In this last chapter of our Champagne week, Preston Mohr, our wines instructor and champagne tour guide for Cook'n with Class, takes us behind the scenes so to speak, of the world of champagne. This is just a taste of all the great things you can learn and enjoy on the champagne tour.
I am so excited to be part of the new tours to Reims, Champagne offered by Cook'n With Class. Reims is located in the heart of one of France's most exciting and history-rich regions and is now just a quick 45-minute train ride away from Paris's Gare de l'Est.
The tour includes transportation, guided visits in English at two different Champagne houses, lunch in a typical brasserie champenois and some free time to explore the magnificent cathedral.
On our inaugural trip to Reims, our first stop was to G.H. Mumm Champagnes. We were warmly welcomed into their reception area before being ushered into a small theater where we were shown a brief video in English on the production of Champagne and the history of Mumm. Most of the Champagne houses that I have visited start with a video, which I feel is great for people who are not yet familiar with the somewhat complicated and part magical process that is required.
Our charming and bilingual guide led us next to the basement level where we could see more of the production facilities. Although the area we visited is no longer in use, we were able to get a good idea of what their modern day production facilities must look like. Here, our guide also showed us examples of the three times grape varieties used in Champagne: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay.
Champagne is a wine that is very unique in that it's often a mixture of several years' harvests, parcels of vines and grape varieties (by law they can use any combination of the three grapes listed above). Mumm's signature Champagne features 77 different crus or different wines hailing from different locations all over the Champagne region to give balance and subtlety, all while creating a constant flavor year after year. Think of this as the house's “recipe”. They constantly strive to provide their costumers with the satisfaction, quality and flavor that they have come to expect from Mumm Champagnes.
Another part of Champagne's magic is the second fermentation in the bottle, giving us the bubbles. The grapes are first made into a non-sparkling and often very acidic and light white wine wine. It's then put into the bottle with a selection of yeasts and a bit of sugar and capped with a temporary closure. The yeasts work away at turning the sugars in the wine into alcohol and carbon dioxide. As this CO2 is not able to escape, it is this that gives us the bubbles that we have come to know and love in our Champagne.
After the cellar master thinks that the wine has been aged long enough (at or beyond the above legal guidelines), the wine must be disgorged and the dead yeast cells removed. The bottle is moved slowly to the upside down position so all of the yeast collects in the neck of the bottle. The tip of the neck is then flash frozen so an ice cube forms. The ice cube is expelled, with all of the yeast sticking to it. A mixture of wine and sugar or liqeur d'expidition, in French, is added to adjust for sweetness and to fill top up the bottle. It is then corked and the cage placed around the cork to help secure the cork to prevent any exposures due to the pressure inside the bottle. The bottle is ready to be shipped worldwide!
Our vist at Mumm ended ceremoniously and deliciously with the popping of corks and the tasting of two of their grand cru Champagnes: the Blanc de Blanc and Brut Sélection. Our group unanimously preferred the Blanc de Blanc (meaning made from 100% Chardonnay grapes) for its finesse and delicacy.
After a leisurely lunch, we headed over to Veuve Cliquot for our guided tour. Founded in 1805, Veuve Cliquot is another big player in the Champagne scene and has a large presence outside of France.
The tour takes place in a small part of the part of the some 24 kilometers of astonishing underground crayères, or chalk caves, that Veuve Clicquot occupies.
The visit at Veuve was more about the wine and less about the production methods, which was fine because we were starting to get thirsty again. We sipped two different Champagnes in the very atmospheric subterranean ambiance: the house's Carte Jaune (yellow label) non-vintage blend and a 2004 vintage Champagne.
Our tour guides (it was a training day so we had a new trainee led by a more experienced guide) explained the differences between the two Champagnes that we were tasting.
We also learned about the bubble size in Champagne. Many people feel that smaller bubbles are better. What determines the bubble size? According to Veuve Clicquot it's due to the cave's cool and constant maturing conditions. I think there's something true about that but it may also have something to do with the yeasts that they select to make their wines.
In any case, we enjoyed seeing these fascinating crayères, interestingly used during during both World War I and II for shelter and temporary infirmaries. As we slowly worked our way back up to ground floor and day-light, we stopped to see an amazing treasure: a 170 year old bottle of Veuve's Champagne that was found on the ocean floor in a ship-wreck. Our guides assured us that it was still drinkable, although that tasting wasn't included in the tour...
Cellar visits on this tour may include: Mumm, Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart, Martel, Lanson and Taittinger, depending on availability. One thing is sure: you will not go home thirsty!
For more details on the Cook'n With Class Champagne tour visit their site or contact them at info[at]cooknwithclass.com
Saturday, March 31, 2012
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