Oddly enough, Champagne is not packed out with tourists and is amazingly unspoilt country for the interested wanderer. Despite this, most champagne producers will hold degustations of their wines on the premises at a pretty nominal charge and a good number will also offer tours of their facilities: ‘visites des caves’. There are also a number of shops in Epernay, Reims and elsewhere that aggregate selections of the big name producers and some of the more distinguished smaller names and offer advice and even degustation, although you’re often starting to approach bar prices for a glass of pop.
The best way to get a good grounding in what’s going on, however, is to visit a couple of the larger houses and ‘do the tour’. Here’s a look at what you might expect from some of the bigger brands around. Do bear in mind we did these throughout a week of pleasing ourselves, wandering around the region, dropping into small producers, sampling wines and generally rooting around. If you did these tour things all one after the other you’d go mad. At the end, I’ll tell you how you can save a few hours and a good few Euro to boot...
Perhaps fascinatingly, we found that the character and nature of each tour was reflected pretty much in the champagne that ended it: from the impeccable uber-corporate style and efficiency of Moet to the appalling FU Taittinger, we found that the wine was like the place, people and public relations. So you can also read these write-ups as tasting notes!!!
Moet et Chandon
This is the slickest, classiest tour of the lot – an experience that starts as you make your way across the gravel driveway up the grey steps past the decorative bay trees and through into the light, airy and stylish visitors reception at Moet et Chandon's Rue de Champagne megalopolis. You have three options (bare naked, with vintage or vintage aplenty happy ending) and, slightly tackily, get handed a voucher denoting your ‘class’ of degustation. You’re then met by a slick, crisp young thing in a suit (ours was called Rupert) and escorted to the video room: a white and glass cream and black affair with square lines, cream linen drapes and a free-standing plasma screen on a black obelisk and surround sound speakers mounted on the walls. There you are drawn cleverly into a corporate video that is slicker than Slick McSlick the Turkish oil wrestling champion, all calligraphy on vellum, fat grapes, oaken barrels and fine bubbly moments in iridescent glass: classical music and a deep, calming voice-over talking with authority and gravitas. From there, it’s down to the cellars and a walk around the cleverly lit and arranged stacks of bottles that one suspects are set aside just for the tours. Rupert is arch, starched, coldly amused (and amusing) and has definitely been fitted out with a high quality rectally inserted glass rod.
The trip around the cellars is informative, impressive and impeccably conducted. There’s barely a glimpse of the industrial scale operation that must power the output of some 60 million bottles a year from the LVMH cellars – and that’s precisely because we’re being subjected (having paid our €25 for the pleasure) to a totally on-brand experience.
At the end we’re met with Rupert’s three sharp-suited colleagues who pour out trays of the product, each group of voucher holders getting to approach their respective trays. We’re flying at the front and tasting a 2000 vintage brut and a 2000 vintage rosé. Both are spectacular wines, fruity, deep and yet dry and clean, the two providing a delightful contrast and finishing a thoroughly stylish, crisp and enjoyable tour of Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s champagne world domination experience.
There could be no greater counterpoint to Moet’s tour than that offered by Castellane which is, in fact, owned by LVMH anyway. However, the relationship is definitely at the balance sheet level alone as the two houses, their tours and products could hardly be different.
Visitors enter a large hall that has more in common with a slightly dodgy bier keller than a champagne house: tacky barrel bottom tables are scattered around the high-roofed reception area: there are smashing posters on the walls from old Castellane campaigns – but on asking if they were on sale we were directed to a small poster selector which had four or five of the third rate designs in tatty, scratched plastic covering. We gave poster art a miss. Oddly, only Mercier sells any poster art and that a limited range – yet most of these companies have long produced stunning, defining poster art.
One strange bonus at Castellane is the museum at the back of the reception area – you can take a wander around this as you wait for your tour to be called out and it’s got some amazing things in it, including a pristine example of the first ever telegraph, with its original pre-QWERTY keyboard and an old hot metal composition station. Amazing finds for the historically minded geek.
At Castellane, you begin the cellar tour with an introduction to the region and the grapes, led by a young lady with an almost impenetrable French accent. She’s perfectly pleasant, but after Rupert’s Teutonic efficiency, she seems bumbling. The tour proper is commenced by entering the tackiest doorway in champagne: a barrel. Feeling not unlike Bilbo Baggins, you drop down to the first production level, the gigantic steel vats containing the wines, the honest clean-room tiled walls and industrial pumps at least leaving us feeling that champagne was actually being produced here in tenable volumes. From there it’s down again to the cellars, an impressive walk around and the usual introduction to remouage and the like before climbing back up to sample the output of Maison Castellane.
The champagne itself is disappointing, it lacks definition or character, doesn’t surprise or delight. It’s an ordinary old brut, no vintages to be had here. We asked about the ‘Commodore’, the most expensive wine sold in the shop – it had an interesting name and a different bottle shape – was there perhaps some nautical connotation? Our guide didn’t know. We bought a bottle anyway and took it home to try it. Again, not a wine that stood out in any way from the sort of glug you’d expect to be doled out at a corporate day out done on the cheap.
Castellane gets full credit for being a genuine tour around a full production environment, and I would say it was worth doing it for the museum alone, but it didn’t produce any wows or insights. At €8.50, it also didn’t produce a champagne that deserved attention.
This is the Dubai of Epernay’s Avenue de Champagne: Mercier is modern, slick and polished.
Even the toilets are fully automatic, sculpted and mood-lit. Visitors wait for their tour to start in an airy, tiled reception area decorated with the huge champagne barrel that was originally used to cart champagne to the world’s fair in Paris or some such gumpf. Apparently the barrel caused more fuss than the Eiffel Tower, which sounded like a load of old tut to me.
Interestingly, old man Mercier was something of a PR guru – the barrel stunt was followed by other attention-getters, including exclusive tastings held in hot air balloons over Paris.
The Mercier tour starts with a video played across three screens in a darkened room. It’s a bit ‘in your face’ after Moet’s slick plasma screen exclusive preview style experience; the images come too fast and there’s text in English and French as well as a voice over to deal with. It’s all too much information and too little content, the video feels like a sort of multimedia version of a Chinese takeaway: there's a huge rush of intense things going on, but two minutes afterwards you just feel empty and unfulfilled.
And then to the brushed steel lifts (another Dubai moment) and an achingly slow journey down past a series of champagne-themed tableaux that Fodor’s called ‘excruciating’ – an adjective that won Fodor’s my eternal respect (incidentally, we found the Fodor’s Guide pretty much bang on the money throughout and would recommend it heartily). 32 metres (and some awful papier mache tack) later and the multinational group of slightly bewildered-looking tourists were led to a train.
Yes, a train.
It doesn’ t run on rails, but it’s like a ride in a kids’ amusement park: guided by light, our fibreglass cars take us along the cellars as our guide tells us how champagne is made. By now, we’ve sort of heard it all before, but amuse ourselves taking photographs and enjoying the strange majesty of all those bottles laid out over kilometres of cellars (the longest of the lot is Moet at 17 miles of chalk cellars: Mercier sports a 1km stretch at one point. It’s all pretty impressive underground storage, really).
And then we stop and are disgorged into the tasting area cum shop at the end of the ‘experience’. Oddly enough, the champagne’s great – again we opted for the full-on happy ending three-glass experience and sample Mercier’s brut, an excellent vintage rose and the 2004 Vendange, which I was subsequently compelled to buy because it was just, well, plain good. A fine champagne, not particularly heart-stopping or complex, but just fine. The Mercier brut is, however, averagely average. In an average sort of way – a triumph, perhaps, of marketing over content.
Veuve Clicquot is an appointment-only experience and we have to book two days ahead because
they’re full. So our 10am appointment in Reims becomes something of an issue when we only manage to leave our delightful gite in Baye, 20 minutes south of Epernay, easily an hour away from Reims, at 9.20am. We’re lucky, driving two fast cars and able to make Epernay in a record 20 minutes. Then we hit the red lights, the diversion, the grannies and the Sunday drivers. We get lost and it turns into a running gag, a sitcom race to get to the Holy Grail of champagne on time, a true white-knuckle ride. There’s no second chance – it’s this slot or nothing.
We leave Epernay, finally on the right road, at 9.45. We call ahead – yes, they can delay for us but only a little while as there are other people booked for the same time. They can wait until 10.20am maximum. Recriminations, directions, explosions and frustrations follow. Every lorry in France has decided to drive in front of us. It’s an awful, John Cleese Clockwise trip: we get to Reims and try to find the right road first time: 12 Rue Temple. And then, miraculously, at 10.15am precisely we’re there, driving into the gorgeous paved frontage that is Veuve Clicquot at Reims, sweetie darling. We’re exhilarated, punching the air, dancing up the impressive stairs to reception. We smile at the friendly but efficient-looking receptionist in the light, stylish reception area. She explains that this is head office. The tour takes place ten minutes away at the caves, the other side of Reims.
This is not a good moment.
For the first time, we curse the stupid sods at Fodor’s, who give the wrong address for the tour at Veuve Clicquot. We race out again, imploring the girl at reception to call ahead for us. In an amazing feat of driving and navigation, we make it over to the ‘other’ Veuve Clicqout in less than five minutes.
“Forgive us: we’re English, stupid and late” I gasp in French as we all burst into reception.
The guy at reception grins: “Well, that’s not a bad start, is it?” he says in English, and then sorts everything out like a Bollywood hero dealing with the last minute slew of baddies between him and Jagantha, his childhood love. We join the tour, which has been delayed but eventually gone ahead without us. They all hate us, but we don’t care. We made it.
The guide is gushy, gawky, nervous and giggly, a little like Safi’s Chinese girlfriend in AbFab. She’d be the stuff of pastiche and cruel comedy except you quickly realise that she’s informative, engaging and passionate about her subject. The cellars are marvellous, working cellars but nevertheless lit in ‘on brand’ orange and white mood lighting. The stairs down are a purposefully grand entrance, a marvellous trip down into the cavernous, cool, damp chalk corridors below.
Just in case you didn’t know, veuve is French for widow – the house of Veuve Clicquot was founded by the Widow Clicquot and it was she who invented the process of remouage or riddling that is used to clear champagne of the lees, or sediment from the second fermentation that takes place in the bottle. Prior to her riddling rack, other methods such as turning the bottles upside down in sand were tried, but were unreliable and led to huge burst rates (and no, we’re not talking bandwidth optimisation here) . The Veuve was ahead of the curve in more ways that one – it was she who got the Russian Tsar to break his normal habit of toasting victories and the like with vodka and use champagne instead. The industry never looked back – since that day, champagne has been the drink of celebration of dukes and dustmen, dictators and democrats.
Genuine, passionate and engaged, our guide actually cares about this stuff. And it’s glorious. No question phases her, no technicality wrong-foots her. She’s way on top of her game and desperately helpful, too. It’s a slightly unnerving combination, but a delight all the same. We end the visit on a magnum of Veuve vintage rose, complicated, deep and delicious, floral and berry-laden, brilliant on the tongue and grin-inducing - there’s not a great deal that’s wrong with the world – we all buy a lot of vintage stuff from Veuve Clicquot and all agree we will always have a preference for this finest of champagnes.
Buy the 2002 rose. Buy the 1995 Brut. And if you are feeling utterly wicked, buy the 1990. And if you see a bottle of Veuve Brut rich, give it a try – it’s a slightly sweeter brut, but not a demi-sec and it’s a marvellous wine. We like Veuve.
The girl at reception’s cold as ice, her smile is pure switch-on, switch-off. The tour’s at four, so get your tickets at €10 each and come back then. The usual mish-mash of slightly confused looking Koreans, a few loud Yanks and some shuffling Dutch – they’re all waiting on the sofas, wondering what’s going to happen next, what indignities are going to be heaped on their dumb, sheep-like heads in the name of champagne tourism. And then in she glides, our guide: a vision from the makeup counter at Debenhams with a violent slash of pink lipstick splashed across her indifferent features, all hairspray, tight skirt and utterly inappropriate pointy-toed shoes. We all hate her from the start but nobody can remember her name. Even during the tour.
We’re led, shuffling, into a semi-dark room and sat on squeaky seats. Is that a tin of Cyclon B I see in the corner, just before the lights are extinguished? Nothing happens, and then after a squeaky –seated eternity, a crap video plays. It does add the historical footnote that the Chardonnay grape was brought to France from Palestine by the Crusaders, but precious little else. And then the screen suddenly reads PanasonicVideoInput3NoInput and the long, pregnant, silent (punctuated by the occasional squeaky seat) pause ends with the clipclop of expensively shod feet and the neon lights flickering on as our tour guide leads us out of the room.
She drags us down flights of spiral stairs to the cellars where we’re shuffled around before being mumbled at. We shuffle along to another place where we’re mumbled at some more. There’s lots of monotone drone, French-accented lazy language, inprecise enough to be irritating, just on the verge of comprehensible. This is one tour too many for us and we’re inattentive and failing to hang on her every rote word. And she loathes us for it, throwing us the odd dirty look and getting grins back.
We will none of us forgive Taittinger for this awful drag around their lacklustre cellars, some photogenic bottle stacks interspersed by the drone of mademoiselle indifferente – a secretary turned PR gimp, a begrudging guide to something she doesn’t care a flying fuck about for people she holds in obvious contempt.
The champagne’s as indifferent as she is – served up for the animals to come and get a gulp in a large, uncomfortable room with no displays, care or character to it whatsoever. There’s a price list up on the wall and a hatchet-faced woman behind a counter taking orders. This isn’t a happy place and we drink up quickly as frog-features stands obviously talking to her friend about us all. We leave without buying a thing. There’s nothing here we want. I will never forgive Taittinger.
Save your money. Book an appointment at Veuve Clicquot with plenty of advance warning. If you want to, swing by Moet et Chandon as well. Both are excellent and come highly recommended. If you feel like being a little different, then we’d suggest taking a quick trip off the beaten track and taking a tour at small independent producer Canard Duchane, which you’ll find just south of Reims.
But don’t do more than two champagne tours in total and, ideally, space them a few days apart – do one at the beginning of your time in champagne and one towards the end. In between, drop into the many shops and independent producers in the region and get chatting to people, sampling the drink and asking your questions of the actual producers. Be inquisitive and searching – people tend to respond really well to genuine interest and even the daftest questions are handled politely and with as much gravity as if they came from experienced oenologists.