A Wintery Day Trip to Champagne
Last week, before ringing in the new year, we decided to embark on a day trip to the Champagne region of France. It’s a little over an hour away by train which makes for an easy day trip from Paris.
Of the two cities that cater to champagne tasters, we chose Épernay, "the capital of Champagne," mainly because the train goes straight into town. It kept things trés simple!
We left Paris bright and early Wednesday morning, sans the bright. The sun doesn't come up until about 8:45am these days. We walked through darkened streets to catch our 8:30am train at Gare de l'Est.
Once we arrived, we headed to the center of Épernay. It wasn’t quite 10am, so we had some time to kill. We started by wandering down L'Avenue de Champagne. But we quickly realized that it was much colder than Paris; no more wandering around for us.
We walked past all the big names that call Épernay home, Perrier Jouet, Veuve Cliquot, Pol Roger, but Moët & Chandon caught our eye. It was the only one that looked open at 10am, so in we went...
Moet & Chandon:
Back in my grad school days, I did a branding project for Moët & Chandon that included lots of research on their origins and history, so it was pretty neat to be at their headquarters in Champagne. Talk about full circle. We chose to go on a tour of their caves to take up a good chunk of time. We also figured we might learn something. The tour lasted about an hour and was followed by a tasting of your choice.
The tour was very informative, we got a little history, a lot of science and a dash of geography. We learned about sourcing grapes from a grand cru (specific "neighborhoods" such as vineyards or terroirs where the best grapes are grown), the three champagne grapes (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier & Chardonnay) and dosage (the last shot of sugar, or sweet wine, added to make the champagne more drinkable). The caves themselves were neat, but a bit underwhelming. I think the whiskey tours we’d been on over the summer were a bit more exciting (ahh, the smell of bourbon). At the end, we were led to a room where our champagne was poured. Interestingly, we were the only ones in the group with one glass of champagne. Everyone else opted for the two-glass tour. Whoops.
Cost: 22€ per person (prices are now 23€ for 2016)
20 Avenue de Champagne, 51200 Épernay, France
Website (it will only let me visit the French website... hopefully it corrects itself for you)
Lunch at La Pomme d’Or.
We walked around town looking for something that caught our eye. Not many restaurants were open, which is typical between Christmas and New Year's. We saw the outdoor menu board for La Pomme d'Or. It looked solid. The price was right. We were hungry. Sold.
We climbed up the stairs to the second floor French pub. We quickly perused the full menu or carte, but had already decided on the menu (what the French call prix fixe). The three courses were a fruits de mer cassoulet to start, penne bolognese and a tarte tatin for dessert. I had serious doubts about the cassoulet, but it ended up being a pleasant surprise; it was cheesy and delicious with mussels, clams and shrimp. The penne was good and filling for a winter's day.
For dessert, I decided to have an espresso with mine, Steve just wanted the tarte. When the waitress came around to ask for our coffee order, we gladly gave it. I got my coffee and then we waited. And waited. And waited. Apparently, unbeknownst to us, we had decided to omit both tarte tatins in favor of my one coffee. Tant pis. Lesson learned: now we know to specify café ET dessert!
Cost: 13€ per menu.
12 Rue Eugéne Mercier, 51200 Épernay, France
We decided to come here by reading many internet tips that touted the 3 euro tastings and bottles under 20 euros. Sadly, it's not so. The "tastings" are more like 5-6 euro, with bottles range from 16.90 to 60. And our tasting fee wasn't waived with the purchase of a bottle (something we also read on the internet).
Why do I say "tasting" in quotes? Because it's not a tasting in a traditional sense with small pours of five or so wines. Here, a tasting means a very full-glass of champagne. We wanted to try to more than one each so we split three different champagnes: Brut Nature (no dosage!), Cuvée Reserve and Tentation. By taking our time and having the ability to retaste our choices, we were actually able to taste the difference in the champagnes. After going back and forth on which was our favorite, we decided to purchase a bottle of Tentation.
Cost: 5-6€ per tasting, 25.90€ for bottle
40 Avenue de Champagne, 51200 Épernay, France
Paul-Etienne SAINT GERMAIN
We passed by a small unassuming house with a sign out front inviting you inside for a tasting. Since this is the kind of small champagne house we had been looking for, we decided to go in.
Here the tastings were a bit pricier, but more like the tastings we were used to in Santa Barbara. You could taste two champagnes from a list of three. Lucky for us, he was pouring from the more exceptional list that day. Originally, Steve and I planned to share a tasting, but we ended up doing our own because we wanted to support this smaller, independent house. BONUS: we got to try all three champagnes instead of just two.
The owner poured our wines in the front room of the house. There was no background noise, so we started to ask a lot of questions to fill up the quiet. It was just the three of us, and to me, it felt awkward to be sipping his beloved champagne in silence.
One question we asked was about the three grapes; we noticed that he only made his wine with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. He told us that he didn't use Pinot Meunier grapes because they are not grown in a grand cru region and he didn't want to sacrifice the grape quality (they are also known to be the least expensive of the three).
We also found out that his family has had the vineyards in Champagne for many generations, but only to sell to producers. He, Jean-Michel, and his wife, Agnes, are the first to make wine from their own grapes. And we’re thankful they did! All three of the champagnes were outstanding, but a bit more than we wanted to pay. We couldn't leave without a bottle, so we bought their traditional champagne, one that we didn't taste. We expect it to be just as delicious.
Cost: 12€ per tasting; 19€ for the bottle
51 Avenue de Champagne, 51200 Épernay, France
This is a bar and cellar that specializes in, what else, champagne. After lots of walking around town, we decided to settle here until it was time to catch our train. We each had a glass along with some bites they handed out gratuit.
After finishing up, we went to peruse the cave. They have a huge selection of champagnes from different growers in the Champagne region, some are blends of the three grapes, others are exclusively Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or Pinot Meunier. We obviously couldn't resist picking up another bottle. When we got home, we found out this bottle retails for $60 in the US!
Cost: 6.80€ per glass, 16.90€ for bottle
8 Rue Gambetta, 51200 Épernay, France
After a full day of bubbly and brisk walks in the cold, we were ready to head back to Paris. We climbed aboard an earlier train toting our three bottles. And finished off the day with L’As du Falafel on the couch at home.
I think if we can find a cheap ticket, it’s worth going back for a champagne grab. Some of the bottles are a much better deal than what you'll find in a Paris grocery store (around 30€ per bottle) and there is a much bigger selection. That was surprising to me. Next time we head back to Champagne in warmer weather, we'd like to visit Reims. We’re also hoping to rent some bikes so we can be a bit more mobile and maybe visit a vineyard or two.
If you’ve been to Épernay or the Champagne region, what were your favorite spots there? Or if you’re planning a trip, what are you looking forward to most?
P.S. Check out a few more pictures below...
Vocab for today:
- excursion d'une journée - day trip
- le train - train
- le tour - tour
- la ville - city
- des bouteilles - bottles