This pretentious sentence, according to the legend, belongs to Dom Perignon, the most famous monk in the history of wine. Though we know that monks, in general, contributed a lot to the recognition of the best parcels and improvement of the winemaking techniques, most of them remained anonymous except for the glorious brother of Abbey of Hautvillers.
Most probably, sparkling wines were first made in the south of France, in the region of Limoux. They are produced there until today, but the popularity of Blanquette de Limoux has nothing to do with the universal success of Champagne. The British also have a solid ground to question the French origin of the traditional sparkling method. In 1662 an English naturalist and scientist, Christopher Merrett, presented to the Royal Society a paper where he described a process of adding sugar to still wines for giving a wine a refreshing, bubbly quality. That was 30 years before Dom Perignon started his work.
Nevertheless, no one would dispute over the fact that Champagne is an iconic region, and any wine lover would dream of going there. So did we.
Reims, the central city of Champagne, is famous even more for its cathedral, which was a coronation and royal weddings place for many centuries. The beautiful light show which is projected on the façade every evening is fascinating and definitely worth visiting.
Epernay is the home place for most of the big names of Champagne. You easily can reach it by train from Paris and walk from tasting to tasting without worrying about driving. Though if you have a plan to visit smaller wineries (most of them récoltant-manipulant which means they only produce wine from their grapes, not buying any), your own wheels would be essential.
We visited four wineries of different levels and styles. Henry de Vaugency in a village of Oger, in Côte de Blancs, was one of the few open on Sunday, so we opted for it. It is a small winery with 8ha of vineyards and a total of 50.000 bottles per year. They have a wide range of champagnes and focused on wine tourism welcoming big tourist groups which dilutes a little the perception of the exclusivity that Champagne in general has. They also have a somewhat creepy wedding museum where there are plenty of strange exhibits related to marriage rituals. None of the members of the group, which was multinational (Russian-Ukrainian-Armenian-Moldavian-Mexican) enjoyed this weird exhibition.
Next day we visited the winery in Chigny-les-Roses, in the heart of Montagne de Reims, J.Lassalle, which is famous for its clear and precise, steely style of wines. I appreciated a lot with the elegance and finesse of wines made by the owner and winemaker Angeline Lassalle.
Then we went to Aÿ, in Vallée de la Marne, to visit Lallier Champagne house where we were greeted by a beautiful Constance, winemaker and brand ambassador, who pursued her wine studies in Bordeaux but decided to move to Champagne for a new experience. Lallier wines are Grand Cru only, rich and creamy. Some base wines are aged in oak, which gives more structure and character. The aging on the lees for all wines is not less than three years compared to 15 months demanded by the appellation regulations. We were happy to be greeted by an owner, Monsieur Tribaut, who acquired the domaine in 2004, after working hand in hand with Lallier family for many years.
I was obsessed to find a red still wine from the region, so we headed to Bouzy, where we had a very informative talk with the lady owner of Champagne Barnaut. They sell now unique Bouzy Rosé 2008 and famous Bouzy Rouge 2004 which are both very developed but still keep the freshness and good acidity.
Our last visit was with Champagne Vollereaux, where we were greeted again by the owner. We had a glance at the production area and saw some shiny golden bottles in Armand de Brignac style. Hélène explained to us that this is a special bottling for Nigeria where this packaging sells at its best. Being a more significant production that we visited before, Vollereaux invests a lot in marketing and promotion of wines in the new markets, especially Asia and Africa.
Champagne is not an easy region to visit; not all the wineries are open to non-professionals and even being open, not always welcoming. We were strongly discouraged to visit Pommery, for example, as people say it is an example when the quality of the visit is compromised in favour of mass tourism. Nevertheless, it is always possible to find an exciting place to visit. Talk to professionals and locals and choose wisely!