Many foreign visitors journey out from Paris for a day to the Champagne region, often just to the main cities of Reims or Epernay. They take a tour of the big champagne houses, such as Moet & Chandon, and enjoy a tasting or two. However, this does not do justice to a part of France that is every bit as picturesque and charming as Burgundy or Provence, and far less crowded.
Join travel writer, Tom Koppel, and his photographer wife, Annie Palovcik, as they linger awhile in Champagne’s rural villages and smaller vineyards where the vines grow right down the slopes to every back yard. They share time with local growers whose families have owned and nurtured their land for generations.
We start our wine adventures in Mancy, ten miles south of Epernay, on a hillside of vines with Nathalie Domi of Champagne Domi-Moreau, one of the smallest and most traditional producers.
“This has been a good year, so far,” Nathalie says with a smile. “We are two to three weeks ahead of usual.” She fingers clusters of tiny green chardonnay grapes growing in straight, symmetrical rows along wires strung between steel posts. Similar rows blanket the lush, rolling countryside as far as we can see. Her dog wanders off among the grapes.
Champagne land is restricted by law and incredibly expensive. Domi-Moreau owns 15 acres of vines in five separate parcels. Rarely sold, it has been subdivided through repeated inheritance into ever smaller and non-contiguous holdings, or else combined by marriage. In this case, a Domi married a Moreau. Of some 15,000 growers, only 5,000 market finished champagne. Most sell their grapes or pressed juice to larger producers.
Nathalie explains the arduous annual cycle of pruning and cultivating the rows of vines, often in winter rains, followed by intense months of harvesting, pressing the grapes, fermenting and then bottling.
We return to the village and the family compound, with its barn, farm machinery, cramped cellar, century-old press and small bottling area. There, under ground, the juice ferments initially in large tanks. Everything is done by Nathalie, her husband Max, and Max’s parents, whose own parents and grandparents were also growers. They employ help only briefly for harvesting, hand bottling and labeling, 30,000 bottles a year. With more juice than they can handle, they sell the excess.
To each bottle they add yeast and sugar, and a temporary metal bottle cap. Months of secondary fermentation build up pressure. The metal cap is replaced with the distinctively shaped champagne cork in an explosive two-second procedure that expels any sediment. Then the bottles go into storage for additional months or years.
At last, it is time for Nathalie to open a bottle and let us relish the fruits of her family’s labors. She untwists the little metal wires and pops the cork. And—voila! The bubbles fizz while the dog leaps into action. “He never tires of the game,” she laughs. “He always races to fetch the cork.”
Nathalie pours out glasses of her finest vintage. We sip and nod approval. It is superb. Flavorful, crisp and sparkling.
We spend a couple of nights at Domi-Moreau’s comfortable gite, or self-catering guest house, with a large kitchen where we can prep our own meals. This gives us full days to hike the slopes, savor the rhythm of country life, and explore Mancy village.
Mancy is a quiet residential hamlet, without even a post office, general store or traffic light. There is only a small but lively pub-style bar and restaurant, La Madelon, that serves excellent prix fixe lunches, plus dinner on weekends. Domi ancestors lie buried at the ancient Catholic church. Many families own scattered holdings of vines and drive out daily in vans to work them. Their yards are full of tractors and other machinery. Others are retired or commute to work in Epernay.
We spend a morning in the attractive city of Epernay touring one of the larger producers, Castellane. Owning no land, it buys grapes and juice from countless small growers and has highly automated bottling and labeling equipment. Fork lifts zoom through its miles of ancient arched cellars holding millions of bottles.
Our English-speaking guide Antoine, a young married man who shows us through and offers a tasting, is one of the many property owners who inherited too little land to support a family. He works his vines on weekends and sells the grapes to supplement his income.
Champagne is a sparkling wine produced from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France following rules that demand a secondary fermentation of the wine in the bottle to create carbonation or bubbles. The primary grapes used in the production of champagne are black Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier but also white Chardonnay.
European royalty became associated with champagne in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, leading wine makers to link their champagnes with nobility through advertising and packaging. This in turn led to escalating popularity among the emerging middle class. Today champagne is practically mandatory for personal, group and even national events in many parts of the world.
Information courtesy of Wikipedia.
Vinay, our next stop, is a lovely village with narrow streets and quaint houses. We check into a beautifully landscaped, high-end country inn, La Briqueterie. Really a destination in itself, it features an indoor pool, elegant spa and Michelin star dining room.
Ghislaine and Dosy Lecomte greet us for a visit to their small but modern facility, Champagne Lecomte. Sons Frederic and Jeremy are the family’s 5th generation of vignerons. With three additional employees and a semi-automated bottling line, they work 18 acres and produce 70,000 bottles a year.
Dosy drives us out to watch his young crew at work, planting new grapes. After about 50 years, each vine has grown roots the size of a soccer ball and begins to lose vigor. The men are busy stringing wires and putting up netting around the small young vines to protect against rabbits. We view fields of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier. Nearby, a fellow grower cuts off useless shoots that have sprouted during winter.
A famous Romanesque hilltop church, Eglise de Chavot, surrounded by grapes, overlooks the long valley leading past Vinay and into distant Epernay. Dosy points out vines on the high, north-facing slopes that show frost damage, while south-facing grapes were spared and will be of higher quality.
Back at the Lecomte tasting room, Ghislaine serves us several of their vintages and blends. “The blanc de blanc, which is 100% chardonnay, is especially good with fish,” she says. “The salmon-colored rosé, tinged with a little red wine, is a speciality that sells well in summer.”
Lecomte markets much of their product through direct sales to repeat customers. One nobleman from Northern Ireland visits every year and ships home hundreds of bottles. Their retail prices, just over $20, seem modest for such exquisite champagne. Traveling light though, and by air, we can buy only two bottles. One bottle is to share with an old friend at our next destination in Italy. The other, we open before a memorable final dinner at La Briqueterie. Toasting each other in style, it is a fitting celebration of our sojourn in Champagne.
As Napoleon said of champagne:
“In victory you deserve it, in defeat you need it.”
Getting around Champagne: We traveled by train from Paris to Epernay and took taxis to and from the nearby villages. Those with a rental car can easily follow the well marked Champagne Route.
There are more than 100 champagne houses that are open to visitors for tours and tastings. Some require appointments in advance. Fees vary. Click here and here for information including lodgings and maps of the Champagne Route.
For Castellane’s tours and tastings in Epernay, click here.
For information about accommodations and meals at La Briqueterie in Vinay, click here. It is a Relais & Chateaux property.
By the same author and photographer, you will enjoy two other articles in our Travel Article Library: “Switzerland’s Ups and Downs” about Switzerland’s amazing mountainous transportation system; and “Buongiorno, Ticino” about Switzerland’s lesser-known Italian enclave.
Tom Koppel is a veteran Canadian journalist and author of popular non-fiction. For over 25 years, his travel features have appeared in the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Globe and Mail, National Post, Canadian World Traveller, Georgia Straight and many other publications. His latest book of history, science and travel is Mystery Islands: Discovering the Ancient Pacific, for sale at Amazon. Signed and dedicated copies are available from firstname.lastname@example.org.
Annie Palovcik’s photographs have appeared in publications worldwide, including Dallas Morning News, Globe and Mail, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Sydney Morning Herald. She and her husband, Tom Koppel, live on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia.