There were a few reasons why David and I should have done our research about the Champagne region before we began our road trip. The first being that we most likely would have gone to Epernay first, not last (and probably would have never left). Driving into town along le avenue de champagne was what I’d imagined driving onto a 1940’s Hollywood film set would be like. The name of the road says it all and the maisons de Champagne were elegant monstrosities, set back only a few yards away from the main road.
Another reason David and I should have done our research ahead of time was that the Champagne region’s schools were on holiday, and that particular weekend was the one weekend of the year when almost all of the maisons were closed. Undeterred by our unfortunate luck, we checked into the Le Berceaux Hotel, which was home to Michelin starred restaurant, Patrick Michelon and Bistro le Sête. We were tired from our drive up from Beaune and because I was unwilling to freshen up to Michelin star standards, we opted to eat at Bistro le Sête.
Excited for my first bottle of bubbly, we quickly ordered a Grand Cru Brut Rosé Champagne from Henri Goutorbe, a local vintner. To put it mildly, this bottle was nothing short of exceptional and a rosé to boot, which is my favorite. I had my doubts about being able to enjoy a glass of champagne for breakfast, lunch, dinner and every other hour in between, but after my first sip, my doubts were put to rest.
The next morning after a quick stop at the tourist office, we picked up a list of the 5 maisons open, and walked to Charles Ellner for our first tasting. We were welcomed by a lovely French woman who was happy to hand us full glasses of bubbly, while she explained about their history and champagne caves. We bought 3 bottles from Charles Ellner and then walked around Epernay as I ducked into kitchen stores searching for a copper pot, the ultimate (inedible) souvenir of France in my opinion (I never found one, so sad). We found ourselves frequenting the pâtisseries in between tastings, to pick up snacks so the bubbles wouldn’t go straight to my head. We had an incredible lunch at Brasserie La Banque, complete with steak tartare, snails and bubbly with my hubby…what more could a girl ask for. After lunch, we popped into André Bergère and we enjoyed sampling 10 different champagnes. I walked out with something I have always wanted,
my our very own magnum of Champagne. Not to mention the fact that this magnum cost less than a crappy bottle of champagne from a restaurant in the states. We visited Achille Princier and took a tour of their champagne caves. The caves seemed never-ending and it was hard to picture a city full of maisons de champagne, all with extensive underground facilities beneath the city surface. The sun was about to set, which meant that the champagne houses were about to close, so David and I quickly snuck into Comtesse Lafond for one last taste. We walked back down le avenue de champagne, still in awe of the houses staring back at us. It was hard to imagine people living everyday life in this town, when to me, this town seemed nothing short of extraordinary.
We dined at la Cave a Champagne that night, a highly regarded restaurant in Epernay serving country-style French food. We had a four course meal, all paired with different champagnes. While I thought the food was very good (David thought it was exceptional), the service was very poor (even taking into account the different service standards in Europe) and with a pre-set menu, the language barrier wasn’t the problem. The appetizers, entrée and dessert were all very heavy in my opinion (i.e. pigs foot, foie gras pie for an appetizer), and I don’t think they lended themselves well with the paired champagne. When we got to our main course, I was wishing I hadn’t taken the opened bottle of Burgundy out of my purse before dinner.
We learned that 60% of the Champagne produced doesn’t leave France, which explains why the selection of champagne in the states is nothing compared to what it was there. I assume the French keep all the good stuff for themselves and ship out the mass-produced, heavily marked-up bottles to the US (not that I can blame them). The prices in champagne were even cheaper than burgundy, and we certainly took advantage of this incredible opportunity. Towards the end of the trip, we were repacking the car once a day to make room for our liquid souvenirs. We loved our hotel so much and I thought we should stay until the rest of the maisons de champagne opened later in the week. Alas, that thing called a job (yes, I do remember what one is) got in our way, but c’est la vie. David had to practically push me into the car, along with all of our champagne bottles and we drove to Calais to catch the ferry back to Dover, England, reminiscing the whole way. The road trip was an experience of a lifetime. It’s something that has shaped my life, broaden my horizons and I will never forget it. Leaving Champagne was hard, but I was excited to get back to our Moat Cottage and all that awaited us there. It’s funny how after visiting Ireland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France, our little village in England felt like home.