Making the Most of a Champagne Day Tour from Paris

One thing that I really appreciated during our stay in Paris was how much the French love their sparkling wine! Any grocery store we went to had bottles upon bottles of delicious fizzy wine spread out throughout the aisles, most of them priced well under €10, just begging to be snapped up. We went to a serve-yourself wine bar (can we please have more of these everywhere?) and I ran out of steam before I ran out of choices.

In Paris, it was the most natural thing in the world to open a bottle of rosé to accompany dinner or a picnic. In Canada, I definitely feel like I’m in the minority when it comes to people who enjoy a nice glass of fizzy wine. But in France, I felt like I was with my people!

Neil and I went on a day trip to taste and learn more about the world’s most famous and prestigious sparkling white wine, champagne. The drink gets its name from a wine region in north-east France¹, which is located about 150 km east of Paris. In fact, champagne is a legally protected term that can only be used to label beverages that are made from grapes locally grown in this region; they must also follow specific production guidelines.

The Champagne wine region consists of 76,000 acres of vineyards that surround 319 villages. Two main towns, Reims and Épernay, serve as the main commercial centres. There are 5,000 growers who make their own wine and 14,000 growers who sell only grapes. About 300 million bottles of champagne are produced each year.

Grapes growing in the white, chalky soil.

Some red poppies growing amongst the vines.

We began our day by exploring a vineyard above the small hillside village of Hautvillers. While there, we learned about what makes Champagne distinct from other wine growing regions. Champagne is located along the 49th parallel, which places it near the northern limits of where wine grapes can be successfully grown (Canadian wine producers can relate, I’m sure).

It can be a struggle to get the wine grapes to fully ripen in time for harvest. The cooler temperatures mean that the grapes end up with a high acidity level, which makes them ideal for sparkling wine. The region is also known for its chalk and limestone subsoil, which provides good drainage for the vines. The soil also absorbs a lot of heat from the sun during the day, and then gradually releases it throughout the night. These qualities both contribute to the light flavour of Champagne wine.

The town of Hauvillers, situated along the Marne river. It is found just north of Épernay.

There are seven approved varieties of grapes that are used in champagne, but the beverage is made primarily from the grapes of three: Pinot Noir (a red/black grape), Pinot Meunier (also a red/black), and Chardonnay (a white grape). All three grapes produce a white juice, as long as the juice from the red/black grapes doesn’t have too much contact with the dark fruit skins after they are pressed.

Some Chardonnay grapes.

There are five different wine producing districts in the Champagne region, and they specialize in growing the different grapes: Aube (Pinot Noir), Côte des Blancs (Chardonnay), Côte des Sézanne (Chardonnay), Montagne de Reims (Pinot Noir), and Vallée de la Marne (Pinot Meunier). Our day trip took place in Chardonnay country, in the Côte des Blancs.

Another picture of the view of Hautvillers, this time with more vineyard in the foreground.

Champagne is primarily made from three different types of grapes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. Standard champagne features a blending of all three grapes in a blanc (white) style.

blanc de blancs (white of whites) style is a white champagne made with 100% white grapes, most likely 100% Chardonnay, and features lemon and apple-like fruit flavours.

blanc de noirs (white of blacks) style is a white champagne made with 100% black grapes, usually a combination of Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier, and features flavours of strawberry and white raspberry.

Rosé is a pink champagne that is made by blending a white champagne with a tiny bit of red Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier wine, just enough to add a little colour and the strawberry/raspberry flavour.

Red/black grapes and white grapes. From Pixabay.

After touring the vineyard, the next stop on our day trip brought us down into the village of Hautvillers. In 1668, a Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Pérignon (1638-1715) came to Hautvillers when he was transferred to the Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers. He served at the monastery as a cellarer, a position that was responsible for the provisioning of food and drink. He was very successful in this role, and increased the Abbey’s vineyard holdings from 10 hectares to 25 (some of which still produce grapes today!).

Pérignon made many important contributions to the production and quality of still and sparkling champagne wine, although he did not actually invent champagne² (which he is often erroneously credited as doing). Nonetheless, Pérignon is a major figure in the history of the Champagne region and its namesake beverage. There is a well-known brand of vintage champagne named after him, Dom Pérignon, which is produced by the Moët & Chandon champagne house. Dom Pérignon’s tomb can be found in the Abbey’s church, which is where we made our pilgrimage.

An artistic rendering of Dom Pérignon at work. Postcard of a painting by Armand Guery.

The Saint-Sidulphe Church. (The angle didn’t allow me to fit the entire church building in one picture frame, so here are three).

Today, Moët & Chandon actually owns the Abbey and its surrounding property. The church is free and open to the public, but you need permission to view the rest.

The interior of the church.

The tomb of Dom Pierre Pérignon. It reads: “here lies Dom Pérignon, for 47 years in this monastery, his administration of familiar affairs deserved the highest praise, commendable for his virtues and full of paternal love for the poor. He went away in his 77th year, the year 1715. May he rest in peace. Amen.”

Dom Pérignon is joined on the right by the tomb of Dom Royer. Dom Royer oversaw the reconstruction of the Abbey in 1518, after it had been burned down by the English in 1449 during the Hundred Years’ War³.

There was a beautiful cluster of roses outside the church that I had to take a few pictures of.

After seeing the church, we had the privilege of visiting a small champagne producer named Pierre Domi. This small champagne house produces 80,000 bottles of champagne each year. The time we spent there was definitely the highlight of our day trip to the Champagne region. Our host was friendly and passionate, the champagne was excellent, and we learned a lot about the process of making champagne.

After growing and harvesting the grapes, the first step in making champagne is having the grapes pressed to get their juices. Industrial machines gently squeeze the grapes to extract their white juice. The juice extracted from the first press (the vin de cuvee) is considered the highest quality. The juice from the second press (the “tails” or the vin de tailles) is considered to be of lesser quality, but richer in pigments and tannins.

A pressing machine.

After pressing, the juice is placed into fermentation tanks. There, the juice settles and cools. Yeast is added, which slowly reacts with the sugar in the grapes, turning it into alcohol. This first fermentation results in a high acid base wine.

Fermentation tanks. I think there is yeast in the containers with the red lids, attached to the top. In a larger champagne house, these tanks would be much bigger, and made entirely of stainless steel. I like these ones, though. They look elegant!

After spending six months in the fermentation tanks, the next step in the process is to blend the now-alcoholic wine juices. Champagne isn’t made from just one batch of grapes. For the most part, various types of grapes from different growing areas and years are blended together. A champagne house will carefully mix these flavours together to produce a signature house taste.

The exception to this is when a champagne house produces a vintage champagne. If there is a superior harvest season, producers will create a special champagne made just from the grapes of that single year. A vintage champagne will have a more nutty, creamy, toasty/yeasty flavour than a non-vintage champagne; in comparison, a non-vintage champagne will taste fruitier.

More than 80% of champagne produced is non-vintage. It is the backbone of the industry, and allows producers to have a consistent house style, regardless of the quality of a single year’s harvest.

From Pixabay.

Once the blends have been decided on, they are poured into individual bottles. A little bit of yeast and sugar is added to each bottle, and then sealed with a crown cap. Bottles are stored horizontally. At this point in production, the beverage remains a non-carbonated/still white wine. It does not yet have the characteristic bubbles of champagne wine. However, the yeast and sugar will now kick-start a second fermentation inside the bottle that will develop this necessary carbonation. This second fermentation is known as the Méthode Champenoise. Over the next three weeks, the yeast slowly converts the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The crown cap traps the carbon dioxide inside the bottle, and forms tiny bubbles.

Some different sizes of champagne bottles, shown below. Some of these include the standard sizes of a quarter bottle (0.2 litres), half bottle (0.375 litres), regular bottle (0.75 litres), Magnum (holds 2 bottles at 1.5 litres), Jereboam (holds 4 bottles at 3 litres), Rehoboam (holds 6 bottles at 4.5 litres), Methuselah (holds 8 bottles at 6 litres), Salmanazar (holds 12 bottles at 9 litres), Balthazar (holds 16 bottles at 12 litres), and Nabuchadnezzar (holds 20 bottles at 15 litres). The larger sizes are named after Biblical characters.

At the end of three weeks, the yeast cells will have converted all of the sugar. But their job is not yet finished. The dead yeast cells, known as lees, will be kept inside the bottle for longer to give a more complex, creamy flavour to the (now-carbonated) wine. Non-vintage wines are aged for a minimum of 15 months, whereas vintage wines will be aged for at least 3 years. The bottles will be stored in a cellar for this extending aging process, and kept at a cool temperature of 12°C.

The characteristic bubbles are now present in a bottle of champagne. Note the crown cap used on the bottle below.

When the aging is complete, a new process is begun to help get the lees out of the bottle. The bottles are placed on special racks (called pupitres) that hold them at a 45° angle, with the crown cap pointed down. Every few days, the bottles are delicately rotated 1/8 of a turn, and the racks are gradually tipped further and further until the bottles are positioned upside down. This process (known as remauge or riddling) pushes the dead yeast cells towards the neck of the bottle.

The bottles are angled on a rack, below. In the background, you can see other bottles are stored flat.

After three weeks of this process, the champagne bottles are placed, upside down, into a freezing brine solution. The neck of the bottle is dipped into the brine, which freezes the sediment of dead yeast cells trapped in there. The bottle is then turned upright and the cap removed. The internal pressure of the carbon dioxide then pushes out the semi-frozen sediment. This process is known as disgorgement.

From Pixabay.

With the yeast cells and sediment removed, what remains in the bottle is the crystal clear, sparkling champagne. Champagne has a high acidity level. Left on its own, it would be undrinkable. At this point in the production, a little dosage of sweetness (a mixture of wine and sugar or grape must) is added to the mixture. Champagne is classed according to how much sweetness is used in this dosage*. Brut is the most common style, with 6-10 grams of sugar/litre. A brut champagne will still taste dry or even bone dry, with 5-7 calories of sugar per 5 ounce serving. After the dosage is added, the bottle is then sealed with a cork and a wire cap. The champagne will then rest for a few weeks before being sent to market.

We got to try three different champagnes at Pierre Domi. From left to right: the Blanc de Blancs is made of 100% Chardonnay grapes and aged in their cellars for four years; the Grande Réserve is their signature house style and is made of Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier; the Coeur de Rose (Heart of Rosé) is a pink champagne that is made by blending Chardonnay with a red Champagne wine. They were all very tasty. The Blanc de Blancs was our favourite. If you visit this champagne house, make sure you buy a couple of bottles while you are there! They are such a small producer that it can be a challenge to purchase them anywhere else, even in Paris!

A handy guide to champagne flavours.

Our tour group! We enjoyed our time with them. They consisted of (clockwise, starting after Neil) two women from New Brunswick (fellow Canadians!), a woman from New Zealand, a young couple from Colorado, our guide, and a woman who was in training to act as a guide for this tour.

You should definitely do a tasting at Pierre Domi, if you are visiting the region.

For lunch, we went to the town of Épernay. Neil and I grabbed a couple of sandwiches and pastries from a bakery and ate on a bench beside this garden.

The garden contained this memorial that commemorates local people who died during World War II, civilians and soldiers alike. The base of the memorial contains the ashes of Colonel Pierre Servagnat, a prominent leader of the Free French Forces in the Épernay region.

After eating our lunch, Neil and I went on a quick walk around town. I was on the lookout for interesting buildings, and found plenty of them! The half-timbered ones are always my favourite.

I also love an interesting tower.

I promptly fell in love with this beautiful brick building.

I’m also a sucker for blue shutters.

The Portal of Saint Martin (shown below) is a remnant of the old Notre-Dame church. The portal was built in 1540 by sculptor Pierre Jacques, and it was located on the north side of the church (the rest of the church is no longer standing). The niche originally contained an equestrian statue of Saint Martin. Apparently, the stone garlands feature a motif of small animals, including salamanders, which were the emblem of then-King François I. (See my post on the Château de Chambord to learn more about François and his salamanders!).

After lunch, Neil and I met up with our tour group once more to visit the champagne house Moët & Chandon. It was established in 1743 by Claude Moët, and is one of the largest champagne houses in the region. It produces 28 million bottles of champagne a year.

There’s rich. And then there’s “make your own version of the Grand Trianon from Versailles” rich. Claude Moët’s grandson, Jean-Rémy Moët, had this imitation-Grand Trianon built to serve as guest quarters for Emperor Napoleon I (who ruled France from 1804-1815) and his wife Josephine. Jean-Rémy and Napoleon became friends in 1782, when they met at a military school in Brienne-le-Château. Jean-Rémy was visiting the school on company business, recruiting customers. He found a faithful one in Napoleon, who would visit Moët & Chandon to stock up on champagne before every military battle. Napoleon supposedly said, “Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat, one needs it.”

A close-up of the imitation Petit-Trianon. Moët’s non-vintage line of white and rosé champagne, Moët Impérial, is named after the Emperor. It has been produced under that name since 1869.

There is a statue outside of Moët & Chandon of Dom Pérignon, the Benedictine monk after whom their best known champagne is made. Dom Pérignon is a vintage champagne that is only made in a year when the grapes are considered to be of superior quality. The first vintage year was in 1921; the bottles were aged and released to market in 1936. The 2009 vintage is the current year available at my local liquor store and retails for $236 CDN.

The Moët & Chandon cellars contain 28 kilometers of tunnels and hold 100 million bottles of champagne. Like the soil that the grapes are grown in, the cellars are made of chalk. You can see some bottles stacked horizontally in the picture below. They might still be undergoing the second fermentation, when the yeast converts the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Or, more likely, they’ve already undergone that fermentation and are now being aged.

The tunnels run underneath Épernay’s L’Avenue de Champagne (Champagne Avenue), shown below.

Below ground in the tunnels again.

The champagne bottles in the photos below are stacked in the special angled racks, the pupitres. They have finished the second fermentation and the aging, and now the work to move the lees/dead yeast cells into the neck of the bottle is underway.

What lies at the end of this mysterious tunnel, that is barred from public entry?

I can’t go down there, but the zoom focus on my camera can! (Sort of, it’s a blurry attempt).

It’s a bottle of 2008 Dom Pérignon vintage champagne. I’m sure it’s a very good champagne, but this feels a little anti-climactic.

As previously mentioned, Napoleon and Jean-Rémy Moët were friends. The plaque below commemorates a special visit that Napoleon made to the champagne house. It reads: “returning to France after the signing of the Treaty of Tilsit, Napoleon, the Grand Emperor of France, traveled these cellars under the leadership of Monsieur Jean-Remy Moët on July 26, 1807.”

An illustration of that visit.

From the official website of Moët & Chandon.

Napoleon gave Jean-Rémy Moët a few notable gifts. One of them was his Officer’s Cross of the Legion of Honour—the highest French order of merit for military and civilian accomplishments. He also gave his friend his last signature bicorn hat. (Sadly, viewing of the hat was not included with the tour). What’s at the end of the tunnel below? A third gift!

It’s a wooden barrel of port that was given by Napoleon to Jean-Rémy Moët in 1810. The port had been originally gifted to the King of Bavaria, Maximilian I, by the King of Portugal (Peter III?). Somehow, Napoleon ended up with it. It’s highly likely that the barrel was re-gifted by Maximilian to the French emperor**; however, Napoleon was also known to have sticky fingers.

History and cellar tour complete! It was time to ascend to the tasting room, where we sampled the Impérial Brut (the champagne that is named after Napoleon).

The tasting room was really pretty.

Exit through the gift shop!

Anyone else feeling thirsty?

¹ The Champagne wine region is located within the historical French province of Champagne (founded in 1065). I had to move this into a footnote because there’s only so many times I can say the word “champagne” in a sentence without confusing myself. For example: “Champagne is named after the wine-region of Champagne, which is located within the historical French province of Champagne.” It hurts.

As I discuss below, sparkling wine was not invented until the middle of the 16th century. But wine has been made in the Champagne region since Roman times. Instead, a light and fruity still wine was produced. Charlemagne began the tradition of crowning French kings in Reims with the coronation of his son, Louis the Pious, in 816. The local wine played a prominent part in all coronation celebrations, and that role led to the wine becoming highly prized in Paris, especially among the nobility. When a local boy went on to serve as Pope Urban II (lived 1035-1099, papacy term 1088-1099), he declared that his home-town wine was the best in the world. This all contributed to the prestigious reputation of Champagne wine.

The people of Champagne competed with their southern neighbours in Burgundy over who made the best wine. The centuries-old rivalry occasionally brought them to the brink of civil war. However, Burgundy did have the upper hand because it was a struggle to get the grapes needed for red wine to fully ripen in the more northern, cooler, Champagne region. Consequently, Champagne wines would have higher levels of acidity, lower sugar levels, and be thinner and lighter-bodied than Burgundy wines. These qualities, a curse for those trying to imitate and outdo Burgundy wine at the time, would prove essential to the later success of sparkling champagne wine. Hostilities eventually cooled between Champagne and Burgundy when Champagne wine makers abandoned their efforts to produce red wine in favour of developing the new sparkling champagne.

However, tensions remained high during the era of Louis XIV. Louis XIV would only drink Champagne wine on the advice of his doctor, Antone d’Acquin, who prescribed the drinking of the wine at every meal for Louis’ health. At the time, Champagne and Burgundy producers argued bitterly over whose wine had the most health benefits. Writers, politicians, and other influential members of upper-class French society all had their opinions on which wine region was better. A man named Guy-Crescent Fagon conspired with the King’s mistress to oust d’Acquin and have him installed as the royal physician instead. When this was accomplished, Fagon blamed the King’s continuing ailments on Champagne wine; he then had Louis switch to a regimen of Burgundy wine instead. Quel connard! 

The first champagne house of Gosset was founded as a still wine producer in 1584, and is still in operation today.

² The oldest recorded sparkling wine was invented by Benedictine monks in the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, near Carcassonne, in 1531. They achieved this by bottling the wine before the initial fermentation had ended. This predates Pérignon’s arrival at the Abbey in Hautevillers in 1668 by 137 years.

In 1662 (eight years before Pérignon’s arrival), an English physician and scientist, Christopher Merret, was the first to document the second fermentation process in which sugar is added to a finished wine; this process would later be known as the méthode Champenoise. At the time, French glassmakers did not yet have the ability to produce bottles that had the ability to withstand the pressure made by the second fermentation. English glassmakers did. It would be 200 years before the méthode Champenoise was regularly practiced in the Champagne region.

During Pérignon’s time at the Abbey, the second in-bottle fermentation was a major challenge because the glass bottles were too weak to reliably contain it. When the weather cooled off in the fall in the Champagne region, the fermentation would stop before all the sugars had been converted into alcohol (these cooler temperatures also made it hard to get the grapes to fully ripen). If the wine was bottled in this state, it became a time bomb. When the weather warmed up again in the spring, the yeast would re-activate and generate carbon dioxide. The pressure would then cause the bottle to explode. One explosion would then set off other nearby bottles, which were already struggling to contain the pressure within their own bottles. The shock of the first breakage would cascade down the line, and could result in 20-90% of the stock being damaged (and causing injury to anyone working near them). Because of this, sparkling wine was known at the time as le vin du diable (the devil’s wine).

Because of this instability, Pérignon tried to avoid re-fermentation. He did not like white grapes because of their tendency to undergo that second fermentation. He thought that fine wine should only be made from Pinot Noir. He was one of the first people to recognize that you had to blend different types of grapes from a variety of fields to improve the wine flavour, balancing elements together to make a better whole. He figured out how to manipulate the presses so that white juice could be extracted from red/black grapes (the juice will turn red if it has too much contact with the darker fruit skins). He introduced the method of aggressively pruning grape vines so that they grow no higher than three feet and produce a smaller crop. He pointed out that harvesting should be done in cool, damp conditions such as in the early morning. He took every precaution to make sure that grapes didn’t bruise or break. He threw out rotten and overly large grapes. He championed the use of natural processes in the growing of the grapes and the production of wine, and did not like adding foreign substances. He started using thicker glass bottles to store the sparkling wine. He also introduced the use of cork, instead of wood, to seal the bottles. So even though he didn’t invent champagne, his contributions to the production of still and sparkling wine were still significant.

Champagne did not become the main wine production process in the region until 100 years after Pérignon died. (Interestingly, Pérignon was an exact contemporary of Louis XIV; both men were born in 1638 and died in 1715!). Champagne production in 1800 was only 300,000 bottles a year. By 1850, it had increased exponentially to 20 million bottles a year.

So, how did Pérignon become identified as the inventor of champagne? This was due to his successors at the Abbey. In 1821, Dom Groussard gave an exaggerated account of Pérignon’s accomplishments. He made the claim that Pérignon had invented champagne in order to bring more prestige to the church. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, right? There was no Google to help people fact-check. Also, Dom Pérignon was a good poster boy for the product (Moët & Chandon would hartily agree!). Giving champagne an origin story as the product of a monk’s labour and persistence makes for good copy. And it might not be totally off base, if sparkling wine was indeed invented in a monastery near Carcassonne. It’s just better if the origin story features a monk who is local to the region that is most famed for producing it. Further, the image of Pérignon running around the monastery crying out, “Brothers! I have tasted the stars!”, is similarly the product of a commercial campaign.

³ The Abbey was first established in 650 by Saint Nivard, the Archbishop of Reims. It’s had a long history of being sacked, burned down, and rebuilt. It was first destroyed by the Normans in 882. Then the English came calling in 1449. Then the Huguenots razed it in 1564. Catherine de Medici financed the rebuilding of the Abbey at this point. During Dom Pérignon’s time in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Abbey consisted of 20 buildings, courtyards, and gardens.

The Abbey closed in 1789, during the French Revolution.

All that remains today is the abbey church and a small part of the cloister. I didn’t know at the time to go behind the church to see the cloister, so I didn’t take a picture of it. But here is one (below) from Wikipedia. The taller church building is in the background, the smaller cloister building is in front of it. There are also the foundations/ruins of another cloister building, no longer standing.

* Brut Nature has no sweetness added, with less than 3 grams of sugar/litre. It will taste bone dry, with only 0-2 calories of sugar/5 ounce serving.
Extra Brut has the least amount of sweetness added, with less than 6 grams of sugar/litre. It will also taste bone dry, with 0-5 calories of sugar/5 ounce serving.
Brut is the most common level found in Champagne, with 6-10 grams of sugar/litre. It will taste dry or even bone dry, with 5-7 calories of sugar/5 ounce serving.
Extra Dry still has a low level of sweetness, with 12-17 grams of sugar/litre. It will taste mostly dry with a fruit forward character, and has 7-10 calories of sugar/5 ounce serving.
Dry/Sec is a fruity and somewhat sweet Champagne, with 17-32 grams of sugar/litre. It has 10-20 calories of sugar/5 ounce serving.
Demi-Sec is a noticeably sweet wine with 32-50 grams of sugar/litre. It has 20-30 calories of sugar/5 ounce serving, and works well with desserts, cheese, and nuts.
Doux is the sweetest it gets with 50+grams of sugar/litre. It is a dessert-style of Champagne that is rare to find with very sweet fruit flavours. It has 30+calories/5 ounce serving.

** France and Bavaria were allies. Napoleon dissolved the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. He elevated Bavaria to the status of an independent kingdom; prior to this, it had only been an electorate of the Holy Roman Empire. King Maximilian’s daughter, Auguste Amalie von Bayern, was married to Napoleon’s stepson Eugène de Beauharnais, in 1807.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.