I Got A Kick From Champagne

“Burgundy makes you think off silly things, Bordeaux makes you talk of them and Champagne makes you do them. Think of silly things, Bordeaux makes you talk of them and Champagne makes you do them.”

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, French gastronome, (1755-1826)

After visits to BurgundyAlsaceCôtes du Rhône, and Bordeaux, how could we not visit this wine French wine region?  Champagne is located in in north-eastern France. Although it is doable as a (long) day trip from Paris (the region starts 120 kilometers/75 miles from the city) , I did it as part of a visit to the World War I battlefield of Verdun.   There were people on some of my tours that were out from Paris for the day.  Trust me when I tell you that with a driver taking them from one producer of Champagne to another, they were having a very, um, fun educational experience.

Champagne has 4 main cities: Reims, Troyes, Chalons en Champagne and Epernay.  Most of the guidebooks recommend either Reims or the smaller Epernay.  I wanted to visit the famous (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) cathedral at Reims, so I chose to go there.  If I’d had more time, I would have done the Champagne Tourist Route.  It covers more than 500 km between Reims, Epernay and the Côte des Bar, and has around 80 welcome centers.  Growers offer tours in personalized settings, but you need to be better organized than I was and arrange them in advance.  Squeezing it in at the last minute meant that I could only tour producers like Tattinger and Pomeroy.

Let me explain.  Like Burgundy, Champagne’s vineyards are classified as Grand Cru, Premier Cru or Deuxième Cru.  However, in Champagne this does not give an indication of the vineyard’s quality or potential.  It functions more as a means to establish the price a grower gets for his harvest.   The producer or skill of the wine-maker in Champagne means that it is possible to have an outstanding performer in a second classed village and a moderate grower in a higher classed Grand Cru (just like Bordeaux, but different from Burgundy).  Confused yet?


Burgundy Part Deux – How To Read A Label

We were overwhelmed with Burgandy’s complexity.  The soil, the climate, the changes in altitudes… It was overwhelming.  vineyards separated by a stone wall or a path can possess very different flavors and levels of quality.  I felt like we would never learn it all.  On our tour, Jean-Michel (from Authentica Tours) explained how the wines are classified and it really helped make sense of them. The vineyards of Burgundy have four levels:

The reason the labeling system is so specific is the terroir is so diverse.  Different soils and geology produce different tastes.  Two of the wines below were produced just feet from each other.  We were astonished by how different they tasted.  Incredible.

Regional wines are produced over the entire region (Bourgogne = Burgundy).  If you want to try one, the label will say “Bourgogne”.  They may sometimes combine different types of grapes in these wines.

Village/commune wines are produced from vineyard sites (that aren’t Grand or Premier Cru) within the boundaries of one village.  Each village’s wines have their own specific qualities and characteristics  The village’s name will appear on the label.

Premier Cru (1ere Cru) wines are produced from very high quality vineyards (smaller, more specific areas than the village designation). The label will have:

  • the name of the village,
  • the Premier Cru status (how else can they get you to pay more for it), and
  • the vineyard name (usually).

Grand Cru is the highest level and produced from the very best plots.  They are very, very expensive.   How do people know they’ll be good?  They’ve grown wine on them for thousands of years; they’ve seen their consistent quality and distinctive character over the years.  In these wines, everything is been done to ensure the maximum expression of the grape and the terroir.  The label will contain:

 

  • the words Grand Cru (probably in larger print than the price)
  • the name of the exact part of the Grand Cru area the wine is from

According to Jean-Michel, “wine tasting is an intellectual experience.”  It’s pretty fun too.