A long weekend in Champagne brought together around 1,000 kms of driving, a guided tour and tasting at Moët et Chandon in Epernay, a guided tour and tasting at Champagne Henri Chauvenet in Rilly la Montagne, an alfresco dinner in Epernay, a lunch in Ambonnay, a dinner in the michelin-starred restaurant of our hotel in l’Epine and finally a tour of the surprising town that is Verdun.
It was a group affair that included 3 Aston Martins, 1 Mercedes and my Subaru – I always consider myself to be a calming influence!
Moët et Chandon
Very slick. Their headquarters on the aptly named Avenue de Champagne in Epernay is very expensively presented – you will also know the names of their neighbours too! It’s a big place, part 18th century and part from the 1920’s after a bomb destroyed some buildings in the Great War. Across the road they also own a stunning building set in formal gardens. Over 1,000 people work for Moët, and I’d wager a significant proportion of them are involved in ‘honing the message’ – or marketing to you and I. Still the place is superb. Moët (part of LVMH) are the biggest owners of vineyards in Champagne, with around 1,000 hectares of vines – the next biggest is Veuve Cliquot with a ‘mere’ 380! Including the Dom Pérignon cuvée (which is made only from ‘owned vines’), a bottle of Moët is opened every 1.7 seconds, that’s over 18.5 million bottles per year… If memory serves, we tasted a brut and a rosé from their imperial range. The brut was friendlier than my history of acidic Moëts suggested, but it was the rosé which I enjoyed most – serious and complex – a ‘real wine’ if you like. If you can get a tour it’s worth a visit, particularly in the cellars.
By way of contrast, a ‘grower’ champagne.
Just like in Burgundy, first you have to drive up and down the streets of the village before you find the address – and then find somewhere to park – noting that my navigation software really seems to struggle in this region! We drank a bottle of his Blanc de Noirs the previous evening and it started as a bit of brute – but that was down to serving temperature i.e. not really cool enough due to our lack of patience – the last glass was excellent though as it was finally served cold! Henri runs an 8 hectare domaine of mainly highest rating vines e.g. grand crus. Like Moët you go down 9 or 10 meters into his cold cellars – dug into the chalk. I tasted a brut, a reserve and rosé and bought six-pack of each for less than half the price of the Möet cuvées (marketing can be expensive) – lovely wines.
Aux Armes de Champagne
This hotel is in a tiny village with an oversize church. The church is called the Notre-Dame de L’Epine and, not surprisingly, the village is also called l’Epine! A friend uses this a stopping-off point between Switzerland and the Isle of Wight, so we thought we should give it a try – the restaurant having a Michelin star also helped persuade us. Actually, despite the name, this place has a drawback – it’s about 45 minutes by car to get anywhere in Champagne from here – next time we will find something a little more central. The experience was also a little bemusing: The rooms are nice and we had a good welcome. The gardens are also nicely done and are set with tables so you can enjoy an afternoon or evening drink – but you have to walk all the way to reception to order a drink as there’s no ‘patrol’ – at dusk we had to run indoors as the mosquitos were giants and were very hungry! The breakfast is okay, but one day we had super service, the next day none – clearly somebody was having a problem somewhere, but the result was that the guests also waited 25 minutes for bread or coffee!
But what of dinner? Our food was very tasty, with an number amuse-bouche and ‘pre-desserts’ etc., though I didn’t expect some plastic wrapping to remain around my rabbit terrine or my turbot to have quite so many pieces of bone; the service was ‘okay’. Okay, let me be more specific, the food service was good, the wine service was less good. 30 seconds after being given the large wine-list our somellier arrived and asked if he could make some suggestions, but I said first I’d like to look at the wine-list myself as I was only on page 2. I told the sommelier that my choice would be a half of 2005 Viré-Clessé (I forget the domaine) followed by 2002 Clos des Lambrays, but what would he suggest(?) – his answer was that my choice was okay and off he went without a suggestion! The list is a good size and pricing is reasonable for such a place, and it’s also the first place I’ve seen the 2004 DRC Cuvée Duvault-Blochet, but given that it was 185 Euros, and I’d just spent 250 Euros on Champagne, I chose the Lambrays at two-thirds the price. With the wine I had two issues; my wife tasted the Vire-Clessé and said it was fine, but after about 25 minutes it developed a very obvious oxidised presentation – nose and taste. I told the somellier about this but said that I didn’t know the appellation very well, and was it perhaps the style of the producer or the appellation(?) – he replied that it was the appellation and chose not to sniff it himself – he was wrong and we didn’t drink any more of it. That was bad enough, but our glasses were always drained before he finally re-appeared with a refill and the (decanted) bottle was away from our table. Maybe the somellier deserved 3 or 4 out of 10 for his performance at our table, but that’s only for offering to decant without a question from me. The Lambrays was excellent:
2002 Clos des Lambrays
Medium red only, but the colour looked super in the glass, despite domestic comments about it being a rosé! The nose was wide and reasonably deep – rather mineral and persisent – not so much fruit but lovely to sniff. In the mouth it was mainly about balance and persistence; nicely ripe fruit, a little of the aromatic minerality and an intensity that built before slowly fading. Like many Lambrays, it’s about balance and compexity, not power.
Rebuy – Yes
With a hint of embarassment, I have to say that twice a year (and for a number of years) we pass-by Verdun at speed but despite it’s history, we have never previously stopped. Today we did, and what a surprise the place is.
We wanted to take in a little the history and to see what was commemorated. By pure chance our ‘minor-road’ approach found a cemetery of about 1,100 graves, one with a posy of flowers at the base of its cross, and when we looked, it was exactly 92 years to day that this person met their fate – June 22nd 1916. We drove on towards the town center, and what a surpise, massive fortifications that were originally Celtic, then Roman etc., etc.. You can walk around these impressive constructions in about 40 minutes and along the way you will meet the Citadelle Souterraine, an underground contrsuction that includes a train-ride and, not to mention, 7°C temperature inside when it’s 28°C outside!
The town-centre is a really pretty place with the Meuse river running through centre, it’s very picturesque and perfect to take a lunch in the open areas by the river – but note – everyone stops serving food by 3:00pm! We drove out of the town and expected to find signposts to other sites and perhaps museums etc., but we spotted none – this was disappointing. If we’d searched out the tourist bureau we could have found a list of more than 20 separate sites, but nothing is signposted for the casual traveller – that’s a shame – but let me underline, don’t just pass Verdun by…