Answer to an age old question


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August 10th 2007
Published: August 14th 2007
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This weekend I lost my Eurostar virginity and found the answer to an age old question.

In order to do so, I headed back to Reims for more champagne tasting - this time with some of the netball crew.

In order to get us in the mood - Andrea hosted a pre champagne tasting champagne tasting at her place. Based on blind tasting, the Tesco champers came out tops ... but don't think we don't know our stuff - last year the experts agreed and gave it the top award.

Now to the Reims weekend - let's start with the Eurostar .... I love it. Why do I love it? Let me count the ways:
* It's sooo easy.

* It goes from Waterloo, which is close to home (although not for much longer - soon it will be leaving from Kings Cross in a kind of 'now you see it, now you don't' operation where on 13 November 2007, the Eurostar will be leaving from Waterloo and on 14 November 2007, it will be leaving from Kings Cross. Imagine the commuter chaos that will cause)

* It ends up near the centre of Paris, right near the metro.

* You only need to get there 30 mins before the train leaves, and the check in is very speedy

* You don't need to ensure that all your containers of liquid are less than 100ml ... and that means you can take drinks for the journey (and I am not talking about water!!!)
The only thing that marred the Eurostar experience was that Vin and I managed to miss our connecting train to Reims. Now let me be clear, I am not in any way, shape or form blaming Eurostar for that. I blame slow French restaurant service. As we had plenty of time between the trains, we had decided to have some dinner at a dodgy brasserie near Gare de L'Est. The flashing Christmas lights on the roof were not a good sign, although the food was pretty good (mmmm foie gras, love it). The service, on the other hand, was very slow. A combination of Vin reading his watch incorrectly and the waiter apparently needing more than half an hour's notice that we wanted our bill (and failing to be galvanised into action when we indicated that we were in a bit of a rush because we have a train to catch) meant that at 9.27 we were bolting towards the station in order to catch our 9.28 train (We should have done a runner ... that would have learned 'em.) Needless to say:
we missed it ...
and it was the last train ...
and the information office was closed.

Luckily, I found a station employee who was able to suggest a train going to Epernay, a town a LOT closer to Reims than Paris. However, at the time she suggested that, it was 9.33, and the alternate train left at 9.35 .... from the other end of the station. Cue another sprint - this time not wasted as we just made it onto the train just as the conductor was blowing his whistle to signal that the train was leaving. Disaster averted.

Once we finally made it to Reims, we met up with the rest of the crew who had caught a morning train and visited the Verve champagne house (regular readers will remember that I visited there at Easter and so was in no rush to repeat the experience, when there are so many other tours on offer).

Saturday saw us rising bright and early and on the train to Epernay for the start of our tasting extravaganza. It's pretty easy to get around to the big Champagne houses - unlike vineyards in say, the Hunter Valley, the Caves and tasting rooms are not located amongst the vines, but at the Champagne Houses in town which, in Epernay, are conveniently grouped along the Avenue de Champagne.

First stop was Mercier. Now Mercier was probably my least favourite champagne of the weekend (although it is apparently the best selling champagne in France), but it is home to the world's biggest barrel and they have a cool lift that takes you down to the cellars with panoramic views on the way down. How can you have panoramic views on the way to a cellar you ask? Well, you create them, much like a diorama. (Actually, now that I have looked it up, exactly like a diorama - who knew they did not have to be made in shoe-boxes?) Mercier also takes you around the caves in a train - which is pretty cool. Finally, Mercier actually has some vines growing at the champagne house, offering
Frolicing in the vines  at MercierFrolicing in the vines  at MercierFrolicing in the vines at Mercier

Yes - we are trying to spell Mercier
a unique opportunity to 'frolic' in among the vines. As the photos attest, we took full advantage of that opportunity (yes, yes - we are all odd). Oh yeah, and you know it is going to be a good day when you have had your first champagne tasting by 10.30am!!

Next, De Castellane. The cool thing about the De Castellane tour is that they show you all the machinery that they use to bottle and label the champagne, which we didn't get to see at any other champagne house. Now, de Castellane does, in fact, offer panoramic views of the region from its tower, but unfortunately said tower was closed at the time we visited so we didn't get to climb (a real shame as I love a good sweeping vista).

We then stopped off for a well deserved lunch (accompanied by a beer - just to mix things up a little).

After lunch, we attempted to visit GH Martel. But they are sneaky. They have a building in Epernay. It has a big sign. The sign says GH Martel. Unfortunately, a (much) smaller sign says that their caves and tasting rooms are not, in fact located in Epernay but in Reims .... so much for our booking!

Luckily, all was not lost as we made our way to Moet & Chandon to hang out with Dom Perignon (the monk who allegedly first invented champagne). For a classy establishment, we might have behaved with a lack of class in the cellars as I introduced the crew to the 'running photo'. My brother will be proud, and I think the results are worth it. By the time we got to this tasting, it was apparent that the group had split into two camps. Camp 1 - the 'Champagne snob, I only drink vintage' (Andrea, Barry and Quentin): Camp 2 - the 'laid back, easygoing, I am not driven by the cost of things, non-vintage drinkers' (Sarah, Michelle and I). Gemma was a 'swinger', and then there was Vin - Camp 3 - 'I don't really like champagne but am enjoying watching you all make idiots of yourselves as you quaff more and more'.

It was then back on the train and back to Reims, where we had just enough time to dress for dinner before heading out for a fab meal (good choice Andrea) accompanied by,
Hanging out with DomHanging out with DomHanging out with Dom

At Moet & Chandon
of course, more champagne. Somehow, later that night we ended up in a lesbian club which sold the most expensive glasses of water ever (don't ask).

Andrea, the Champagne Mistress, allowed us a sleep in on Sunday, so our first tasting at Piper-Heidsieck was not until 11am. Piper also has a train to take you around the cellars, and while I am not a massive rose fan, I liked theirs the best. Piper's tasting rooms were the classiest (they even supplied biscuits and 'cheat sheets' describing the flavours) and it was great to have our glasses of champers poured, ready and waiting when we arrived!

We had managed to secure an afternoon booking at GH Martel, but first ... lunch. This time a picnic in the park was in order - more champers, baguettes, cheese, a variety of desserts ... yum!

So what did I learn on the champagne tours?
* Champagne can be made from three grapes (chardonnay (a white grape), pinot noir and pinot meunier (red grapes)), although the blanc-de-blanc is made from chardonnay grapes only. The red grapes are squashed really carefully so the colour of the skin does not go into the champers.

* During the first fermentation (usually in steel vats) the carbon dioxide is allowed to escape, so you end up with a wine.

* The second fermentation occurs in the bottle and the carbon dioxide bubbles are retained - making it champagne.

* After the second fermentation the bottles are left to rest in the caves, for anything between 3 and 17 years.

* After the resting, there is some sediment left in the bottle, this is moved to the neck of the bottle by a process called riddling (nothing to do with the batman baddie). Basically, it involves slowly moving the bottle from a lying down to an upside down position combined with shaking and turning the bottle a quarter turn every day. A riddler can turn between 35,000 and 55,000 bottles a day (depending on which tour guide you believe).

* The neck of the bottle is then frozen so that the sediment is trapped in an ice cube, the top is taken off and the ice cube it 'disgorged' (pops out) taking the sediment with it.

* Vintage champagnes are made from grapes all picked in a single (good harvest) year,
It spells MoetIt spells MoetIt spells Moet

No - really
and have finer bubbles (not sure how that works, but there you go).
(See I did listen as well as drink!)

We purchased some bevvies for the Eurostar home - and managed to consume 5 bottles of champers between 5 people ... sorry to those people sharing the carriage with us. The funniest part of the journey was definitely the opening of the first bottle - which appeared to have been shaken a bit during the security checks and opened with a very loud pop and a bit of an explosion of champagne (luckily only over Andrea's lap).

Oh - and the question? Can you ever have too much champagne?
Answer? No. (Hmm think I already knew that).


Additional photos below
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Too much champagne Too much champagne
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I can 'taste' all night


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