There are few liquids regularly used in bars that I know less about than Champagne and I would imagine I am not unusual in that regard, so when Joe Gunner from Moet Hennessy UK got in touch to say he was putting a trip to Champagne together I was there.
As I arrived at the Eurostar terminal early doors I saw a group of people up ahead, like a mirage they slowly came into focus as I approached and immediately my mind took me back to the conversation with Joe.
‘I am picking a crack team to take on this trip.’
‘Like the A-Team.’
‘Kind of…. no not really. I want to get together the best group I can to show them all Champagne,to see where their levels are at and to pave the way for future trips with more bartenders.’
‘You’ve hand picked them?’
‘And you want me to come and cover it?’
‘You sure about this?’
As the mirage came into focus it became clear just how dangerous this was. Russell Burgess, Andy Mil, Dan Berger, Ian McIntyre, Alastair Fraser, Rhys Wilson and Liam Broom. All sat there. In the next 15 minutes we were joined by even more people that would on their own make a trip something to fear (well see for yourself in the pic).
Imagine getting up to heaven and discovering on day one that you were going on a pub crawl with Andre The Giant, Peter O’Toole, Ernest Hemingway and Oliver Reed. Sure you’d be excited about the night ahead, but there would be a certain amount of fearing for your health, sanity and general wellbeing. That was the feeling I had going through the Eurostar checkin.
The phrase calm before the storm was potentially invented for our trip over. The early start and general group lack of sleep ensured that we arrived in Lille fresh and fancy free. A coach drive to our first destination, the Veuve Clicquot Champagne House in Reims, saw the poshest pack lunch of all time (it involved lobster) being consumed with gusto, and saw the first mutterings of thirst spreading.
What a Madame
Before we could get our lips around a glass of champagne however there was a tour of the Veuve Clicquot cellars to navigate. As it turned out the cellars were magnificent and fascinating. Chiseled out of the rock on which Reims is built the cellars stretch out underneath an ever expanding chunk of the town as the brand expands.
Suped-up golf buggies whizzed past with trailers piled high with clinking bottles, which made the inevitable staring up at the gravity defying roofs of rock a dangerous pastime. Attention was soon transferred to the rows upon rows of dust covered bottles that lined every wall of the caves. In fact there are well over 40 million bottles underneath the streets of Reins in the Veuve cellars alone.
As our tour guide took us through the cellars we started on our Champagne education.
Things I didn’t know #1 – When champagne was first introduced to the world the sweetness levels were not only different for different countries pallets but also huge. Russia had the sweetest pallets with around 250 grams of residual sugar per litre of champagne, to put that into perspective modern day Coca-Cola has about 110 grams. It was actually the English that had the driest tastes with ‘just’ 120-150 grams added, again to put that into perspective modern day Brut Champagne can have no more than 15g of sugar per litre.
The history of Veuve Clicquot is equally as interesting with a whole raft of ‘firsts’ under its belt. Established in 1772 it may have not been the first to exist (that is an honour belonging to Ruinart or Gosset depending on who you listen to) it quickly became famous for pushing the boundaries.
Most of this boundary pushing came from Madame Clicquot (Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin before marrying into the family in 1798) who took over the company when her husband died in 1805, in fact Veuve, in French, means widow. In 1811 at the end of the Napoleonic War she ensured that her champagne was the first to enter Russia, mainly by being sneaky and ballsy, which ensured a huge rise in sales.
She also ensured that the Prussian guards manning the blockade were favoured with bottles of Veuve. They rode horses and had swords, so of course the only logical thing to do was open the bottles with their swords, so began the art of sabering. Okay so that is only one explanation of how it began and I imagine most champagne houses have a similar claim, but hey she was a cool (and scary) lady so I’m going with the widow.
It is her exacting eye that gave her arguably her most lasting legacy. Whilst Madame Clicquot loved the taste of her champagne she wasn’t keen on the cloudy appearance. She noticed that if she shook the bottles the sediment would come off the sides and eventually settle at the bottom, she then cut a load of holes into her kitchen table to store the bottles upended ensuring the sediment ended up in the neck and was therefore easier to discard. Resulting with a nice clear liquid.
In 1810 she employed a clever bloke by the name of Anton Muller to improve the process which became known as riddling. Nowadays it is pretty much entirely automated using fancy machines but in the cellars they have a couple of guys on hand to show the old process to visitors, not only riddling the champagne by hand but also disgorging (removing the sediment) by candlelit and, after the addition of a touch of sugar, putting in the cork by hand. As romantic and fascinating as it was, it is a real pain in the arse and I imagine everyone is pleased it is now an automised system.
One thing I’ve noticed is the more I learn the thirstier I get, after an hour in the Veuve cellars I was parched. Luckily they had us covered and we headed into the rather fancy tasting room for, amazingly, our first drop of the day.
Another of the firsts I mentioned earlier under Veuve Clicquot’s belt is Rosé Champagne. For once it was before Madame Clicquot’s time, in 1775 they were credited as the first house to produce rosé. These days the man charged with making the rosé for them is Pierre Casenave and our group were lucky enough to have him take us through a Rosé Champagne tutored tasting.
Rosé only makes up 10% of all production of champagne but it is a category on the rise, in 1998 it was only 3% of production. One of the issues is that it has traditionally be hard to make as the red wine grapes need to be ‘ripe’ before they can be used to make the red wine used in rosé production. Due to the nature of the area this is rare in the Champagne region, or rather it was, with global warming (breaking news: it’s real) the average temperatures have risen allowing the grapes to ripen earlier.
Things I didn’t know #2 – Rosé wine and rosé champagne are made using very different techniques. Rosé wine is, mostly, made by a very brief maceration of dark grape skins with the juice. However rosé champagne is made by adding up to 15% of red wine to the traditional champagne wine before the ageing process begins.
With this production method in mind, after a glass or two of the end product, we were taken through a tasting of the various red wines that Pierre uses each year to make the red wine blend, ensuring the consistency of their main rosé offering. The most striking thing about the red wines we tried was that they were, on the whole, not particularly great.
Each of them however did have very distinctive characteristics, it is Pierre’s job to not only get the balance right between them all but to know how they are going to work with the base champagne product as well as how they will change with age and the addition of the sugar. His knowledge and passion was infectious and, is often the case, armed with more knowledge I found myself enjoying rosé champagne as I never had before.
As The Saying Goes
Don’t drink champagne and make bets. That may not be a saying that exists but it really should.
After checking into our rather swish hotel (and before all the staff hated us – looking at you James Drummond) we were transported to the palatial Hotel Du Marc, Veuve Clicquot’s own private hotel…. as you do.
We were greeted with a large goblet (think Spanish G&T serve glassware) full of ice, fizzy liquid and slices of peppers, it was our introduction to Veuve’s newest innovation Rich. Rich is a champagne that has been designed to mix in cocktails and be served over ice. Now I must admit the name and concept had my cynical hackles up, but before I knew it my glass was empty and I was heading for a refill.
After a brief introduction to the brand the group were tasked with a mission, using the plethora of fresh ingredients and a range of bitters etc come up with a new serve for Rich (either standard or rosé). All had to be over ice and in the same goblet glasses but apart from that they were free to get as creative as they wished.
The selection of ingredients certainly allowed for a whole world of opportunities. The expected citrus fruits, herbs etc were joined by some really weird and wonderful options. As the group gathered around and played the ‘what the hell is this?’ game, I made my first betting mistake.
Over the years I have judged Andy Mil in many a competition and drunk even more of his creations at Cocktail Trading Company. He has a habit of being able to put together ingredients that shouldn’t work and make something delicious. In the excitement of the surroundings I decided to test his skills.
‘Hey Andy, how about a little bet.’
‘I get to pick the ingredients you have to use.’
‘Alright but in return you have to publish a picture of me and my wife on our wedding day.’
‘Done. Not much of a bet though, if you get picked as the winner I will run it as the featured image on our homepage.’
‘And if I don’t win.’
‘Hmmmmm beers on you?’
‘Ohhhhh it’s on’
Now as I sit here and write this exchange out it seems a little ridiculous but what I knew then was what was available to give him. As I handed over plum, black radish and red onion I felt pretty smug.
A lesser man would have used one of those ingredients as a garnish but Andy, to his credit, didn’t back away and used all three in the heart of his creation. As I watched him work my confidence dropped a little but still there were over a dozen other great bartenders there using nice ingredients, I was safe.
After a quick judges tasting the winners (more than one which I thought was a little unfair) were announced. 20 seconds later I was curled up in a ball, Andy was grinning like a loon and a group of people existed who were never going to let me forget it. The winners each got a lovely bottle of vintage champagne and I got abuse.
Luckily the night was all uphill from there with a wonderful meal followed by table football (Russell cheats), darts (Andy Shannon is a boss), cigars and champagne….. lots and lots of champagne.
The next morning I felt remarkably well, it seems a champagne lifestyle agrees with me. Not smug enough to go on a ‘run along the river’ like some people but generally in fine form. Just as well as I was about to visit my second ever Champagne house and embark on my first ever vintage champagne tasting.
Before any corks were popped we headed to Epernay, the home of Moet & Chandon, and into one of their fields above the town. It was tranquil location and gave the group a great feel for just how much of the landscape in this part of France is dedicated to the production of champagne. Not just in the fields of grapes but in the processing plants dotted around, the amount of these so high due to the need to process the grapes, not only as quickly, but also as close to the fields, as possible.
Once at the Moet & Chandon site we were lucky enough to be hosted by Benoit Gouez, Chef de Cave (a much cooler way of saying Cellar Master), and a previous winner of Winemaker of the Year. This man knows his stuff and it was amazing to be able to learn from him, whilst enjoying a few drinks of course.
We learnt so much in the two tastings during the day (one non-vintage and one vintage) that it is too much to put in this article so head to this page for a tidied up version of my notes.
Benoit was not only hugely knowledgeable on the subject of Champagne but is a man who truly enjoys his work as well, so much so he is guilty of taking it home with him. He informed us that 50% of all Champagne produced is consumed in France, a point proven by the fact that at his impending ‘End of Summer’ Party he will be stocking 2 bottles of the stuff for each guest.
Things I didn’t know #3 – The ‘crus’ in Champagne which designate the quality of the grapes (Grand Cru being the finest, Premier Cru second etc) apply to whole villages not individual vineyards. As a result not all vineyards, under say a Grand Cru listing, produce grapes of the same quality.
In amongst all of this tasting there was time for a tour of the Moet & Chandon private cellar with our wonderful host Andrea Marx. As it turns out when you have seen one champagne cellar you haven’t seen them all. In this instance whilst the sheer size wasn’t as impressive the caves dug into the rock filled with row upon row of champagne bottles were a hell of a site.
A spot of lunch in the impressive grounds of the house was also lined up, sitting in dappled sunlight, drinking Champagne and listening to average chat was a lovely way to spend a couple of hours. We also got to try the new Ice range.
Like Veuve Rich, Moet Ice is designed to be served in large goblets over cubes of ice. Once again we were surprised just how well it went down and can certainly see bottles being very popular in hot beachside bars in the likes of Ibiza, LA and Bondi (although they both need to have a word with the marketing department as far as brand naming goes).
Not So Quiet
Taking a group of bartenders out after giving them a taste for vintage champagne was enough to put a touch of fear into the back of Joe’s eyes, luckily for him none of us are that fancy, as was proved at our second stop for the evening.
There was time to line our stomachs before hitting the nightlife of Epernay howeer. There was food, there was champagne, there was even a sparkler adorned cake for Daniel Schofield’s birthday. Suddenly it became apparent we were the only group left in the restaurant. It was officially time to move on.
It was only a certain amount of time before this particular group went rouge and at our next stop, a bonkers bar/club/restaurant in, even more, caves, the cork was realised. The waitress came to our table, took the order, look confused and left. 20 mins later she returned with a Jeroboam of blanc de blanc (complete with yet another birthday sparkler) and 21 Blue Lagoons.
When we’d learnt about the amount of sugar in Russian champagne the day before my brain had struggled to comprehend just how sweet that must have been. One sip of the Blue Lagoon and I knew. Holy shit that was some sugary stuff, any tiredness was gone. It was time to hit the Karaoke bar.
After a quick Magnum of vodka and an impromptu Star Wars lightsaber fight in the club downstairs we moved up to the main karaoke room to show the locals just how bad singing after too much booze should be done.
I’m pretty sure when Frank Sinatra sung about his regrets he was referring to karaoke. Once again crimes to music were in force. The classic ‘Angels’ was sung in its entirety without a single correct note being hit. Russell was serenaded by an enthusiastic young man with ‘Redemption Song’.
However the highlight of the night was trying to get a room of very confused French people to join in with the sitting down and jumping up moves surrounding Bjork’s ‘Oh So Quiet’. It didn’t work, we got strange looks, it was probably time to leave.
The next morning with my ears still begging for mercy there was a final workshop to get an idea of the groups opinions on champagne in general and what, if any, preconceptions had been changed by the trip. It seemed, like me, most if not all the group had gained a lot from our time in Champagne. Liam had even managed to gain the ability to no longer be able to sit on a chair.
The traditional, let’s spend the entire journey on the Eurostar back stood in the bar carriage, was filled with praise for the trip. A special thanks to Joe for putting it all together and teaching an old dog a hell of a lot of new tricks and to everyone from Veuve and Moet for looking after us so well.
If you get the call from Joe asking if you want to go to Champagne, don’t pause, don’t hesitate and don’t ask who else who else is going….. sometimes it’s best not to know.