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.