After a quick over-night in London, I met up with the trip organiser, Mark Bingley MW and the rest of my fellow travellers before flying in to Paris, then by car to Champagne-Ardenne and the vineyards. We were greeted at the press house by our host for most of the trip, Monsieur Olivier Cahon. Upon arrival at the press house, we were presented with a glass of Louis Roederer Blanc de Blanc Champagne 2009, with a selection of canapes; pork terrine, smoked salmon on toast and by far the best Comté I’ve ever tasted. A 2 course lunch of white fish with risotto and a dessert of Crème brûlée, accompanied by Roederer Champagne 2012 Vintage was enjoyed before we actually got down to “work”.
The Press House and the Vinyeard
We visited the press house first of all, where we were shown how the old-fashioned, manual presses are still used to gently extract the juice from the grapes before fermentation. We were also shown a contraption which can only be described as a giant “mixing bowl”. Olivier explained to us that the machine is used to create a mixture of organic compounds, which are then sprayed on the vines. Roederer practise a combination of conventional, organic and biodynamic farming practices, with the plots farmed under biodynamic principles producing the most concentrated, terroir-driven base wines for the champagne. After lunch, we paid a visit to the vineyards, passing many famous Champagne houses on our way. While at the vineyards, we were shown the differences between the soils on the differently farmed plots; conventional farming producing dry, harder soils, the organic plots showing looser, less compact soils. The biodynamic plots showed wonderfully soft, healthy looking soils. It is these plots, according to Olivier, that produce the best base wines.
We had a some free time before dinner, where I proceeded to explore the relatively small, but very pretty city of Reims, making sure to stop off at the beautiful Gothic Cathedral. Dinner consisted of an aperitif of Louis Roederer Brut Premier (from Magnum) at the hotel bar, before a short walk to La Brasserie du Boulingrin. It was a fantastic, traditional Bistro serving old-school French favourites, washed down Bandol Rose and red wine from Bordeaux and the Rhone.
Day two began with a tasting of various vintages, Blanc de Blanc and rosé champagnes from Roederer, before we headed down to the cellar and bottling plant. Being able to witness the mass of tunnels, carved into the underground chalk, filled with bottles of Cristal and large oak barrels with traditional carvings. This is one of the most memorable experiences of my wine career so far.
A memorable lunch
Our cellar tour concluded, we headed to lunch, at Managing Director Frédéric Rouzaud’s private home. We were hosted by Thierry Wallaert, export manager for Louis Roederer. Needless to say, this is the lunch that we were all waiting for, as it was, for me at least, my first ever taste of Cristal. Our pre-lunch aperitif was 2011 Louis Roederer Brut Rose, a fresh, medium-bodied, slightly earthy champagne. Our first course followed; white fish served with pureed celeriac, which was paired wonderfully with the wine that we had all been waiting for, Cristal 2002. The second course was by veal with truffle polenta, served alongside a magnum of 2008 Saint-Estephe, then cheese and dessert, paired alongside 20 year old tawny port from Ramos Pinto. Needless to say, the lunch was magnificent and I feel very honoured to have been invited.
And just like that, I was back in the taxi, heading to Paris to catch a flight home to Belfast, and my first ever drop to France was over as quickly as it begun. The trip has definitely changed my opinion of champagne as a wine; I can now see it as a much more versatile beverage, capable of pairing with more complex dishes in ways that reds and whites cannot, and I have come to see it as a wine for the table, not just the canapes (although it does work really, really well with canapes). I would also suggest that anyone planning a long weekend to France, look to Reims as a destination. The cathedral in itself is enough…although the vast quantities of champagne available is also pretty appealing!