Going Grand and Going Local in Champagne

A visit to the Champagne region of France has the ability to satisfy the demon of indulgence in all of us, so long as you do it right. While there are likely numerous ways you can experience Champagne, it’s best to do so with a little balance, just as is employed to create the perfect champagne.

Moet et Chandon Champagne House

Excitement is bubbling (ha) at Moët & Chandon

It’s only natural to want to experience the grandeur of some of the big-name houses, like Moët & Chandon, Piper-Heidsieck, Veuve-Clicquot, Mumm, and Tattinger. Go ahead, live it up. As the first stop on our trip, Moët & Chandon’s grandiose elegance and sophistication was the perfect lure to heighten our excitement.

Moet et Chandon Champagne cellars

Champagne cellars at Moët & Chandon

Led by our exceptional guide, Stefan, our private tour and tasting gave us everything we wanted, and then some. From the ethereal champagne cellars and their cryptic encoding system to the double tasting and pristine showroom, Moët & Chandon had us all enraptured in its splendour. How could our trip to Champagne possibly be more impressive, if, after all, we had just experienced the so-called epitome of Champagne houses. Did we mistakenly put the best first, only to be disappointed for our subsequent houses?

Champagne at Moet et Chandon

Sampling some of Moët’s finest

Fortunately, we wouldn’t be disappointed by our next stop. Much like true champagne needs a specific, delicate balance of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, so does one’s trip to the Champagne region, if they want to get it right.  The best thing to do after drooling over a large Champagne House (likely in Epernay, as is Moët & Chandon), is to hop on one of the local trains to Rilly-la-Montagne, a sleepy little Champagne village between Epernay and Reims.  While Rilly-la-Montagne is unlikely to impress you straight away, especially following the polished, manicured perfection of Moët & Chandon, its charm will entice you, and the experience won’t disappoint.

Rilly-la-Montagne

Streets of Rilly-la-Montagne

Beautiful manors and intentionally haphazard gardens line the nearly empty streets of the village, and everything about the place is unassuming and welcoming.  We passed by our inconspicuous next destination, only to realise we’d reached the end of tiny Rue Carnot and had not found Philippe Brugnon.  Once discovered, Philippe himself greeted us (and no, this isn’t a special treatment type of thing, that’s just what he does for everyone), and welcomed us into his home.  Naturally, wariness arose when we weren’t met with pristine marble floors, grand portraits, and immaculately presented branding, like we’d just experienced.  Oh no.  We were in the bush leagues, weren’t we?  Philippe led us down tight, winding concrete stairs into his unassuming cellar where all of his 60,000 yearly bottles are fermented, turned, aged, and crafted.  Philippe’s passion for his champagne was evident from the moment he started explaining the production process.  Very quickly we realised that this was truly special, and very different from a large commercial Champagne House.

Sabrage, the art of opening a Champagne bottle with a sabre

About to learn sabrage, the art of opening a Champagne bottle with a sabre (sword).

Once we’d gotten our fill of production, it was time to get the party started.  Philippe, an officiel de la Confrérie de Sabre d’Or, an organisation that is united in their passion of champagne, and their delight in its prestige, including the art of sabrage.  Now, opening a bottle of champagne is not as difficult as it looks, once you’ve seen someone else do it.  Being the first guinea pig, I took two tries to get the cork to pop off.

What the corks look like when you pop them off

My ‘fail’ cork is the one on the right – see how I chipped the lip of the glass? Oops!

Naturally, those that followed only emulated my successful attempt.  The excitement of performing such a notorious art was thrilling, as was drinking the champagne we opened as an accompaniment to our delicious four-course gourmet meal.  Laughter echoed throughout the hall as we enjoyed some exceptional food, admired our newly bestowed certificates of sabrage, and chatted to Philippe about his different products.  After a few of some exceedingly enjoyable hours, we said au revoir to Philippe and thanked him graciously for his hospitality.  Leaving full of delicious champagne and exceptional food, we carried our newly purchased bottles of Brugnon back to the train station and headed back to Reims, already reliving our experiences of the afternoon.

In the Champagne cellars

Happiness in the cellars at Moët & Chandon

While Moët & Chandon satisfied our desire for a traditional, must-do Champagne experience, Philippe Brugnon led us past the glamour of the big Champagne Houses into his family-run, personal pride and joy.  The two experiences were completely different, and both just as important to see as the other.  In a way, visiting both a large and a small producer is the only way to experience the Champagne region.  Without the other, it is more difficult to appreciate the different elements of excellence the other exhibits.  Just as with the bubbly beverage we know and love, it’s all about balance when visiting the Champagne region.

Kissing the feet of Champagne master Dom Peringnon

Spend a day in Champagne and you’ll be kissing Dom Perignon’s feet too…

Bits and Bobs:

TER regional train Reims-Epernay return 2nd class €12.

Moët & Chandon (20, Avenue de Champagne, 51333 Epernay) – our tour was private and negotiated through connections, but the standard tours with two tasting flutes costs €22 per person.

Philippe Brugnon (16, rue Carnot, 51500 Rilly-la-Montagne, pbrugnon@aol.com) – 4-course VIP meal and 4 Champagne taster €51 per person.  Sabrage (including certificate) €10 per person.

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