I have known almost my entire life that I want to leave. Growing up in a little Wisconsin town, I wanted to go. I was pretty indiscriminate as to where I wanted to go. I just wanted to go. The older I get, the more I realize that feeling has less to do with where I was from and more to do with where I wanted to go. If I’m here, I want to be there. Since my first trip to London, I’ve asserted that it is my favorite city in the world, but Ryan has (probably correctly) pointed out that if I were raised in London, I would be on a plane out of there as soon as I could. It’s an ongoing struggle that has brought itself to our life in Germany as well.
Pair that unending urge to be there with a village that has about 1,500 people and not much in the way of entertainment, and it only intensifies. As a result, Ryan and I often plan quick little getaways instead of spending the weekend at home. (All this introspection comes with a realization at the end, I promise.) This time, we planned a trip to Champagne, France.
Happily, Champagne is only a 3 hour drive from our house, putting it well within our “weekend getaway” sphere. We packed a change of clothes and hopped in the car to start the drive over to Epernay, one of the big cities of the region. I had pre-booked two tours of champagne houses for Saturday so we headed for our first one – 11:30 AM at Champagne Boizel. We arrived on the Avenue de Champagne (yes, that is a real thing) around 11:00 and parked just off the street before starting a quick walk down the impressive, winery-lined avenue. To either side of us were white mansions, each advertising their own champagne and offering tastings. We meandered past a few then walked back to Boizel to start our tour.
We checked in and followed our tour guide, dressed in a sleek black blazer and tailored trousers despite the blazing, 94 degree weather outside, to the courtyard of the house. She explained that Champagne Boizel had been in business since 1834 and that the family had purchased the white mansion in front of us purely as a production facility. The company has been owned and operated by the Boizel family since and, with their 5th and 6th generations currently in charge, it is one of the few family-owned Champagne houses remaining. It also had a bit of feminist history. It was owned and operated by Mousier AND Madame Boizel in 1834, something which was almost unheard of then, and to this day it was run by “Madame Boizel and her husband”.
After the history lesson, we were led out of the sun and into the factory, where we first looked at a map of the region. For those who are unfamiliar, Champagne is the sparkling wine created in the Champagne region. Any sparkling wine made outside of this very small, particular region is NOT Champagne and cannot be marketed as such. There is an extremely powerful council that monitors this and the other rules regarding what can be considered “Champagne” (some of these rules listed below). That council is so powerful that it recently sued Apple (successfully) for marketing one of its iPhones as the color Champagne. In other words, don’t mess with these guys.
Other things they monitor:
-The grapes must be picked by hand. Farming using machinery damages the skin of the grape and can cross contaminate the white and red varieties
-Champagne must be stored in cellars for at least 15 months, although many houses store them for 3-4 years
-The number of presses in the bottle (first press is best. Second press is okay but the third press only goes to making other kinds of alcohol)
-Grapes must be pressed within 3 hours of picking. Longer than this can damage the skins of the grapes. Boizel presses their grapes in the wineries themselves to avoid any issues
-When the harvest occurs. We asked our guide when it was this year and she said because of the heat, it would be around August 25th. One of the winemakers she had worked with said that, when he started 40 years ago, the harvest was mid-October. Due to rising temperatures, that date was moving up every year. “We’re very concerned about global warming obviously. In 40 years, our harvest season has changed by 2 months. You can see how much it affects us.”
She showed us the villages where Boizel owns their 7 hectacres of vineyards and the other regions they get their grapes from. Then we went into 2 rooms, one with oak casks and another giant, metal vats. This was where they held their reserve wines. As Ryan and I were highly uneducated about Champagne production, every room brought with it a new insight about the production and naming of sparkling wine. For instance, wineries keep “reserves” of previous years’ wine (sometimes about 40% of that year’s production) to mix with the following years and use those in their “reserve” wines and ongoing brands. The reason for this is continuity – if one year is particularly sweet, the wine makers will balance that with a more acidic year to create the continuity that consumers expect when they are buying bottles of champagne. Otherwise, the product would vary wildly year to year.
The other type of wine is a “vintage” which is made entirely of one year. This is when you’ll see the year labeled on the bottle. These wines are much more variable, have more complex flavors, and can be harder to predict. When we asked both our guides about their favorites, their answers differed. The first said she appreciated the “distinct taste of a vintage champagne” whereas the second guide was more impressed with the “complexity of mixing multiple wines to get the perfect reserve wine.” Aka – one is not “better” than the other.
After this basic education, we walked 8 meters down into the cellars of Champagne Boizel. Here we saw the storage of the bottles and learned more about the particulars of making champagne. We saw stacks of bottles (at this point they are all still wine) aging in the cellars, in the precise temperature and humidity. She then described the process, which used to be done by hand over the course of a month, of slowly and meticulously angling and tilting each bottle to remove the sediment from the sides of the glass bottle and tip that bottle until the sediment was in the neck of the bottle and the air bubble was at the bottom. The wine makers would then have to tilt the bottle precisely so that the air bubble came between the sediment and the wine, then remove the cap, expelling all the sediment but losing none of the wine. They had less than a second to execute this move. As you can imagine, it was quite difficult and a lot of Champagne was lost. They’ve now modernized, which we saw more of in the second tour.
For the rest of the first, we went through the 1km of caves (there are 210 km of caves under Epernay, housing hundreds of millions of bottles of Champagne), careful to avoid the stacks of carefully tilted bottles. Our guide showed us the treasure trove they had, including a bottle from the year the house opened in 1836. This fact was even more impressive when you consider the history – Epernay and the region was occupied by the Nazis during World War II. During their four years there, they all but completely wiped out the stores of champagne. Add to that the fact that the people of Epernay used the caves as bomb shelters and many of the caves collapsed, destroying everything in them. That is also the reason why all the caves of Epernay are still connected. Our guide showed us the door that leads to the caves of the winery next door. This would have been used as an escape route during the war. For Boizel, their few bottles of 1836 remained in the house of one of the owners though, making it one of the oldest bottles of champagne left in the region.
After that history lesson, we climbed the stairs again, heading to the sleek tasting room, where we tried the Brut (their “ambassador brand”), a Rose Champagne, and a Blanc de Blanc (white of white, made only of Chardonnay grapes). We sipped our three different types, asking a few questions to our guide. I noticed that 2018 was the first year for tours – they had started in April and so far, were really enjoying the tours.
After glancing at an chest displaying family pictures, we thanked our guide and headed down the Avenue de Champagne in search of a quick meal. We had some rustic sandwiches quickly, then killed some time by walking back to the gift shop of Moët et Chandon, the largest champagne maker. In comparison to Boizel with their 500,000 bottles a year, we heard numbers between 15,000,000 and 55,000,000 bottles for Moet et Chandon, including (we learned) Dom Perignon. Their reach was helped along by the fact that they are part of LVMH – Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy. We walked through the shop, looking at their different bottles of wine, then headed back in the direction of our second tour – Champagne Alfred Gratien.
A little off the beaten path, we hiked up a small hill and walked through the gate of the winery just as our tour guide was pulling up. “You’re the only ones!” She chirped, “would you like to get started?” And we headed off on our private winery tour, which gave us a chance to ask many more questions. She took us to the store house where they keep all their oak barrels. We discussed the basics of champagne again, what makes it champagne vs still wine (a second fermentation, in which they inject sugar into the bottle before adding the cork. Fermentation occurs, creating alcohol and CO2, giving us the delightful bubbles we love so much) and what makes their production different (much more in oak barrels from Burgundy, less in the steel vats.) then we crossed over into their cellars.
Although a smaller house (about 250,000 bottles a year), they usually have between 1 and 1.5 million bottles in their cellars, slowly aging. The whole production process is managed by 4 (that’s right, just 4) wine makers. At this point, we were joined a by a man from Milan who happily hopped into the tour to learn more. We got a close view of the sediment in the bottles, this time housed in cages. When I asked why, our guide led us over to a machine, the one I had mentioned earlier, which took the cages of bottles and meticulously tilted them until the sediment was safely stored in the neck.
Then, after showing us their own store of antique bottles and echoing the story about champagne being decimated during the years of the war, she took us back up the stairs to show us where the whole process of removing the sediment (by dipping the tops in a chemical ice bath), injecting the sugar (amount depending on the type of champagne), topping it off with a little wine from the same batch if need be, then inserting the cork with 4 tons of pressure. From there, we got to see where they label and package the bottles before going to the tasting room.
This time we got to try 4 different glasses – their signature Brut, their 2009 Blanc de Blanc (a Grand Cru Vintage), their Cuvée Paradis Brut (a 2009 vintage and my favorite) and the Millésime (a 2005 vintage and Ryan’s favorite). We asked about the differences in Cuvées (presses) and Crus (there are 17 Grand Cru villages, the highest rating you can receive. A Grand Cru can come from any or all of those villages but no other. Below that are premier crus) and other questions that they probably thought were silly. Then we thanked our host and headed back to the center of the city for a last walk around.
We toured the 25,000 person city for a while, then returned down the Avenue de Champagne, stopped by Boizel to pick up some souvenir champagne flutes, and headed to our car. We were starting to get sleepy after a full day of walking. We headed in the direction of our hotel but had one last stop planned. We pulled off the country road into the tiny village of Hautevillers and headed down a small street in the direction of Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers – the burial place of the world-famous monk, Dom Pierre Perignon. After paying our respects to the man who “tasted the stars” we said good bye to the little village and finished the 15 minute drive to our hotel, Dans les Vignes.
We checked into the 6 bedroom hotel in the Premier Cru village of Chamery and dropped our bags in the room before heading out to the glass-lined balcony looking out over the village and the vineyards, to enjoy a few more glasses of bubbly, this time from the hotel’s own winery – Champagne Bonnet-Ponson. We tried their Brut (the name indicates the amount of sugar added to the bottle), Extra-Brut (less sugar), Blanc de Blanc and Blanc de Noir (made from red grapes and my favorite of the night). Finally champagned-out, we took our previously purchased picnic of meat, cheese, bread, berries, apples, and peaches up into the vineyards and enjoyed it in the shade of a tree overlooking the hills.
We ended the day with a quick walk through the small village and sitting back on the deck, watching the sunset go from gold to red behind the hill in front of us. Here is where that annoying self-reflection comes into play. Through this whole day, tasting wines and walking among world famous vineyards, I was having a great time, marveling at how beautiful it was. I was there and because it was temporary, it was exciting. Ryan brought me back to reality a little though when he said “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s really beautiful, but I prefer the Mosel better because it has the river.”
That’s right, we had just driven 6 hours away from a world-famous wine-growing valley to go to a world-famous wine growing valley. And in my constant need to be there, I sometimes forget how cool it is to be here. I guess sometimes you have to leave home to appreciate home.
The other ah-ha moment of the weekend was just that. After a little over a year, many continuing frustrations and difficulties, and countless minutes and hours of extreme discomfort, our tiny river village is starting to be home. Not like a home town or a home country, but a little place that I can in some way claim as my own. And that’s kinda cool.
We ended the night talking about that – the changes we had seen in life and the things that inevitably still frustrate us. We woke the next morning feeling refreshed (having a fan to counteract the heat probably had sometime to do with that) and went back to the balcony to enjoy croissants, bread, homemade jam (made using our host’s great-grandfather’s recipe), meat, cheese, and hand made yogurt (our host proudly announced it was made by her as well). After trapping an extremely pesky bee under a cap, we had a peaceful breakfast overlooking the vineyards again before we checked out and headed in the direction of Reims, a 185,000 person city just to the north of Chamery.
We took a quick spin around the city, just enjoying walking the streets and seeing the food options available. We stopped by the Notre Dame of Reims, notable as the place where the kings of France were crowned for 1,000 years and playing a part in Franco-German reconciliation in 1962. We admired the stained glass, then left to explore the city a little more by foot. After a few hours in the city, we decided to call it a day and hop in the car for the 3 hour drive home. I look forward to a night of watching the sunset over my local hills and river. Who knows, maybe we’ll enjoy just a little more bubbly to celebrate being home!