However, my recent day trip to the Champagne region of France dispelled all of these notions and taught me that champagne is really a drink for every day life, and—best of all—even people who earn less than P. Diddy can afford great champagne.
Driving through Champagne, I noticed two things: 1) Champagne is a great place to be from (rather than move to), and it’s not a place where I would like to have a party. Although the temperature had been 60 degrees when I left Paris, I hit a wall of fog driving east across the Marne River that chilled things down to a balmy 39 degrees. My guide explained that Champagne is on the same latitude with Quebec City and its cold, wet, and windy weather is the hallmark of its terroire. The Sleepy Hollow-esque climate creates very acidic grapes that are best for making—ironically—very light, dry and effervescent champagne.
While I thought I’d see grand chateaus littering the countryside, I was wrong. Most champagne in Champagne is actually produced by small houses in single-industry working class towns. Regulations forbid any sparkling wine from being labeled “champagne” unless it is actually produced in Champagne itself. Thus, making bubbly is the highest use of any property in the region, and no one stays there to do anything else. (As my guide put it: “If you live in Champagne and don’t make champagne, you slit your wrists.”) Houses are small and close together. Indeed, each one that I passed had a sign out front advertising champagne production.
I visited a village that boasted a population of 200 and toured a ‘typical’ small house, R.C. Lemaire. The tour guide was the winemaker himself, a very smiley, white-skinned young man, dressed in a t-shirt, jeans and Adidas. His fermenting tanks were in his garage, his storage cellar in his basement, and his tasting room was in the living room (complete with family photos). He served 3 different champagnes with pink tea biscuits (!). Champagne for this man was every day life, and the same had been true for his father and grandfathers—all the way back “to Napoleon.” He was proud and exuberant about his craft and his family's tradition in the industry. The passion shone through: his champagne was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. It was light, sparkly and had a level of freshness that I thought could only be experienced by biting into chilled fruit. The best part was that after buying 2 bottles, my pocket was only $48USD lighter. (American import rules aside, here is Lemaire's website!)
I did visit a ‘chateau,’ but the experience and the champagne was underwhelming at best. Moet & Chandon’s ‘chateau’ was noticeably its a corporate office. I had to buy a ticket to take a tour, wait 20 minutes for it to start, and then sit through a promotional video once it began. Every person I saw was in a suit and most of Moet’s 14-mile cellar was closed to visitors. The tasting room had one long minimalist bar and beautiful photographs of celebrities drinking Moet & Chandon. However, my Imperial Gold tasted stale, and 3 oz of anything better was much more expensive. The tour exited into a gift shop, which resembled a duty free store without any deals. Considering the atmosphere and my other experiences in Champagne, the image of luxury that Moet was going for just seemed lame. (However--they did have an amazing chandelier made of champagne glasses that I covet to this day.)
All of this culminated in a mental breakthrough for me regarding champagne and some important lessons:
- First, I need to stop being a snob. Little guys make some of the best champagne out there, and labels/prices don’t fully convey the quality of the product. To get a sense of whether or not a champagne is good quality look for words like “grand cru” or “premier cru” (indicating the wine was made from the best grapes in the lot) and “prestige cuvee,” or “tete de cuvee” (these terms signify that the champagne was made from the first press of the grapes, which is the most flavorful).
- Second, when considering wine and food pairings, I should not exclude champagne. During lunch, my guide explained that 3 different grapes grow in champagne (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier). Champagne made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or a blend (look for labels saying “Blanc de Noirs”) pairs well with food. Pinot Meunier particularly is the most flavorful, so can be paired with heavier, richer or more flavorful foods. Chardonnay champagne (labeled: “Blanc de Blanc”) is best for pre-dinner drinking and toasting. The high acidity wets the appetite, but it does not have much body to stand up to food.