But my desire got the best of me. Champagne was only two hours away… and I had never seen it! How could I come this far, and be sooooo close. We just had to.
I lucked out and Jonathan had a half a day to spare on Friday, so we ventured out of the Chantilly forest with a friend into the wide open sea of soft rolling green hills, dusted with yellow flora and bathed in a robe of low lying misty fog. I would have taken a picture if it would have done justice. But I am not sure even a National Geographic professional could have summed up exactly how that vision felt on my eyes. It was so remarkable. So simple and serene, yet a picture of perfection I had never quite seen in my entire life. It was kind of like the scene in the Wizard of Oz with the poppies. You only hope to see such evidence of spring in full motion, but you assume it doesn’t exist after a while…or, at least, after a long winter. It is a healthy, positive reminder that all is temporary, no matter how bleak life (or lifeless winter) seems.
We had no real hopes of going to a small estate-run vineyard in Epernay or the like, as we made no reservations beforehand. Instead, we went straight for the industrial town of Reims in Champagne and made peace with the idea of visiting a huge Champagne house. To be honest, I was kind of glad to start at Pommery. It was designed for tourons like myself, with English-speaking guided tours that discussed the history, formation and business of Champagne. After reviewing Veuve, Moet, and the like, Pommery stood out as THE place to visit for the ‘big house’ experience.
We decended over one hundred steps into the depths of Pommery’s cave–the result of chalk quarrying over 2,000 years ago by Roman slaves. Madame Pommery assumed the business after her husband’s death in 1858 and shortly thereafter built the impressive estate that stands today over a system of connected chalk caverns that cover 55 acres of subearth. By 1874, she revolutionized the bubbly wine by making it drier, for even the sweet-toothed English found Champagne ridiculously luscious and unappetizing. Her winemaker found a way to make it lighter, drier and more palatable for a fresh aperitif beverage. Alas, brut style was born and took the world by storm.
Evidence of their world demand is seen etched on the cavern cubbies, as ‘Buenos Aires’, ‘Manchester’ and ‘Principaute de Monaco’ take up just a fraction of the 20 million bottles that rest in the perfectly humid, 50 degree Farenheit cellar. Peppering the tour is an ode to modern art as well. It was one of the strangest juxtaposed exhibitions I have ever witnessed: neons reading ‘bar’ backwards, clay sculptures of hippos and film strips of black faced people (painted) only begins to describe it. It was odd, for sure.
The guide was very helpful and walked everyone through the process of Champagne production. At the end, we sipped on a ’99 Cuvee Louise to celebrate the occassion. It was a fine, richly-noted, nutty glass of fizz. But my allegience will always be with true, recolant-manipulant ‘grower’ Champagnes–the ones that are grown, produced and bottled on the estate. A rarity to say the least in a wine region dominated by negociant/co-op grown bubbles.
We ate at a rather corny diner-type, non-descript tourist trap within eyesight of the famous Cathedrale de Reims. Although the restaurant seemed like a total fail upon sitting down, they proved to have sensational duck confit with mashed potato overlay. We made our way back to the hotel.
That evening, while Jonathan did his thing with sponsors and riders, I joined a couple friends for an unreal dinner in the village of Chantilly at a little restaurant called Le Vertugadin. I could discuss it in detail, but you all know the story. Solid wine (not over the top in price and grandeur…but just yummy Girardin Pouilly Fuisse (not Fume…so Chardonnay from Burgundy, not Sauv Blanc from Loire) and 08 Pinot from Magnien Nuits St George alongside a near perfect meal representative of a people with pride, modesty and dignity. So much care do they take in putting forth their very best, they reminded us to merely tell them if the pommes frites sat too long. They would promptly make some fresh so they remained the perfect temperature for optimal consumption. I was blown away by this quaint, quiet eatery.