moët&Chandon in Epernay, together with A&A and J&L.

I don’t like the taste of champagne, but now I look at it differently. Again, a journey proved to be like dontknowhowmany books in terms of learning – and books I otherwise wouldn’t have read.

Champagne is a beverage of “controlled origin”, i.e. it is produced only in the respective small region of France. Everything is strictly controlled by authorities, starting with the date when you’re allowed to harvest to even the precise area in your garden where you are allowed to grow grapevine (!). There are ~300 villages in the region growing champagne vines, called “cru” (read “crü”). Pinot Noir in the North and South, Pinot Meunier in the West, Chardonnay in the center, on the “white hills”. These 3 sorts blend into “normal” champagne; there is another option, blanc-des-blancs, which is white only, from Chardonnay.

Had no idea about the blending. It’s a science and an art – meant to give a certain brand of champagne the same taste every time. Which, trying to do it with something as elusive and changing as wine taste, is a nightmare. But they do it.

We visited the Moet house with a guide, a french lady with outstanding british pronounciation (dont find that every day), and we learned lots. Like that they add yeast and sugar to the wine so that they produce natural “bubbles”, then they keep them at constant 12 degrees in the 100km long cellars,

These bottles for example

are Dom Perignon, which is a brand they own – had no idea. Apparently only winemakers know how to decipher those inscriptions on the plates. I asked her why they keep them horizontal, she didnt know :). I guess no one had asked such a dumb question before. I would think so the yeast and sugar have a larger surface to spread and ferment on more evenly, and A. is probably also right – it’s much easier to store a large quantity this way.

Speaking of the yeast, they need to take it out after fermentation. So they invented these inclined shelves

where a man comes every day and rotates them (he can do 15000 a day!) and raises the angle a tiny bit, until the yeast is all at the tip of the bottle. Then the bottle tip is shoved into a machine which freezes it to -25Celsius, then another machine takes the cork out, the pressure inside spits the yeast ice cube, and the bottle is re-corked. 15 months from then it can be on your table.

These are just some details, i didnt mention everything. It all ended with a tasting, a white and a rosé glass. The reddish color is from the Pinot Noir grape shells. I liked it better, more aromatic, or maybe it’s a placebo reaction to the nice color.

Outside, sun was shining on mandarines,

so we went along the Epernay cathedral

to have lunch in this world capital of champagne, at the “La Table Korbus” restaurant. Excellent food, with 21 Euro you get a good menu, from starter

to desert.

AND you can bring your own champagne,

which we did, and drank.

At the end we asked a waiter if he knows a small champagne house, for some insider view in the lives of people here. He said “unfortunately, it’s Sunday afternoon, everything is closed”. “Ok, we said, and wanted to leave. “But, wait a minute”, he said. He goes to the other room of the restaurant and returns after 2 minutes: “in the other room there’s a client who owns a champagne house, I asked him if he can have you. He said no, but a friend of his could. He’s gonna call him and let us know.”

Soon thereafter, a man comes out of the restaurant, goes to his car (to make the call), comes back and tells us that we could go right now, coz after that the guy needs to go to the hospital to his grandma. He showed the waiter the address in the phone book, he wrote it down for us, and that’s how we ended up at John-Charles Ricciuti’s house in Avenay Val D’Or – the one on the left.

His wife welcomed us to the guest room, where we had a tasting session with some of their champagnes, showed us different tools they had exhibited, like this crowning device,

told us about their “farm” (6 hectars only, worked by herself and her husband + 2 employees, but during harvest, which starts next week, they have up to 44 workers, plus an enologist who helps out at several farms with the blending, which is done by her husband. They have a “grand cru”, the best quality of the 3 types of soil, right next to the Dom Perignon vines. The full list of “cru’s” here.

Mr. John-Charles (called John after his granddad who lived in America and Charles after De Gaulle 🙂 and the gang make mostly “vintage” champagne, with wine from the same year – the Moets make “non-vintage” as well, mixing wines from different years.

Here’s the champaigning process:

Very nice lady. We spoke French, which added to the charm of the situation, J. translated most of it. Very cozy experience, enjoyed it, completing very well the luxury at Moet & Chandon – speaking of luxury, I didnt know that Luis Vuitton has bought them. They swallowed everything that has to do with luxury!

On the way back we stopped for some vineyard pictures

and some larger panorama of the area

and of a random city we stumbled upon on our way to dinner.

Charmante, la Champagne.


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