The tasting room in Krug, one of the most venerated Champagne producers. (Photo: Celine Gaille)
By Jennifer Ceaser
For Americans, Champagne is reserved mainly for special occasions: weddings, birthdays, New Year’s Eve. But in France, it’s a way of life — tossed back with the regularity of, say, a Budweiser here in the States. And nowhere will you find it consumed more often than in the Champagne-Ardenne region, where 320 Champagne houses produce some 259 million bottles of sparkling wine each year.
They include well-known luxury labels like Krug — turning out half a million bottles annually, with some vintages fetching as much as $21,000 — to tiny, family-operated houses, whose product you won’t find beyond French borders.
More than 300 Champagne houses produce sparkling wine each year in France’s Champagne-Ardenne region. (Photo: Celine Gaille)
A trip to Champagne country — a 45-minute high-speed train ride to its largest city, Reims, from Paris — isn’t just about sampling all kinds of fizzy delights, you can also discover the unique history behind the houses, many of which date back to the 1800s.
It’s unlikely you’d have the time — or the constitution — to visit all Champagne’s producers, which are scattered across 9,800 square miles of rolling, vine-covered hills. These three — varying in size, style and price — will give you a small taste of the wide range of Champagne that the region has to offer. Be sure to bring an extra suitcase for all that bubbly you’ll be buying! Cheers!
The champagne cellar at Krug. (Photo: Celine Gaille)
Set in the heart of Reims, in a grand white maison behind an imposing gate, Krug is one of the most venerated Champagne producers. Getting inside the 170-plus-year-old house isn’t so simple — you’ll have to request a reservation and it definitely helps if you have a contact in the wine industry. But if you’re lucky, you’ll be rewarded with a private tour that starts with a glass of its crisp, snappy Grande Cuvée, a signature blend of 120 wines, of three grape varieties, from 10 or more different vintages, that’s aged at least six years. It’s an indicator of why a bottle is so darn good, and so darn pricey ($150 and up) — it takes a whole lot of time and effort to make.
The enterprise was launched in 1843 by Joseph Krug, whose methods and procedures for creating Champagne — meticulously noted in his journals — continue with the present (now sixth) generation. (LVMH acquired the brand in 1999 but Olivier Krug remains its director.) Today the house makes five Champagnes, which in addition to its best-selling Grande Cuvee include Krug Rosé and the limited-production Clos du Mesnil, which features only Chardonnay grapes from a single small vineyard.
Joseph Krug’s notebook. (Photo: Celine Gaille)
The house’s long history becomes clear once you walk down into the two-level cellar, with its impressive vaulted ceilings and warren of tunnels leading to rooms holding stacked barrels, riddling tables (where bottles are turned by hand) and row upon row of dusty bottles dating as far back as 1880. There are plenty of modern additions, too, like the huge stainless-steel vats nestled beneath brick arches that hold much of the fermenting juice.
Our guide is more than happy to explain the wine-making process — fermentation, maturation, blending, etc. — to true oenophiles, but far more interesting are the stories she shared about the Krugs: that the cellar served as a hospital and shelter during World War I; how the wife of Joseph Krug II, Jeanne, kept the production going while her husband was in battle — creating the house’s first rosé Champagne in the process.
Of course, tasting the bubbly is really why you’ve come all this way and our guide obliges, ushering us into a handsome tasting room, where a replica of Joseph’s cherry-colored notebook is on view. On that day we sampled several cuvees from 1998 and 2000, one of Krug’s wine experts on hand to describe the nuances of the blend, the weather during that particular year, the resulting taste and aromas. We also learned a cool fact: on the back of every bottle is an ID number; plug it into the Krug website and you can find out everything about what you’re drinking — the exact blend, how long it aged, along with tasting notes and food pairing suggestions. We’ll drink to that!
Champagne is poured at Vilmart. (Photo: Celine Gaille)
Just outside the petite village of Rilly-la-Montagne, about 8 miles south of Reims, you’ll find Vilmart, set within a charming Tudor-style estate. Dating back to 1890, the house, founded by Desire Vilmart, is now in its fifth generation of family ownership, under the tutelage of Laurent Champs. (Why the different last name? It was taken over by a son-in-law, Laurent’s father, Rene.)
Unlike many producers, Vilmart owns its own vineyards and uses only its own grapes, with a high proportion of Chardonnay and less of pinot noir. Also, no chemicals or herbicides are used on the vines — a rarity in the region. “I am one of seven out of the 16,000 or so growers in Champagne who uses biomethods,” says Laurent. Even more rare, he ferments and ages the wine in oak barrels, a classic method that few producers bother with today.
Dating back to 1890, Vilmart is now in its fifth generation of family ownership, currently under the tutelage of Laurent Champs, above.(Photo: Celine Gaille)
Which makes touring Vilmart’s cellar so interesting — where you’d normally see giant stainless-steel vats, there is instead a sea of beautiful wood casks — hundreds upon hundreds of them of varying sizes stacked within the brick-lined walls. It’s notably cool and quiet down in these rooms, but inside the barrels, the wine is furiously busy fermenting.
Also in the cellar is a traditional wine press, which Laurent says they still use. “We also turn every bottle by hand,” he says of the riddling process. “We still do a lot of things around here manually.”
The house turns out 110,000 bottles of around seven different Champagnes (both vintage and non-vintage); most are available in the US (non-vintage cru is around $70/bottle), but aren’t easy to find given the relatively small production. So all the better to enjoy a glass or two while admiring the wine-themed stained-glass windows — crafted by Rene Laurent himself — that decorate the tasting room.
A Champagne sampling at the award-winning Champagne house, Guy De Chassey. (Photo: Celine Gaille)
GUY DE CHASSEY
Louvois, about a half-hour’s drive from Reims, is a speck of village with just 324 inhabitants and the award-winning Champagne house, Guy De Chassey (most recently, it picked up a silver and bronze at the 2014 Decanter World Wine Awards). As you might imagine in a town this tiny, Guy De Chassey is a rather small operation — and a true family affair. Seventh-generation Marie Odile de Chassey now runs the business side of things while her daughter, Ingrid, makes the wine. Ingrid is, in fact, one of the few female winemakers in Champagne: “She knew what she wanted to do since she was 15,” says her mother.
Though the houses produces only around 68,000 bottles annually, everything is done by a staff of just five, which includes the mother-daughter duo: Grapes are harvested from the family’s own vineyard, loaded manually into a traditional wood press, vinified and matured personally, bottled in the cellar and riddled by hand.
Though the family has been making Champagne here since 1900, the actual winemaking facilities and cellar aren’t in a particularly historic setting — you won’t find gorgeous vaulted ceilings and the walls are of plain chalk rather than brick. But we loved the wacky mural in the courtyard and the intimacy of the tasting room, which feels more like someone’s living room with its worn furnishings and family photos.
There — and no place yet in the US — you can taste what these ladies have created; the six Champagnes on offer include their best known, the Brut Carte Noire Grand Cru and the Brut Rosé Premier Cru, a fruity yet thoroughly balanced rosé. Prices are also quite agreeable, with non-vintages hovering around $20.
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