Festivals & Events

The Champagne Houses of Epernay, France

“Champagne is the only wine that enhances a woman’s beauty.”

Madame Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV. (1721 – 1764).

Last weekend, I was drunkenly bumbling around Epernays Avenue De Champagne, dubbed ‘the most drinkable street in the world’, visiting some of the most prestigious champagne houses, Moet and Chandon and Mercier. It’s a hard life. Epernay, in North Eastern France, is a pretty little town surrounded by sweeping vineyards, where all of the worlds champagne is produced. If the grapes are harvested outside of this region, it doesn’t make the champagne cut.

Moet and Chandon

A tour to the cellars of one of the most well known and widely loved champagnes, Moet and Chandon, will cost you from 15 Euros with one tasting to 28 Euros with two vintage tastings. The Moet and Chandon Champagne cellar is built around a world of glamour, elegance and luxury and their principal of promoting ‘excellence from grape to glass’ is brought home in every single part of their tour. There was a lot of love for Scarlett Johannson, their ‘muse’, with the tour beginning with an extremely cheesey but clearly high budget movie of her prancing about in the vineyards (that unfortunately you don’t get to see), and finishing with tasting served in front of huge posters of her popping champagne bottles from her hips! Nonetheless, the tour was really interesting and the tour guides and someliers charming, well informed and immaculately dressed.

We went for the ‘Grand Vintage’ tour, with 1 flute of Grand Vintage 2002 and 1 flute of Grand Vintage 2002 Rose. In our excitement, we still thought the Grand Vintage 2002 was full of  pears, apricots, flowers and peppery spice, whilst 2002 Rose tasted of raspberry and liquorice. It wasn’t like Summery afternoon fizz, but was deeper, rich and complex.

Mercier

There are two things that make the Mercier tour so fabulous. Firstly, the history of Mercier champagne is incredible, and secondly you get to descend to the cellar via a disney-esq Mercier themed lift from which you view a diarama of the town and models of workers riddling as the sun rises. There were a few giggles as the some of the tour group compared them to Umpa-Lumpas but overall, it was a lighthearted way to start the tour. Once in the cellar you board a laser-guided train that takes you through the caverns. Rather than a person all the information is delivered through a hand-held speaker that looks like a mobile phone from the 1990s, it was interesting, but did mean there was no-one to ask questions to. The Mercier cellars are the longest in Epernay and some of the best decorated, many of the walls have carvings depicting the monks of the early champagne days as well as one of the “Champagne Floozy”, a short-lived voluptuous mascot for the brand who was deemed too racy by the general public and relegated to the cellars.

Mercier champagne was founded mid 1800s, but expanded rapidly in the late 1800′s, early 1900′s after a strategy of radical marketing based on big, bold events was put into place.  In 1871, Mercier himself decided to build an authentic underground town. “Count in kilometres, not metres”, were his instructions to the architect in charge of the project. His aim was to connect this ‘town’ to the Paris-Strasbourg railway line, not only to ease the excavation of his champagne, but to make the cellars more accessible to visitors. Mercier then spent twenty years building and perfecting a 200,000 bottle capacity wine cask, the biggest in the world, which he dubbed the ‘Catherdral of Champagne’. When completed, it took him 8 days and 8 nights to transport the barrel, filled with vintage champagne, to Paris by oxen and horse to take part in the Universal Exhibition. It came second, beaten only by the Eiffel Tower! It’s on display in the entrance and worth a visit even just to see that.

We did the `Bulles d’Or’ visit, costing 18 Euros with three tastings, a Cuvee Eugene Mercier, a Brut Rosee and a Cuvee Vendange (vintage).

Cuvee Eugene Mercier: Golden yellow in colour with apple, cinnamon and vanilla.

Brut Rosee: Pink with almost coppery tones and aromas of fruits of the forest.

Cuvee Vendange 2006: Absolutely delicious (so good, we had to buy a bottle for 32 Euros), Full bodied, candied fruits and mild spice.

If you’re looking for a weekend break this summer I’d really recommend it, hopping across the ferry and driving to the Champange region was quick and cheap, and there’s a perfect amount of attractions to keep you entertained for two or three days solid.

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6 thoughts on “The Champagne Houses of Epernay, France

  1. You CANNOT taste champagne either at Moet nor Mercier anymore or in any other major Champagne brand in Epernay – UNLESS you take the obligatory tour of idiots in the cellars. In some of them you can only buy directly – but without tasting. How then to know what the #&% to buy?

    That is, if you go back to get some, you must take the tour again.

    At Mercier, you have to visit the cellars, before being allowed to even buy anything.

    The staff is in their early twenties and cocky and have no clue about customer service or the product the are apparently selling. Even that is unclear to them.

    At Mercier sales upstairs a blond talent at sales, remarked. -Why you want 10 bottles – nobody ever buys that. Well guess what? I didnt. The last warning sign.
    Of course you buy 10 bottles and bring it home. It costs 3-4 times as much in Nordic countries if it is even avalable, due to the highest taxes in the world.
    Its a fact that apparently doesnt occur to them. Brilliant.

    Last summer I asked numbers of people from overseas, where you could get some Champagne in Epernay. A common answer was: -I dunno, its my second or third day here.

    There has been a change in policy some years back. At Castellane its business as usual and their quality is more consistent. They do suprisingly well. Castellane is the crash course of Champagnes. That famed Epernay mineral, earth tone, wet soil; the hallmark of the surrounding slopes. Its so extraordinary.

    Moet is naturally always nice and consistent – in spite of snooty staff, whereas Mercier has lost it really. Its the Coca Cola of Champagnes, mainstream and oversweetened for Supermarkets. Useless. Pity. Their vintages were really sensational before. I am about to open the last tonight, by the way. 2006.

    Mercier is not upper house anymore. I wondered where their vintages went.
    Found only one.

    There was a german beer festival in the middle of Epernay. Not much else to do than to check it out this absurdity. They also sold champagne of various makes.
    Only here was tasting possible, at a beer festival! This is not serious.

    At the tourist office I was told to file a complaint to the Municipality and they handed me a paper. They avoid this issue. Its very emarassing to them.

    The best thing is to rent a small car and tour the countryside around Epernay and, improvise, unless you have done yer homework. There are 3000 brands to choose from and then imagine all the sorts and vintages added to this.

    Castellane is on the way to Mercier. It looks like a factory. But you just go there, pay reasonably and drink with all of your might if need be.

    Thats it.

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