I want to tell you a little story about Eric, my son’s future grandfather-in-law.
Eric is more formally known as Eric Morlet, the owner of the Morlet vineyards located in a tiny town called Avenay-Val-d’Or. Eric is the fourth generation of Morlets to work the land and has three sons, two of whom work/live in California and one who will take over the vineyards in France making five generations of the same family working the land. It is a medium sized vineyard that has 16 hectares of land and produces thousands of bottles of champagne every year, named, amazingly enough, Morlet.
He is in his 80s and worked the land with his hands for his entire life and the result of his work can be found and tasted directly in the bottles of champagne. We had the honor of Eric showing us how they bottle and produce champagne as well as sitting with him and trying different champagnes. We tried a wine made exclusively with Pinot grapes from one part of his vineyard where the sun and the soil make the grapes into the best taste that works best for the bottle. When he was younger and working with his father, Pierre, Eric dug BY HAND the terraces on which those grapes grow and covered it in the soil to get the conditions exactly correct. It took him eleven years. You heard me right. Eleven years. I have trouble focusing on a 30 minute Netflix show without being distracted and he worked on this for over eleven years. Eric has other talents as well; he is one of the tasters that samples the early grapes and helps determine what the mixture for champagne will be for the year. And he can find water with two pieces of wire. We spent an hour or more with him and it was one of the best experiences any of us have had. I’m not talking on the trip–I’m talking ever. And I’m pretty sure we agreed that AJ would marry his granddaughter.
More on that in a minute. Let me back up.
Today is champagne day. Anne Marie has put together a tour of the region to give us not only a tour of the vineyards, but an education on champagne; how it is made, how the grapes are grown, the harvest, the bottling, and the years it takes to produce a bottle of champagne.1
Champagne. Not sparkling wine.
This day will also knock out the second of two requests we made…to see the champagne caves. Anne Marie had shown us pictures of these huge caves and it seemed too good to be true. Turns out it is indeed true and Reims has over 200km of caves underneath the city, started originally by the Romans (yes, THOSE Romans) who dug into the ground to get the chalk to make their buildings. They have been used off and on ever since2 and since have been expanded (over time) and are used today to produce Champagne.
Our tour departure time is 0915 and we are hard pressed to get out of bed to make it out the door. We logged about 30,000 steps in Paris yesterday and we are all tired. But somehow we make it out of bed, get our cups of coffee and when Anne Marie walks in the door we are ready.
First stop of the day is in Reims itself–the Tattingers; it is one of the largest champagne makers in the region and one of two sets of their caves in which they store the bottles of bubbly is not too far away. We drive to their house for the first tour. Taittinger is big. 280+ hectares of land planted with grapes. They produce a LOT of the bubbly stuff and when you drive into their compound and sit inside waiting for the tour, you can tell. Beautiful buildings and grounds, people are dressed elegantly, sleek videos about their product. There is a group of 20 of us (or so) that are all heralded into a room for a 12 minute movie about the Taittinger legend and their product and then we head ducks in a row into the caves so we can see how with champagne making process occurs.
Short overview of the process: Grow grapes and pick (by hand). Press gently (no stamping), put in bottles with bit of yeast/sugar, cap with metal cap and lay on side underground in cold for years. Years! Put bottles at an angle where the Riddler turns them for a couple of weeks until the sediment collects at the top of the bottle. Old school way was to knock off the cap to expel the sediment3 then add a bit more sugar/yeast, put in cork and couple of weeks later voila!
The caves are huge and cold! This is the smaller set of caves that the company uses–the larger is not open to the public, least not those how make less than (I assume) a billion dollars. We walk through two levels, see a BUNCH of bottles of bubbly stuff laying and resting waiting to be opened some years from now. We also see how the Romans excavated the caves a couple of thousands of years ago which is just as amazing as the champagne in the caves themselves. If you look closely, you can see where holes were carved to hold candles to light the caves and where graffiti was carved when people needed something to keep their minds off the bombs exploding over their heads.
Back upstairs we get to try a glass of their (most inexpensive) champagne. I look at my watch and note that while it is noon somewhere, it is 10:20am here. Champagne for breakfast…we are doing something right! We drank our glasses while the staff setup for the next set of visitors and whisked us out the door. It was good, we enjoyed ourselves. The tour had a very slick feel. Guess that comes with about a bazillion dollars of sales per year.
After we got a feel for the champagne making process, Anne Marie took us over to a small town on the other side of “Reims Mountain”4 called Hautvillers. In this place is where Dom Perignon (yes, THAT Dom Perignon) helped develop and refine the wine making process. He didn’t invent champagne, but he was like a wine ninja–he figured out how to make wine better with the goal of making the best wine in the world (to honor God, naturally; he was a monk after all!). And this is where he is buried. The other thing that Anne Marie did was walk us through all the work that is done BEFORE the grapes are picked. An education on the plants, the types of grapes, the soil, the sun, the water and everything that goes into making sure the grapes are exceptional. We did this on the side of a hill, standing in a field of grapes and getting a hands on, practical explanation of grape growing. Which she knows a lot about because she used to pick the things as a summer job.
Down the hill we go to Epernay (which, by the way, is the FIRST town that we have come to that looks like it sounds and make it officially my FAVORITE town in France) to look at the wine maker row and grab lunch. Then we are off to Avenay-Val-d’Or to meet Eric.
You got the intro at the top if my gushing wasn’t a clue, we loved this guy and this place. We were to arrive at 2pm for our tour, but were about 10 minutes early. No problem, a nice lady met us at the door, took us just around a corner, opened up a door in the ground that look suspiciously like a storm cellar door in the midwest, we ducked our heads and went down into their wine cellars. We got the walk through the cellars and the lesson on how champagne is made. Then Eric joins us. And the tour got fun!
I described Eric earlier (80s, owner, been here forever) so won’t do that again. He doesn’t speak English, but his French is slow enough, he is expressive enough and Anne Marie is quick enough to cover the translation so that we have no problem understanding him. The tour went from an overview of wine making to a practical demonstration. When we talked about how the sediment from the bottle collects at the top of the bottle, we had a bottle in our hands with a light behind it so we could see the two types of sediment (heavy and light) and they could explain how the tilting/turning traps the light under the heavy and clears the bottle. Eric grabbed a bottle that was tilted and showed us the sediment at the cap and then demonstrated how they got the sediment out in the olden days. The process uses the build up of gas in the bottle (creating pressure), a quick hand and a fancy bottle opener. Eric used AJ as his assistant; they had the bottle tipped down, put the bottle opener on the cap, but didn’t pop, then smoothly and quickly tipped the bottle up and popped the top and BOOM! Out goes the sediment and not much of the champagne. If we were to use this bottle, we would then add a bit more sugar, water and champagne (to fill to to top), put in a cork, and let sit for just a bit longer. But instead Eric brought the bottle upstairs.
Where we drank it.
Not the whole bottle. Just a small glass each to try. But still. This was a bottle direct from the cellars and he was so confident in his product that he grabbed one out of the cave and we got to try. This was definitely ‘brut.’ Dry. And excellent. While upstairs we got to see how they bottle the champagne with the machines they use. It is a remarkably small place that produces so much wine. We see how the bottles are labelled and there are different labels and sizes for the different types of champagne. Eric shows us one label made for someone’s wedding day. He thank asks AJ how old he is (14 AJ replies). Eric says he has a grand daughter that is 16, close to AJ’s age and he asks AJ if he would like to marry his granddaughter. Jan and I jump all over that offer, we shake hands and I’m pretty sure that is a done deal.
We ended up trying a couple more bottles while sitting around the table and talking. Eric had his bottles lined up on a small wall and talked about how each one was made and the grapes. He had a rose (I’m not calling it ‘pink’) champagne which was all of our favorites and some brandy and heavier wines. All that we tried were excellent. But the best part was sitting around and talking to a man who had been in this place his entire life.
It is with reluctance that we get back in the car; we have one more vineyard to go: La Maison Penet. This is a small (completing our spectrum from large to medium to small) vineyard located just 5km from Eric’s place in another small town called Verzy. We wind our way through streets barely bigger than Anne Marie’s tiny Fiat and find the house. We are met there by Alexandre Penet, the current owner and part of the family who has owned the land for the past 400 years.
And for the record, that makes two vineyards that we have met the owner and one (the biggest) where we did not. Probably out polishing his Ferrari.
We have already covered the whole champagne making process thingy so we focus on trying his champagnes and talking about his particular place. He focuses on really dry champagnes and Jan is in dry wine heaven. Though his vineyard is small, the quality of his grapes are excellent and the result is quite tasty. And expensive. We walk out with a couple of bottles that would pay for a weeks worth of groceries back home, but thy are both excellent and hope they make it past tonight.
Our tour complete we head back to Reims where we order take out pizza, crack open a bottle of the bubbly stuff, toast Anne Marie who was generous in both her time and her expertise, and celebrate our three glorious days in Reims.
1When Anne Marie came to live with us she brought along a bottle of champagne from Reims and it was excellent. Fast forward a couple of months to November and Thanksgiving. We made a brunch and as part of brunch we made mimosas. Anne Marie asked “what are mimosas” we told her is was a glass of champagne into which we add orange juice (or if you are jan, over which you wave a bottle of orange juice and think orangy thoughts). She (Anne Marie) had a cow. A fit. She was offended. Like we thought she was going to hop on the next plane and head home for France where no sane person adds orange juice to Champagne. We were confused and upon further ‘discussion,’ (yelling by Anne Marie and us ducking for cover), she came to understand that we weren’t using champagne, but instead a bottle of something from California that said ‘champagne; on the bottle but was actually some sort of sparkling wine. Or horse piss if you come from the land of the bubbly wine. Anne Marie tried both the california ‘champagne’ by itself and the mimosa (Jim’s recipe which calls for actually adding some orange juice and not Jan’s recipe which calls for thinking of an orange and then drinking the glass of champagne) and agreed the the orange juice definitely added something to the wine. We didn’t understand why on earth she had the violent reaction until today.
2 Among other things, the cellars were used as bomb shelters, or really as a place to live for four years during WWI. The lines were 5km out of Reims and the Germans constantly lobbed shells at Reims destroying most of the town. The people went into the tunnels for protection.
3 New school way is to use a machine to spin the bottles and to remove sediment.
4 Reims mountain is a local term, not annotated on any map. Because ‘mountain’ is t a bit of a misnomer. Think hill. Long, but not tall. Unremarkable except it is the only hill of any size for miles. So ‘mountain.’