My cousin Brian, his wife Sheila, and their friends Rick and Cheryl had organized a wine tasting trip for early this week. It was a guided tour of the Champagne region, an hour and a half east of Paris.
I jumped at the invitation to join them, which included a cooked breakfast at Rick and Cheryl’s lovely three-bedroom apartment on rue des Petits Carreaux, just a couple of blocks from my place.
The five of us had met in Paris three years before, when we had gone on a memorable Alfred Sisley Pilgrimage. Both couples were then staying in hotels, and they were impressed by my one-bedroom apartment on rue des Jeûneurs, and by the petits séjours in Paris I had been making for a month or so each spring. Rick and Cheryl kindly credited me with having inspired them to rent their really beautiful apartment, with enough space to invite friends — such as Brian and Sheila — to stay with them.
Our first stop was at a small family winery, making six varieties of champagne, most of which we tasted and several of which we bought.
After paying our respects to Dom Perignon‘s grave we visited the impressive winery and caves of Moët et Chandon (you pronounce the t, I learned, because Moët is Dutch). The wine-aging caves are truly labyrinthine. A plaque says that Napoleon I visited in 1807!
I had been aware that champagne had to be “disgorged” after aging to remove the lees (fermentation remnants). I didn’t appreciate, however, how complex and delicate this process is: Daily tilting and rotating process over a period of weeks works the lees from the side of the bottle into the neck. The lees then must be blown out of the bottle without losing too much champagne, the bottle must be topped up with replacement champagne and sugar water (for sweetness, not fermentation), then given the final cork, all within a matter of seconds to avoid losing too much carbonation. The traditional method is for a skilled vintner to do this, but large producers like Moët now typically freeze the neck of the bottle so the lees pop out in an ice cube rather than a gush. Most champagnes are capped during aging with a simple metal cap but Dom Perignon, which is aged for ten years, is aged with a cork because a metal cap might not last.
Mot du jour: Saints de Glace (literally, “Saints of Ice”). When we commented on the cold and wet weather we had been having for several days our guide said that it is common for there to be a cold snap of a few days in mid-May. Traditionally three saints with holy days in the period are asked to protect farmers from freezing temperatures that would kill their crops. There had been snow at high elevations in France a couple of days before but Champagne was mercifully free of ice during our visit.