Monday, June 17, 2013

TINY BUBBLES...(and LOTS of them!)

An entire day spent champagne fun does that sound?!  If any of you do not know the Belmont family, I can't express strongly enough that they LOVE champagne!  Way back when we first became friends and we all had very little money, Russ and Adrienne introduced us to fine champagne...they definitely knew their stuff regarding champagne even back in the 80's!  So it should come as no surprise, that on our big adventure in France, we would have a special day touring the Champagne region!
We all loaded into the cars (two 9 passenger Mercedes vans and a Ford Fiesta) and headed north to the Champagne region.  Russ (father of the Bride) was driving the lead van with Adrienne navigating (with the help of the iPhone)...and the 2 other vehicles followed.  John (father of the groom) drove the other van, and the Ford Fiesta was driven by Josh (friend of the Bride and Groom).
This was about a 2.5 hr. drive.  All I can say is thank goodness for Google maps and iPhones!  The French highways are in great condition, and travel through gorgeous countryside...but things are not always clearly marked (at least by American standards!)  It was just so helpful to have the little voice in the iPhone tell us " half a kilometer, at the round-about, take the third exit onto D77...proceed 17 kilometers".  Every once in a while we would make a wrong turn off one of the multitude of roundabouts we encountered, and the lovely little voice would "recalibrate" and get us back on track.  The French country side is so pretty...lush and green.  I have never seen so many shades of green in my life!  Predominant crops seemed to be green wheat, green asparagus, and mustard flower.  Sprinkled through these fields were beautiful red poppies (They looked just like our California poppies, but the color was amazing bright red-orange).  And the fields also had many little mini-forests growing in the middle of them.  As we got closer to Reims we started seeing the vineyards too!  And of course every little town we passed had an ancient cathedral (14th century?!)
Dani had arranged for tours at three very different Champagne houses.  At first this sounded like a bit of overkill...but each tour was so different and each of the 3 Champagne houses was so unique that it really was perfect and we all learned so much.   I really can't thank Dani enough for putting together such a fun outing for all of us.  And it was so nice that our group of 22 got private tours (and tastings!) at each house.  First up was the house of G.H.Mumm.  We had all heard of this house of course.  They were founded in 1827 and have been producing extraordinary champagne for 166 years!  They had a very slick and informative film to introduce us to their history ("audacious" and "panache" are words they like to use to describe themselves!)  and then our lovely red blazer clad tour guide lead us down to the cellars.  I was really not prepared for the size of their underground cellars - 14 miles of chalk walled cellars!

 It was very cool, dark and damp in the cellars.  Can you see the cobwebs on some of those bottles?!  (They keep some bottles of every vintage they have made!)  We learned that only 3 kinds of grapes can be used in Champagne...chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.   How they blend them determines blanc de blanc, blanc de noir, etc. We learned about the champagne making process, the bottling process, the riddling and storage, and so much more.

And then it was time for tasting!  We all tasted 4 different types...and we all preferred different ones.  There are only a few Mumm champagnes that you can buy in the US, (but they had so many more to taste that are available to purchase there of course!)  And we all purchased our particular favorites.  Russ and Adrienne bought a jeraboam of champagne for the  wedding!  What a great way to remember this special day!

After all that touring and tasting, we were hungry and Dani had made reservations at a restaurant just a few minutes walk away.  The food was very tasty (all 3 courses) and of course we needed the champagne, red and white wine they served!  The best part of the lunch was that we were joined there by the eldest Belmont daughter, Ashelee and her husband Clint.  They had flown on the red-eye the night before, hopped a train at Charles de Gaul airport straight for Reims, then walked from the train station to the restaurant!  Finally, the group was complete!  (Ashelee, I'm not sure how anybody can look so beautiful after all that's just not fair!)  I know Adrienne hates having her picture taken...but I couldn't resist this one of Russ and Adrienne kissing...we are in France (for a wedding!) drinking champagne - there have to be some kissing pictures!

The 3 lovely Belmont girls!

Back in the vans...we were off for our second Champagne tour!  This time we went to a small producer (2,000 bottles a day!)  The Champagne house of Henry de Vaugency has been passed from father to son since 1732.  Our tour guide, Pascal Henry is the 8th generation of this family!  Henry has a passion for champagne that was extraordinary to see.  His champagne elaboration follows the traditional methods: wooden press, aging in chalk cellars, manual riddling, and hand disgorging and corking.

Clint...looking great after 20 hours of travel!
 This access to the cellars was bricked up by his grandfather during World War II.  When the Nazis came, they took all the champagne in the small tasting room at the top of the stairs, but they never found the cellars below.  The bulk of the champagne was saved!
 Pascal disgorging the sediment in the neck of the bottle...
 the sediment shoots into the top of this container...
this is the gunk/sediment that shoots out of the top of the bottle during disgorgement...
this machine replaces with "liquor" (from the tank at the top right) the volume that has been lost in the disgorging...
 the bottle is corked by hand!

After Pascal has his morning coffee, he riddles all the bottles by hand!  This process now takes him only 15 minutes.  When he started, it used to take him 2 hours!
More tasting of his fabulous Grand Cru champagnes.  His are all Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs (chardonnay only).  He makes 8 different "curves" (3 are named after his children...who will take over the business some day - they will be the 9th generation in this wonderful and proud family business!  We tasted 4 of Pascal's cuvees.
This is St. Vincent (patron saint of vintners...Pascal says "this is my boss!")  This is the wall that was sealed off from the Nazis during the occupation.

We purchased more champagne here (of course!!).  And Pascal must be doing alright with champagne sales...when we asked him about a Ferrari photo we saw, he shared with us that he has a Ferarri Tessa Rosa!  (Must be fun to drive that through the French countryside!)  
OK...I think it's time for a little more driving through the French countryside...we have one more Champagne house to hit!  (Chateau Beaugency)
This house was very chalk walls, all stainless steel tanks, mechanical process totally.  However the champagne was very tasty and the high point was the "sabrage".  This a technique for opening a Champagne bottle with a saber.  Both Dani and Nash were taught how to do this.  The force of the blade hitting the lip of the bottle actually breaks the glass to separate the collar very neatly from the neck of the bottle...the cork and collar remain together after separating from the neck...a nice souvenir for Dani!

 success...the cork and neck are off the bottle in the photo above!
 Dani got "knighted" into the society of sabotage!

Dani got a certificate and the cork/neck in a little pouch!

It was truly an amazing I will never forget! Our drivers were amazing...and skipped many of the tastings since they were the ones behind the wheel...and I thank them for getting us home safe and sound at 12:30! Our drive home was kind of comical...trying to find a gas station (they are not nearly so prevalent as they are in the US), using up data on phones that were being used for the navigation, running out of battery power in other phones, finding ourselves in areas with no service...
(Since we left the chateau at 8am...this was indeed a LONG day...16+ hours!)

Our happy band of travelers!  After having all those glasses of champagne, it was indeed a "happy" group!

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