In the meantime, it was time to visit Ramon’s family in the Netherlands. It has been five years since I’ve been there, although I have seen most of his family in the meantime since they have been to California to visit us. We usually do some sort of side trip while in Europe since we’ve gone all that way and dealt with the nine hour time difference so we might as well get more than a family vacation out of it.
One of the things I would like to offer at Reverie is a diversity of interesting sparkling wines, both U.S. and imported, so we decided to drive down to the Champagne region of France from Amsterdam and spend three days exploring the area and learning about the different regions. There is one very good producer of sparkling wine in El Dorado County that I know of: Gwinllan is doing a great Blanc de Blanc, but I would like to offer more sparkling wine options. And I wanted to learn more about the small producers in France’s Champagne region.
We arrived in Epernay, the middle of the Champagne wine region, late in the evening on April 30, not realizing the next day, May 1 was a holiday — International Workers’ Day — and the French take their holidays very seriously. We had rented an apartment rather than staying in a hotel, and we woke up on May 1 to find absolutely NOTHING open. We had coffee pods in the apartment, but no milk and no food. We wandered around the small town of Epernay, increasingly concerned that we might starve to death while incurring a major caffeine withdrawal headache. Suddenly, down the street, we spotted someone with two baguettes peeking out of a shopping bag. We ran up to him and frantically asked “Ou est le pain???” He took pity on us and pointed the way to a patisserie, clearly the only one open since it had a line snaking down the block. We were lucky to track it down, and stocked up on several pastries, baguettes, and a cup of hot milk for the coffee pods back at the apartment. We had to be prepared – who knew if we were going to be able to find anything to eat again that day?
But after the morning marching band, procession, and labor protest did a few loops around the town center, things slowly started to open up and by noon, we could at least do some champagne tasting. Epernay is a tourist town in the middle of Champagne after all.
I must confess that I am still learning how the French wine system works. It is just so different than the US. and so highly regulated and restricted. I rarely drink actual Champagne since it’s so expensive, so I really didn’t know anything about it. So here is a primer on what we learned:
By law champagne can have up to three grapes: Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, and/or Chardonnay. Blanc de Blancs are made with 100% Chardonnay. Blanc de Noirs are mostly or completely Pinot Noir. On the first day, our favorite tasting was Xavier Loriot Fragment Brut – a blend of Pinot Meunier (65%) and Pinot Noir (35%).
The countryside is another story. Champagne is absolutely beautiful, dotted with 350 or so villages throughout the region. Where grapes can be grown is strictly regulated, and each land parcel’s “terroir” is rated: Grand Cru, Premier Cru, or no rating. This rating system dates from the 1920s and doesn’t change, no matter what. If your land’s terroir – which comprises its soil and climate – was rated Grand Cru, the highest designation, back in the 1920s, then it is still Grand Cru today, no matter the quality (or lack thereof) of your grape growing practices or winemaking prowess. And if it’s unrated grape growing land, you can make the most delicious Champagne but it still won’t get a Grand Cru or Premier Cru rating. And if you own land that hasn’t been designated for growing grapes, too bad for you. You have to grow something else, like rapeseed (used to make Canola oil). We saw lots of beautiful yellow parcels across the countryside of rapeseed in bloom.
For the most part when you go to a tasting room in our little wine region of El Dorado County, you are dealing with the winery owner and/or the wine maker. That was definitely NOT the case in Champagne. These Champagne houses have been owned by the families for centuries and if you are fortunate enough to be born into one of them, then you are a multi-millionaire and can hire staff to work in the tasting rooms. The staff were pleasant enough, but it was clear that the whole system was extremely stratified. Either you were one of the fortunate Champagne heirs, or you were an underpaid cog in the Champagne wheel. No wonder the French take their holidays so seriously.
But in any case, we had a pleasant day of tasting fabulous (and inexpensive) Champagne. The most expensive bottle we tasted retailed for 30 euros. I’m sure it would be $150 or more in the U.S. We learned a lot about the wine and the different regions within Champagne, and bought several bottles to take back with us to Amsterdam to share with Ramon’s family. We set the stage to come back at a future date to do more serious tasting and find a few good Champagnes to serve at Reverie when the time comes.