December 30, 2011 by LeVoyageur
Prior to visiting Chicago for the holidays, Alex and I took a mini-vacation to the Champagne region of France. We both enjoy wine and learning about the many wine-producing regions. We have traveled in France quite a bit, including a previous trip to Champagne a few years ago when we stayed in Reims, the ‘capital’ of Champagne. This time we decided to go a bit further afield.
We caught the last train out from St. Pancras International on a Friday night and arrived in Paris around 11:30 pm. We stayed the night there at a hotel on Rue Montorgueil with easy access to the Metro owing to an early train out again the next morning. We left Saturday morning from Gare de l’Est bound for Épernay, a short journey of about 1 1/2 hours. From there, we rented a car for the weekend.
December is very much off-season in Champagne so to make sure we would be able to taste a few different wines, Alex booked ahead at our first stop, Henri Billiot in Ambonnay. As with many of the wine-producing villages in France, Ambonnay is a small town, surrounded by hectares of vines. Charming even in the grey days of December, it had a few tourists like us wandering around, hoping for the odd open champagne house, but for the most part it was rather deserted. We made our way to our appointment, chatted with the amicable owner while tasting a few of her cuvees and set off again.
In Ambonnay you quickly get to the heart of the matter with regard to Champagne. It is, no more no less, an agricultural product, albeit one that is held in very high regard throughout the world, commanding princely sums depending on the maker. As an agricultural product, the people who grow the grapes are people very much tied to the land, to the rhythms of nature, and the vagaries of climate and weather.
Creating a good product is not a matter of chance. A great amount of education and skill are involved. Winemakers spend years working alongside experienced vignerons, often their parents, whose legacy is seen in the wine houses they build over time. Along with the skill, comes the quality of the raw material, the grapes, and the weather. Putting it all together, timing the harvest, and getting the best quality of wine out of the grapes, comes with enormous real-world financial repercussions.
Champagne is not a cheap product, although one can find plonk alongside Dom Perignon. There is a good reason for that, and you can see why when visiting the region. The labor of winemaking, the level of skill involved, and the demand of the market make Champagne a luxury product that people aspire to. However, while Champagne is sometimes sold at auctions for absurd sums, the prices do not in any way compare to the massive price tags that come with the finest Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, which sell for up to thousands of dollars per bottle as prestige items for the super-rich.
A good business person will make the most of their product and brand. This was most evident in the hotel we stayed at, Hôtel Restaurant les Avisés in the hillside town of Avize. The hotel is the brainchild of Anselm Selosse, the heir of Jacques Selosse whose name appears on the house champagnes. Working with architect Bruno Borrione, Selosse has taken a lovely old chateau and turned it into an enigma: a boutique hotel of 10 rooms with a gourmet restaurant, suffused with modern design, that is also warm and welcoming. While it may not be to everyone’s taste, there was an immense level of attention to detail and care taken in designing this hotel which is evident throughout the guest rooms and public spaces. And there is an immense level of care taken in welcoming guests which set the stage for a restful weekend for me and Alex.
Selosse champagnes are among the more expensive wines produced in the region with prices generally beginning at $100 per bottle. And the reason for that comes down to simple factors: their vines have very low yields, and consequently very little wine is produced. The champagne is widely judged as among the best and so the price is set accordingly. In a wine world where some houses produce hundreds of thousands of bottles per year, or more, Selosse produces 50,000 bottles per year. A great champagne available in limited quantities means higher prices.
The final tasting we made was at Pierre Moncuit in Mesnil-sur-Oger. This house, where the wine is now made by Nicole Moncuit, the daughter of founder Pierre, offered among other things a cuvee without dosage, the addition of sugar in the winemaking process. The result is a unique, very dry champagne full of minerality and bright fruit flavors without the sweetness often found in sparkling wines. Despite two train journeys back to London, this is where we made a few purchases to carry home! All the better that Moncuit is an independent grower-champagne.
Sunday the sun shone down onto a frozen landscape where workers were still seen on the hillsides, trimming and burning vines. In the afternoon we drove through a nature preserve in the area, taking in the rolling, wooded landscape, thoroughly cultivated for centuries, now with patches of snow. More than once we encountered hunters, undoubtedly out stalking for their holiday meals. A few other off-season tourists like us were found here and there, at scenic overlooks and wandering through the quiet towns.
It is possible to over-romanticize the experience of traveling in wine-country. At the end of the day, traveling in a place like Champagne in December, we encountered the place in a way that made us appreciate the work and dedication that so many people put into their products. We saw the land, the terroir that is so important in winemaking, as it transformed from verdant green to a state of Winter rest, yet still worked to bring out the best in the coming year. And as we met the winemakers we encountered at once a sense of humility and grace, as well as pride of place in their manner. This year as we toast the New Year we will do it with, at the very least, a bit more knowledge and appreciation of the entire process that brought the bottle we drink to market. Another good result from a relaxing mini-vacation in Champagne.