Meeting a Master: Adventures in Épernay

Not going to lie, I love champagne. The beverage is as light and bubbly as it is rich with personality and heritage. When offered the opportunity to attend a semi-private tour of Reims and Épernay, how could I say no? The Champagne region is incredibly gorgeous already, and the chance to visit vineyards I’ve grown to love is a little dream come true. Thankfully, my visit was everything I could’ve hoped for, and more. If you follow my Instagram, you’ve already seen some of the amazing pictures!

The day started early: Herbert, our guide, picked us up at the crack of dawn to beat the traffic on the way to Reims. We got to know one another and quickly started cracking jokes while discussing champagne’s history. I could tell he loved champagne as much as he loved to teach others about it. Reducing such a complex and precisely crafted beverage to a cruise ship disembarkmant or New Year’s celebration doesn’t do it justice. Champagne is fun, but it also has a lot going on under the hood (or, cork)!

We arrived ahead of schedule in Reims, so we took a minute to appreciate the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims (which is apparently larger and more grand than Paris’ Notre-Dame). We picked up espressos and croissants and made our way to the first stop of the day, Maison Mumm! Home of the renowned G.H. Mumm champage, Maison Mumm hosts miles of underground caves and literally millions of bottles of aging champagne. A Mumm representative guided us through two layers of cellars over thirty feet underground and detailed the process Mumm currently uses (and historically used) for their champagne production. We were even lucky enough to see some of their priceless 1895 and 1911 reserves, which will never be sold or even removed from the cellars! Following the enlightening tour, we tasted a few of their basic blends, we said our goodbyes, and we made our way to a very special place in Épernay: the home of Moet and Dom Perignon!

Moet is fancy, and they know it: from high-tech guarded gates to all the staff wearing tailored suits, it was hard to feel too comfortable in the gift shop, even after expressing interest in buying a bottle of the 2018 reserve. We weren’t given a tour of the premises, as it was primarily a corporate building, but we were able to see the beloved Statue de Dom Perignon in the front courtyard. Herbert excitedly shared some fun facts and cultural significances of the statue, but for the most part the visit was simply a pit stop before a delicious lunch and our next vineyard.

After a fantastic meal of salmon mousse, shrimp, vegetables, and herbed chicken, we made our way up the hills to our last vineyard of the day. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I can say that whatever expectations I had were soundly exceeded. We drove into a private driveway and the home of A. Grilliat et fils. The Grilliat family is home to fifth-generation winemakers, specializing in a small range of champagnes. Their primary source of income is actually selling grapes to Moet and A. Grilliat branded champagne is an extreme rarity, next to impossible to acquire outside of Épernay.

As soon as you pull in you know that you’re in someone’s home. Coated in knick-knacks and with barking dogs in the background, the first room you enter could easily be someone’s den. Family photos and framed wine labels cover the walls, and vintner paraphernalia decorates what little space is left uncovered by the massive wooden table in the center of the room. Almost immediately, we were greeted by Alain Grilliat himself! Although he only spoke French, his energy and enthusiasm was palpable. Herbert acted as translator as Alain introduced himself, his vineyard, and detailed his family history. Soon after, we were led into his basement.

Something I didn’t realize was that nearly every house in Épernay comes with a wine cellar. Some larger than others, of course. The Grilliat house comes with a very impressive cellar. About 20,000 bottles go out each year under the A. Grilliat et fils label, and the champagne spends at least three to four years in the cellar before being prepared for sale. In the four massive rooms under his house, there must have been over 100,000 bottles, full of champagne!

During the tour I learned an interesting fact about why the Champagne region is so wildly successful in terms of soil quality: chalk! There is a huge amount of chalk in the soil in the region, which affects water retention, irrigation, nutrients, and erosion. The result is nutrient rich, consistent, and strong soil that promotes vine growth as well as consistent cellar temperatures. If you ever go into a wine cellar in the region, touch the walls; they are perpetually damp, regardless of the weather above ground.

Following our insightful tour, Alain led us back to the tasting room to sample his latest batch of champagnes. His cheerful demeanor and warm reception reflected the personality of his home. It was obvious that the man lives and breathes champagne. His pours were delicate yet plentiful and he was quick to replenish your glass. Out of all of the vineyards, Alain Grilliat expressed a level of generosity, warmth, and passion that was reflected nowhere else.

Leaving the Grilliat’s house, it dawned on me why his champagnes were so much more of an experience than the previous vineyards. Talent and refined processes will create a quality beverage, but passion and care is the only way to add those delicious intangibles to the glass. They say the nose is a key contributor to taste, but I don’t think the heart gets enough credit. This is why we love home cooked meals and “the way mom used to make it.” It’s not because of superior ingredients or better tools, but the love that goes into the food itself.

Alain Grilliat, Herbert, and all of those who made that day so special, thank you. You are some of the best reasons to wander and ponder.

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