Archive for August 31st, 2008

Champagne

August 31, 2008

Our visitors were keen to look round a champagne vineyard and so I rang the two small producers I know only to find that the last two weeks in August were holiday time!

Nevertheless, I did find out that the big ‘houses’ were still open for tours.

We set off for Epernay as Reims is notoriously bad for traffic at present, due to roadworks in the centre.

The sat-nav worked pretty well until we arrived and then there were arguments. E had set it to find the church, thinking this would be pretty central but we were put off by detours – again due to roadworks – and everyone chipping in with directions.

We stopped by a church which happened to be in the grounds of a hospital so were able to ask directions from the man in reception.

“It’s just a kilometre that way”, he indicated, “Place de la Republique”.

Off we went, and sure enough, Moet et Chandon was open to visitors.

It was a very posh building and all the staff were dressed in uniform – reminiscent of waiters in a high class restaurant.

The ‘English Tour’ set off but included a group of Spanish tourists who were rather noisy and ill disciplined. The guide spoke English but very quietly and with a strong French accent so Bear and I gave up trying to hear what he said and just followed slowly behind.

Fortunately there was a break to sit down and watch a video but  it was not terribly informative being more like an advertisement for their chanpagne.

The descent to the cellars, 15 metres below ground, was mercifully gentle and there we were in the warren of 28 kilometres of champagne bottles.

Our guide was obviously explaining the process of making champagne but it was difficult to follow. In a nutshell it involves the following processes:

1: Fermentation alcoolique the sugar in the grapes becomes alcohol resulting in still wine. 
2: Assemblage du champagne: Various wines from different grapes and often different years are blended by the tasters.

3 : Mise en bouteille : The champagne is bottled with yeast and sugar

4: Fermentation malolactique : the yeast transforms the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The gas can’t escape and so it dissolves into the wine, producing bubbles.

5: Maturation : The bottles are stored horizontally in a cool, dark, chalk cellar for between 1 and 3 years. Strangely, the chalk keeps the cellar damp and this is important.

6: Dégorgement : During this time the bottles are transferred to sloping racks and turned daily for a period of 5 weeks so that the lees collect in the neck. At Moet at Chandon they turn 80,000 bottles a day.

The bottles are dipped into a liquid which freezes them to -28 degrees. Then they are opened and the pressure blows out the lollipop containing the lees. The bottles are topped up with more wine and sugar. The amount of sugar added at this point makes the champagne brut, sec, or demi-sec.

Finally the proper corks are put in and held down with wire and the bottles are labelled.

The tour finished with a tasting (13 euros entitled you to one glass, 20euros would give you two and for 25 euros you would be allowed to try a vintage chanpagne.)

We were then directed to the exit which led to the boutique. The cheapest champagne on offer was a 37.5litre gift box for 29 euros so we decided not to indulge. There were even Dom Perignon vintage champagnes on display for several hundred euros a bottle!

For anyone interested in working out the bottle sizes above, here’s a clue:

  • Quart – 20 cl
  • Demie – 37.5 cl
  • Magnum – 1.5 l
  • Jéroboam – 3 l
  • Réhoboam – 4.5 l
  • Mathusalem – 6 l
  • Salmanazar – 9 l
  • Balthazar – 12 l
  • Nabuchodonosor – 15 l

But don’t expect me to know the answers as there are ten sizes here (if you include the bottle at 75cl) and only eight in the photo!