Reims Cathedral

Reims is home to a spectacular cathedral, that was historically the site of the coronation of the French monarch.


Epernay is the known as the showcase town of Champagne, a town highly concentrated with some of the biggest names in champagne.  Epernay is located in the heart of the Champagne region which grows exclusively Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay – the three grapes used to make champagne.  I visited three champagne houses, each giving a very different experience than the others.  I started at Champagne Achille Princier, where the tour is comprised of a video introducing the region (and very informative, if slightly dated) followed by a self-guided tour of the caves.  The cave tour also included a mini-museum of old winemaking apparati, including a hand-powered pump – would not want to have worked the harvest when these were used!  After the tour was, of course, the tasting, where I tried their regular Brut (the driest of the three types of champagne – with Sec and demi-sec being increasingly sweet – this sweetness is actually determined at the very end of the production process, by the amount of sugar – none in the case of a Brut – added to the bottle after the lees are removed* – this final dosage of sugar is known as the liqueur de dosage), rosé, and their Cuvée Grand Art, which is made only of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Next I went to Moët et Chandon, a huge contrast to the much smaller, family-run company of Achille Princier.  The lobby was like that of a 5-star hotel (and the price of the visit reflected this grandeur), and the video that they showed at the beginning of their tour was narrated by their “ambassador,” Scarlett Johansson.  I found the tour a bit comically contrived, but despite sounding a bit like a tape recorder when going through her script, the guide was actually quite knowledgable, informing me (upon questioning) that while they use only wild yeasts for the first fermentation, the Moët et Chandon laboratory produces its own strains of yeasts for the second fermentation, which I found amazing –I would absolutely love to visit this laboratory and have vowed to myself to search for contacts who can get me an in (if you know anyone, let me know!).

Their underground cave spans 28 km and 3 floors, and the older parts were hand-carved in the limestone earth, while the newer portions are a combination of limestone and brick.

Each section is identified with a secret code that tells the vintage, parcel it comes from, etc, that only the winemakers know.

Finally, I did a tasting at Didier Lefèvre.  I arrived for my scheduled appointment, and opened the door to see three men sitting around a table drinking champagne.  One of the men stood and introduced himself to me as Didier Lefèvre, which came as quite a shock after having just been at what felt like the corporate headquarters for liquid luxury.  I sat and chatted for a while with M. Lefèvre and the other two men, who turned out to be longterm friends as well as clients, and we tasted a few flutes of his traditional brut and his rosé.  I learned a lot at this visit as well, in a very different manner than I had via my formal tours at the previous two venues.  For instance, I learned that the region has gone through some huge transformations in the past 50 years, as it used to be quite a poor region (with the exception of the big producers, of course), as most of the big champagne houses bought their grapes from growers who did not have a lot of economic power.  Due to political changes in the wake of WWII, however, the laws were changed in order to give the growers more control, and even the ability to produce their own champagnes, which entirely changed the region.  Today it is said that someone with even 1 hectare of vineyard can become extremely wealthy with very little work, and someone with only ½ hectare of vineyard can be very well off if they are willing to put some work into it.  All of this has also changed the champagne itself, as it is starting to be produced more with grapes from a smaller number of plots (as opposed to being a blen of potentially hundreds of different plots when giant producers are buying grapes from all over the region), which has influenced the concept of terroir in champagne.

*A quick breakdown of the champagne making process will help to clarify this:

1. Juice is fermented as usual in stainless steel or wood to produce a non-sparkling base wine (this wine also undergoes malo-lactic fermentation before step 2).

2.  These base wines are blended (each champagne can consist of wines from between 3 and 50 different batches, specially combined in order to produce a consistently high quality product) and put into bottles with a small amount of additional yeast and sugar.

3.  The yeast eat this additional sugar and convert it into alcohol and carbon dioxide, producing the characteristic bubbles that are trapped in the bottle because it is sealed with a metal cap (like a beer bottle cap).

4.  The wines are stored horizontally on their lees (in the bottle) for a minimum of 15 months (or a minimum of 3 years for “vintage” champagnes, which means that they are made only with wine from a single vintage, whereas non-vintage champagnes are a combination of about 3 years worth of wines – this is why you only occasionally find a year on champagne bottles).

5.  The technique known as “riddling” is used to slowly elevate the bottles from a horizontal to a vertical position, turning the bottles ¼ turn at a time (this used to be done by hand but now is usually done by machine) to get the lees (known as “sediment” in the champagne world) all into the neck of the bottle.

6.  The sediment is removed by freezing the neck of the bottle at -25°C, and then when the cap is removed the pressure in the bottle shoots out the frozen sediment pellet.

7.  The “liqueur de dosage,” which consists of champagne wine that never underwent the second fermentation (i.e. is not sparkling) and sugar, is added to replace the lost wine from step 6.  The amount of sugar in this mixture depends on the desired final sweetness of the champagne – Brut champagnes having no sugar added to them.

Dijon – home of mustard, pinot noir, and a very famous owl

As part of my whirlwind tour of France before I head to the home of the rugby world champions, I stayed for two nights in Dijon (my first couchsurfing experience – so far, I am a HUGE fan! Had a great time with my incredible host!).  Specialties of Dijon include Dijon mustard (of course), pain d’épices (gingerbread), boeuf bourgignon (made famous in the US by Julia Child –  and which I had the pleasure of eating on my first night in Dijon) and Crème de Cassis (liqueur made from blackcurrants and often mixed with white wine as an apertif).  I came, of course, because Dijon, along with Beaune, are the two cities that are part of the Bourgogne (Burgundy) region, famous for its Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.  As an Oregon native, Pinot is one of my very favorite varietals, and since it is arguably the most important red grape in New Zealand as well, it was imperative for me to visit its homeland in order to have a basis for comparison.  Well New Zealand, the bar has been set very high – I fell (even deeper) in love with Pinot after tasting just a few wines on the Route de Vin (also known as La Route Touristique des Grands Crus de Bourgogne).

(typical street in Dijon)

(one of the cathedrals in Dijon, this one with a toit bourguignon, the tile roof typical of this region)

(la chouette, or owl on the Cathedral de Notre Dame in Dijon – this owl is a good luck symbol that one is supposed to touch, hence the reason she no longer resembles an owl of any kind)

(gorgeous fall day in the vineyards of Bourgogne!)

A La Mer!

After the end of harvest, I was invited to spend a few days in Brittany (Bretagne in French).  It was truly a vacation from what I’ve been doing, as no wine is made in Brittany (okay, not entirely true – very, very little wine is made there, and no wine that is made there can be sold, as there are no wine appellations in the region).  Instead, regional specialties include lots of seafood, cakes and biscuits (made with as much butter as possible – as Yves said, it wouldn’t be possible to put in more butter), crêpes and gallettes (crêpes made with buckwheat flour and usually have savory fillings, particularly eggs, cheese, and ham), and cider.  There is also a lot of history in the region, which was occupied by the Germans during WWII, and thus retains many souvenirs in the form of forts and other fortifications.  One such structure is the Keroman Submarine Base in Lorient, essentially the only structure to survive when the city was completely destroyed by the Americans in order to liberate France from Nazi control.

I stayed with Yves and Monique, Marine Dubard’s parents (I wasn’t quite ready to leave the family entirely when I left the vineyards last week…) in their home on le Cabellou, a “presque-ile” (“almost-island” or peninsula) just south of the town of Concarneau.  Le Cabellou is a gorgeous little area, and I will soon be posting a little blurb (in English) on the website that Yves has developed for le Cabellou.

One of the many, many things my wonderful hosts took me to was the annual Fête du Cidre, where they had demonstrations of how cider is made, cider tasting, a display of the variety of apples one can find in Brittany, crêpes, and roasted châtaignes (chestnuts).




Yesterday we took a break from pump-overs to visit Médoc in celebration of the end of the 2011 harvest.  Médoc is the Bordeaux appellation home to such celebrated wineries as Château Margaux, Châteaux Lafite Rothschild and Mouton Rothschild, Château Latour, and more.

What we left behind (well… we did do pump-overs in the morning before we left and upon our return last night): ) – Remontage, or pumping over – we pump from the bottom of the tank as shown here, to the top, where a tourniquet (pictured below) sprays the must pumped from below all over the cap of skins, seeds, etc. (the “marc”) that floats on top of the must.

The team on the bank of the Dordogne (**nb** – none of us normally look anywhere near this clean):


Drive-by shot of Lafite Rothschild:

…and Château Latour:

Château Cos D’Estournel

We spent 3 hours visiting Château Cantemerle…

(photo credit to their website… I didn’t manage to take any photos of the gorgeous  Château or grounds as I was preoccupied by listening to the loads and loads of information they were giving us)

where we learned the ins and outs of everything that they do there, from viticulture…

(Giant atomizers (5 of them) for spraying the vines.  They are mounted on special tractors that, like the machine harvesters (though everything at  Château Cantemerle is harvested by hand) are designed to go on top of the rows.  The subject of to spray or not to spray will have to be the subject of a different post – suffice it to say that most people spray in France  as organic viticulture has a reputation of being incredibly difficult and expensive, with unpredictable, and often mediocre, results.)

… to vinification

(Wooden foudres for aging the wine)

…and even got a tour of the storage and labeling facilities.  Of course, the afternoon ended with a tasting of their very well-balanced 2010 and 2007 wines.



Remontage, Foie Gras, and Stag-watching – Staples of the Season

Nearly six weeks after it began, harvest is nearly complete.  The last grapes are scheduled to be picked next Wednesday, though the weather keeps surprising us (with sun and warmth, happily!), so this projection remains subject to change.  In the winery, the end of harvest translates into “remontage, remontage, remontage.”  Red wine is made by loading the red grapes directly into a fermentation tank (without pressing), and inoculating the whole lot – skins and seeds included – with yeast.  As it ferments, the marc, or layer of grape skins, floats to the top of the tank.  Remontage, or pumping-over in English, entails pumping the juice from the bottom of the tank over the top of the marc in order to keep it moist and extract fragrant and colored compounds into the must (fermenting juice).  When done by hand, this is a very labor-intensive endeavor (I know because I did it the first day), as it requires perching atop the tank holding the hose in order to spray must in all directions atop the marc.  This is made significantly more challenging by the fact that carbon dioxide gas is being constantly emitted from the tank, in quantities sufficient to asphyxiate you (or at least cause you to pass out and fall off the tank – choose your poison), so you have to maneuver breathing fresh air while still throughouly spraying all over the inside of the tank.  Fortunately, we have special devices that can be attached to the hose inside the top of the tank that have a little spinning rudder that evenly sprays the top of the tank without requiring human intervention.  It is much more effective than remontage-by-hand, and frees up a lot of time to be spent giving TLC to the wine in other ways.  For instance, nutrients can be added to keep the yeast happy, or tannins (specifically, catechin) can be added in order to fix the color compounds in the wine.  Catechin reacts with anthocyanins (the red-colored molecules in grapes and red berries) to form a stable complex that can give the wine a more desirable, richer color.  The anthocyanins don’t need any help to become affixed to your hands though:

  Hand after one day of working with red wine.  Fortunately we are not finished with the white wines, as white wine helps to remove some of the staining, so my hands have not become exponentially blacker than this over time.

Despite there being plenty of work to keep us all busy in the winery, I have gotten away a bit as well.  Last week Sandrine, who works in the office, took me to her house for a night, where I became acquainted with her parents’ pigs,


And all of the products that they make from them, as well as from anything else that they can grow or find on their property.

She prepared a meal extremely traditional for this region (the Perigord), of foie gras with Montbazillac (a sweet white wine) to start, duck confit with cepes and potatoes and a St. Emillion, and Banyuls, a naturally sweet red wine (aged for many years – this one had been for 15 – in wooden casks outdoors where the wine is subject to oxidataion) from the south of France.  We finished the evening with the slightly less traditional activity of Wii Bowling…

I also visited the city of Bergerac, of key importance as I am in the middle of Bergerac wine country here.  When I saw this statue I finally realized why the name had sounded so familiar ever since I arrived…

Just as St. Emillion was riddled with wine shops, Bergerac is teeming with shops such as these:

While there I also tasted a wine with brettanomyces for the first time (smells and tastes like farm animals had a little party in your glass – I knew it was a smell I recognized but, thankfully, couldn’t place it, so politely described it as “interesting,” not knowing what it was until Marine told me later).

Monday evening I was invited to go (attempt to) see – and hear – stags calling for their mates.  We drove to a spot where they are known to show up, and waited for them to appear (with beers in hand, as I believe that in France it is considered sacrilege to sit and wait somewhere in the evening without an apertif).  It turned into quite the social occasion when about 15 others showed up (including someone that I work with), but the stags apparently did not feel obliged to attend the event, as none had appeared by the time night fell.  As someone said on the way home, “Well, at least we had a beer.”