Guest Wines Tour de France
Leaving home at 7am we hit the road, sad to leave our little Tibby behind but excited at our French adventure ahead, plus we knew his lordship was in good hands with his very own support crew!
After a very easy drive south, we arrived at the Eurotunnel port. Having never experienced this before it was quite exciting and amazingly easy. We were even early enough to catch a train one hour earlier than booked. It’s a strange experience driving onto a train, then travelling at 110mph underwater without actually moving the car! If you haven’t travelled by Eurotunnel, we would recommend it. The return cost just over £100 and although it takes time driving to Folkestone and then onto your French destination, the fun is in the journey and this is day 1, not just a day lost to travel – we also got to see a bit more of England and of France as well!
We arrived in the northern Champagne region in the early evening. It has a noticeably flat landscape and besides the obvious vine, other types of agriculture featured such as potatoes and sunflowers. Although a lot of the Champagne vines were on slopes, many seemed to be on flat land. We would be hard pressed to say that the surrounding countryside matched the grandeur of the drink itself. Often, it seemed to be more in contrast: one dimensional and flat!
Also not reminiscent of our “atypical” picture of Champagne was the location of our Hotel Première Classe (yep, living the dream!), which was located within a business park on the outskirts of Reims (not pronounced ‘reems’ but ‘rance’ as we were corrected). Compact, decent and clean but most importantly, within budget (though French budget hotels are pricier than their English equivalent). Why waste good money on expensive accommodation when there’s Champagne to be bought (which surely must be in our budget, right?)!
The following day we headed to Ay, South of Reims on the outskirts of Épernay, and our appointment at René Geoffroy Champagne House.
The harvest, la vendange, had commenced the day before with attention being focused on the red grapes – the rosés were first in line, and although he was rather busy with all the harvest activity going on, we got to meet the man responsible for these wonderful wines, none other than Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy.
Anne, the Champagne House secretary, gave us a tasting and showed us around the winery. We were also lucky to witness the traditional Coquard wooden presses in action, pressing the grapes harvested that morning, with the dark juice flowing into stainless steel tanks on the floor below, gravity-fed as this is a more gentle procedure.
It is difficult to have a favourite of those we tasted as the quality of all was excellent, the Brut Expression, 50% Pinot Meunier, 40% Pinot Noir & 10% Chardonnay, was light and fresh whereas the Brut Volupté 2006, 80% Chardonnay & 20% Pinot Noir, was richer, spicier and wafted those recognisable Champagne yeast aromas.
This producer also makes a limited number of still Pinot Noir wines (Cumières Rouge Traditionnel), which is interestingly a non-vintage blend of grapes from 2002, 2004, 2007 and 2009. He also makes Pinot Meunier still wines by the bottle, unfortunately the latter was sold out but we did pick up the Pinot Noir, which we are looking forward to trying.
Afterwards, we decided to take a leisurely stroll around Ay. It was an amazing feeling walking around and seeing so many world famous Champagne houses in close proximity to one another in such a small quiet village, surrounded on all sides by vines.
You really don’t appreciate just how big the Champagne department is until you take a drive from Montagne de Reims to reach the Côte des Bar, a mere 20km from Burgundy, where we were destined for our next appointment at Louise Brison in Noé Les Mallets.
A three hour drive took us from flat open plains, through forest and idyllic villages to reach this Estate in the Aube department. We arrived fairly late in the afternoon, though Julie (Assistante Commerciale) was aware of our drive and had kindly agreed to wait beyond her usual closing time to receive us. And glad of this we were as we were treated to some excellent wines.
Julie displayed her wealth of knowledge for these Champagne’s and took her time so that we could really appreciate what we were drinking.
We were impressed to learn that every wine produced here is vintage, apart from the rosé, bottles from each year dating back to 1991 were on display and available to purchase all at very reasonable prices.
We particularly enjoyed tasting the Brut millésime 2007, 50/50 Pinot Noir/Chardonnay, which had a lovely balance of fruit and toasty notes, and the Cuvée Tendresse Blanc de Blancs millésime 2005, 100% Chardonnay, which had a much more expressive nose displaying creamy fruit and hazelnut richness.
The harvest had not yet started here but was due to commence the coming Monday. It was fascinating to witness the procession of caravans and mobile homes that were being parked up next to vineyards creating small villages in themselves, in readiness for this event.
We definitely came away from Champagne with far more questions left unanswered and the desire to return to explore this region in far more detail than our quick whistle stop tour.
We were now on our way to our next destination. Though not in too much of a hurry so as not to take in Essoyes, a quietly picturesque village that the impressionist artist Renoir loved, spending many summers of his life here with his wife (originally from this town). Taking a walk around “Du Côté des Renoir” and seeing first hand where some of his inspiration was gained it was entirely understandable why he loved it so and in gratitude to this, the village displays various Renoir creations as large murals on the side of buildings all over the village. There was certainly an air of something serene and peaceful here.
Darkness soon fell upon us and unfortunately so did a diversion that took us miles out of the way of our original route. Feeling like we were driving blind in the dark with the fuel indicator creeping down lower and lower and no sign of a petrol station for at least 50 miles or so, we were preparing ourselves for a possible night of sleeping in the car (still looking on the bright side, we did have Champagne!). Running on empty, we finally found somewhere to fill up that accepted our credit card, having earlier discovered that certain petrol stations only accept French cards (silly us for mistaking France as being a part of Europe)!
Finally, after getting lost in yet another business park (in our defence, apart from lack of any signage, they also look the same), we found our budget hotel. Though, what is it with not providing a kettle at these places? Tea = civilisation! So off to bed we went to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for taking on Chablis.
Follow us to Chablis next …