Another year older (almost) and so another birthday trip was required. The location had been one of much debate, with food and wine of course being at the forefront of the main requirements. Eventually it was decided by flight times and we opted for the Champagne region of France – flying in and out of Paris on an after-work flight on Friday and a late flight on Sunday. This meant doing the trip without taking any leave preserving those precious days for a future opportunity. And so, it was with that that I found myself sitting at the Champagne bar in Edinburgh Airport – Flutes and Tails enjoying a rather delicious Scottish cheeseboard before boarding our short one and a half hour flight to Paris CDG. We arrived and took the train into Gare du Nord and given the beautiful late evening weather walked the 20 minutes to our hotel just in front of neighbouring station Gare de l’Est. Our requirements for the room had been to be in close proximity to the station for our train the next morning and cheap and so at £100 a night the Timhotel Gare de l’Est was a nicely decorated option with a fantastic location. We settled in with a GnT and got organised for our early train before having the stomach dropping moment of realising that I had booked our train tickets for the wrong day. Since we had missed them earlier that day I took the hit and bought new ones for significantly more than we had originally paid. TRAVEL TIP: when travelling by train in Europe buying in advance definitely saves you a lot of money.
We awoke refreshed the next day and ready to explore the Champagne region. Thanks to our hotel being a 3 minute walk to the station we wandered over, and picked up breakfast from Paul of a pain au chocolat before boarding the train to Reims. It was a short 40 minute journey which gave us an opportunity to chill out before heading to our hotel – Cecyl Reims to drop our bags. It was VERY hot and I had unfortunately worn some new shoes the day before that had ended badly so we headed out to purchase some new shoes, plasters and sun-cream before making our way to the train station again to hop over to Epernay. We had a short wait for our train and so grabbed a glass of champagne to sip in the sun while we waited. After a beautiful journey of rolling vineyards we arrived around 12.30 and headed to find some lunch.
The town itself is very small and while there are a few touristy options next to the Avenue de Champagne only one didn’t seem to serve pizza and chips and so we opted for La Banque Brassrie. It didn’t look like much from the outside but inside it was gorgeous with high ceilings and a lovely sunny courtyard at the back where we sat. I opted to try the Pierre Peters champagne which was nice and light and then moved onto the Bergere which had slightly more body but was still lovely and light. Both champagnes went well with my main of veal fillet with Normand sauce served with somewhat lumpy mash. It says something about a place when the amuse bouche of a cold gazpacho was better than the main but it was a lovely sunny afternoon to sit in the sun. The staff were…. slow and so getting the bill took some time which meant we had to hotleg it over to Moet in time for our pre-booked cellar tour. TRAVEL TIP: with regard to Epernay you don’t have to book any of the cellars other than this one. Everyone who arrived and tried to join our tour was told they had to come back the next day.
Moet and Chandon is a world famous champagne and the Champagne house is one of the largest in the region with a whopping 28km of cellars to store over 28,000,000 bottles which are produced by the house annually. We started our tour learning about the history of the house which was initially established in 1743 by Clause Moet. King Louis XV was a particular fan of the sparkling stuff and regularly ordered bottles to the French court in Paris. The brand was renamed Moet et Chandon after Pierre-Gabriel Chandon was brought on board by Claude Moet’s grandson. What many people might not know is that Dom Perignon is actually a brand of Moet (the most expensive one and of course a vintage) and is named after a Benedictine Monk, a statue of whom is found outside the house.
We then headed down into the maze of cellars to learn about the champagne process. During harvest in September/October time hordes descend into the region to pick all of those tiny grapes. These are then juiced before adding yeast and leaving in stainless steel barrels with the lid off to let the carbon dioxide escape. This leaves you with a still white wine. The cellar master and his hands has the unenviable job of tasting all of these wines and blending them to make up the different champagne varieties the house produces. The 3 grapes on offer are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. These are grown in crus (villages) of which only 17 are grand crus which is less than 9% of the total region. Chardonnay is a white grape which gives the wine its biscuity taste while the other two red grapes add structure and floral aromas. After the blending the champagne is bottled and additional sugar and yeast is added to create the carbon dioxide reaction that produces the fizz we all know and love. The wine is left for one and a half years minimum with the bottles slowly being placed in a girder at the end of the period to tip them slowly to force the sediments into the neck of the bottle. Once these are here the neck of the bottle is frozen and opened where the sediment pops out and the bottle is topped up with additional wine and sugar before bottling. The recipes are obviously top secret but for Moet an average brut has 9g of sugar added whereas a demi-sec, one of the sweeter varieties has up to 43g. Something to think about for those watching their calories.
The cellars are kept at a chilly 10-12 degrees depending on depth year round which was a lovely respite from the scorching sun outside. We ascended up from the cellars below to enjoy the Imperial tasting of the Moet Imperial and the Moet Imperial Rose, the two entry level champagnes that the house produces. Both were nice but a bit too light for my taste. I am definitely more of a vintage girl which due to the minimum of 3 years ageing gives you a much stronger biscuit taste. We wandered through the very elaborate shop before making our way along the Avenue de Champagne to check out some of the lesser known houses. First up was Collard-Picard which had a lovely outside area where you could sip champagne in the sun. This was my favourite house that we visited however, it was also only one of 2 that we didn’t have the standard entry level champagnes so that may have coloured my judgement. For €18 you could choose from 3 champagnes of your choice. These included the standard brut varieties as well as their prestige varieties including the signature prestige, the grand cru blanc de blanc (100% chardonnay) and the demi-sec. It was a lovely friendly house and nice to try some of the more interesting wines as we did actually end up purchasing them.
After finishing our tasting we hopped along to Le Champagne de Vignerons. Again this was just a bar and tasting set-up with shop and given the heat of the day we opted to sit in the cool bar area for a bit of a break. The house was quite a small one in comparison to some of the other big hitters on the avenue which was nice with unusual shaped bottles with a very wide base and a thin neck. The champagne was enjoyable but nothing to blow us away. The young man serving us told us it was his first day and so maybe going forward he will be slightly more knowledgeable. Our final stop, and it was a bit of a rush, was L’Ecurie du Champagne de Venoge. This is a bar but owes its name to the Champagne house that used to call it home. We sampled a final glass of the fizzy delight, which I don’t remember being blown away by before hurrying back to the train station and our train back to Reims. Given the wares of the day and the incessant heat we arrived back and made a beeline for the hotel where we checked into a very dated room with strange wall art and dirty carpets that had not honoured our request for a twin room. Fantastic.
After a nice nap in our stiflingly hot room (there is no a/c in many rooms due to the normally mild wet climate of the region) I felt refreshed and ready for dinner. We had booked into Le Millenaire, a Michelin star restaurant in the heart of Reims. It was a short 10 minute walk from our hotel and quite unnoticeable as is the case with a lot of high end restaurants. We entered and were shown to our table in a busy dining room. From arrival it took quite some time to be served and be given drinks, not a great start. I ordered some champagne and we tucked into our amuse bouche of salmon sandwiches, pretty dry and terrible and a crab mousse which was ok. Nicola enjoyed the Spanish chorizo pastries. I then had 2 pre-starters since it was a swordfish tartare which was lovely and fresh and went very well with the creamy champagne notes. To start I had opted for the pan roasted foie gras (duck livers) with a rhubarb compote and roasted rhubarb matched with a beautifully creamy Chablis. Unfortunately the starter itself was nothing other than disgusting. The rhubarb was so sickly sweet none of the other flavours stood a chance and the duck was badly cooked and dripping in fat. What a disappointment – when you brandish a star you have to have the goods to live up to the associated expectations. Thankfully the main improved things with a turbot fillet on wilted spinach served with a champagne sauce and a parmesan crisp. This was really tasty and well executed but not mind-blowing enough to save the terrible starter. The matched viognier was another fantastic wine which I enjoyed with or without the food. I finished the meal with a soufflé which was light albeit overly sugary with the worst sorbet I have ever eaten, celery. It was truly awful and made even worse by the fact I wasn’t even offered a drink to help me through the monstrosity. We had had enough and ordered our bill which came with a sweet plantain crisp, a chocolate profiterole and an amazing jelly sweet. It is definitely doing some things right but for a €140 meal with a star it definitely doesn’t live up to any other Michelin establishment I have visited. After the disappointment of our meal we headed back to the hotel in the thankfully cooler night to open the windows and have a sweaty night of sleep ahead.