“Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!” (Winston Churchill)
No I didn’t plan our girl’s only road trip with Sir Churchill’s (himself a great admirer of the bubbly) quote in mind, but somehow it fitted perfectly with our 4 days, 1300 km journey to Champagne, the D-day beaches in Normandy and Brittany. First stop- Champagne to taste wine at a couple of producers that TPS had selected ahead of time.
We left the city early morning last Wednesday for Reims, a relatively painless 2 hours drive from Paris. First stop: the Pommery caves, but before that, a requisite stop for a quick photo-op at Reim’s massive gothic Cathedral and lunch. In typical road trip fashion, lunch was quick and bad for the body, in this case a kebab each at a shop in downtown Reims.
After swiftly chowing down our sandwiches, we rushed to the Pommery estate along the edges of Reims for a 30 minutes English tour that is offered several times a day. (tip: call or email ahead for the schedule) Though cave visits are de rigeur at all the large champagne houses, TPS- the subject matter expert- selected Pommery, whose caves, all 18 kilometres of them, were supposedly the most impressive.
The subterranean caves were filled with artwork (a temporary light and sound show was being displayed inside the caves) and of course, bottles upon bottles of champagne, from the smallest demi to the gigantic Salmanazars (9 litre bottles that we were egging TPS to buy for her upcoming wedding receptions).
Besides the visual spectacle, the guide also gave an interesting commentary of the company’s history. The caves were named after the markets Pommery penetrated and during the war, refugees even lived there for months. A basic primer to champagne making introduced A and me, Champagne novices, to terms such as disgorgement and bottle aging. No doubt useful for future cocktail chatter.
The entrance fee includes a tasting, and though the wines were somewhat lackluster, Pommery was no doubt a fascinating first stop.
A day trip to Champagne from Paris is very doable especially on the TGV trains. But that would mean missing the chance to drive through the languid countryside and visit one or several of the thousands of small Champagne producers, most who have no distribution in Paris. To us, that was the highlight. We visited several producers, all family-run with the biggest producing a mere 100,000 bottles per annum, and lugged back a good 10 bottles. We loved our meetings with the winemakers, all of them passionate, knowledgeable and patient. The wines were also expressive and delicious, all more memorable than those poured out chez Pommery. (tip: most of the smaller producers are by appointment only)
Les Grappes d’Or, our chambre d’hote for the night was run by Eric Isselée, a champagne producer in the grand cru village of Cramant, a charming 3 bedroom place where one could wake up next to the vines and then enjoy a champagne tasting (we bought the rosé, the strawberry jam notes apropros for breakfast). All mornings should begin like this!
We drove into Epernay for dinner at one of Mr Isselée’s recommendations, La Grillade Gourmande.
As the name of the restaurant suggests, the restaurant focuses on grills with a wood fired grill as the centerpiece. But besides hulking pieces of meat, the restaurant also offers exceptionally well-priced menus at 19e and 29e for 3 courses. It was difficult to return to Paris after our trip and pay much more for equivalent or lesser quality dinners =(
After scoring the last free table of the night we sat down to a sumptuous dinner: to start, an amuse bouche of pumpkin soup, followed by scallops and salads for appetizers…
a beautiful cocotte of perfectly cooked sweetbreads, powdery and only faintly gamey in a deliciously light stew of tomatoes and vegetables…
perfectly grilled fish, A’s paired with earthy lentils while mine was stacked between pureed potatoes and a lovely lobe of seared foie gras almost as thick as the fish itself…
finally ending with decadent desserts, a molleux aux chocolat oozing with molten chocolate and a boozy baba with a pipette of orange flavored rum. Contrary to the “gourmande” label, we were not uncomfortably stuffed but merely pleasantly full at the end of the meal, a testament to good cooking, quality products and well-meaning portions. Definitely a restaurant to recommend!
While the Champagne leg of our trip was mainly devised for TPS’s pleasure, it was surprisingly educational and enjoyable for A and I, who can now sip and sniff like semi-experts. Part 2: Normandy!
Stay at Les Grappes d’Or – 350 Rue des Grappes d’Or, 51530 Cramant, France
Eat at La Grillade Gourmande – 16 Rue des Reims, 51200 Epernay, France
Drink and buy champagne at:
Pommery – 5 Place General Gouraud, 51100 Reims, France
H. Billiot & Fils – 1 Place Fontaine 51150 Ambonnay, France
Paul Déthune – 2, rue du Moulin, 51150 Ambonnay, France
Champagne Pouillon – 3 Rue de la Couple, 51160 Mareuil-sur-Ay, France
Eric Isselée – 350 Rue des Grappes d’Or, 51530 Cramant, France