April 29, 2009

Wedding in Reims day 2: rendez-vous with Dom Pérignon

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I'm going to the wedding fesivities in Reims today. Checked out of the Park Hyatt bright and early, headed to Gare de l'Est to hop on the TGV for the 45-minute journey.

We arrived at Château Les Crayères and checked into our beautiful corner room over looking the lawn. Once we dropped off our luggage, it was time to head into town for some Champagne shopping. The gang is having lunch inside the hotel but I wanted to venture out and visit an old favorite in town.

First I descended into Les Caves du Forum, a wine shop that is actually entirely underground so that the temperature is naturally cool and constant. I chat in broken French to owner Fabrice, and ask him for some recommendations for grower Champagnes other than Egly-Ouriet and Jacques Selosse. He is out of stock on Selosse (aarrrrggghhhh!!!) and I decided not to clean him out of his Egly-Ouriet, but I still took away a case and a half of bubbly.

After putting the wines in the trunk of the car, I head towards Notre Dame to find another wine shop. This time the shop carried mostly Grande Marques and didn't offer many interesting choices beyond those. I quickly picked up a bottle and move on.

I wanted to lunch at Le Vigneron, a wonderful small establishment I know in town. I enjoyed some wonderful andouillette there on my last visit, and I was looking forward to revisiting Hervé Liégent's charming restaurant. But I circled around Place Paul Jamot in vain and saw no sign of the place. Calling the restaurant yielded a recorded message informing me that the number was no longer in use.

Dejected, I head to L'Esplanade as it was recommended by a local resident. It served reasonably priced simple fare. I would have andouillette frites, which came with a huge portion of French fries. The andouillette here, however, was not of the AAAAA variety. It was a tubular section of what must have been a long sausage link, and it did taste a bit more salty than what I'm used to.

Back at the hotel, the group boarded a tour bus which took us for a tasting tour of Dom Pérignon Champagne. Our destination would be Épernay, where Moët et Chandon is based, but first we made a stop at the Abbey of Hautvillers. This was where Dom Pierre Pérignon made a name for himself in winemaking, and our guide Yumi took us on a tour of the Abbey and the land surrounding it. Although grapes for the wine comes from 9 grand cru vineyards, part of the blend always comes from the vineyards of Hautvillers out of the tradition of paying respect to the wine's namesake.

Next we got back on the bus and headed for the Moët's cellars where bottles of Cuvée Dom Pérignon are aged. It's your standard Champagne cave tour, where you walk around the underground cave dug out from the limestone. As you would expect, it's a real maze down there because unlike wineries producing still wine, Moët et Chandon ages Cuvée Dom Pérignon for 7 years before disgorging and releasing it onto the market. This means that the inventory that is being carried is quite significant. Production of any given vintage is said to be around 2 million bottles...

Interestingly, Yumi told us that once disgorged, Champagne does not improve in the bottle so it should be consumed within 10 years, roughly the same amount of time the wine has spent aging in bottle with the yeast. At this point I was thinking WTF....? Any Champagne lover - and the buyer who spent over USD 21,000 for a bottle of 1928 Krug Collection at the Acker HK auction in March - would certainly take issue with that statement. But hey, what the heck do I know? She's the one working for Moët et Chandon and I'm just a guy who loves drinking old Champagne...

We finished our tour of the cave and head back above ground for the tasting. The 2000 Dom Pérignon was pretty decent and open, with a bit of toast and some minerals in the nose. The acidity balance was pretty good mid-palate, although it turned slightly acidic on the finish. The 1998 Dom Pérignon Rosé, by comparison, was much less interesting. It was smoother on the palate, but the nose was pretty shut.

The staff opened the doors to the interior garden, and we sat outside and enjoyed the two glasses of Champagne. The Tree of Three Emperors has been around since the time of Napoleon, and is the site where three European emperors drank Champagne together as they proceeded to capture Paris during the War of the Sixth Coalition against Napoleon. Funny how Yumi (nor the plaque under the tree) mentioned this little detail... I guess French pride runs deep...

We took the bus back to our hotel, and after resting for a bit (and a change of clothes) we headed back out to Épernay for dinner at La Grillade Gourmande. We started with an amuse bouche of a single escargot with a small, round piece of melba toast. Yummy but only bite-size.

Next came poêlée d'écrevisses au champagne, a plateful of pan-fried crayfish in - what else - Champagne sauce. This was really, really yummy and I'm like a kid in the candy store again, getting the sauce all over my hands and going through every head and pincer of the crustacean. I soaked up the sauce with some bread, and gleefully spooned the rest into my waiting mouth.

Main course was tournedos grille avec escalope de foie gras de canard grille au feu de bois. The big hunk of beef was pretty good, with mine just a little pink and not really "bleu". Pretty juicy and delicious, but simply too big for me to finish. The woodfire grilled foie was soft and just the way I like it. Needless to say I never touched the baked potato...

Dessert was warm centered chocolate cake with ice cream. These days I'm not a fan of this, because it's been so overdone. But this particular version was pretty nice and I had no trouble finishing it.

We're in Champagne so of course I'm on the hunt for some good stuff. I discovered Billecart-Salmon Brut Blanc de Blancs on the list and decided to try a bottle. This is an NV Champagne because two different vintages are used in the blend. A very toasty nose with a bit of honey and lemon citrus notes. Pretty decent but no "wow" factor. Guys at the next table ordered Vranken Demoiselle Cuvée 21. This was more interesting, and tastes like aged Champagne - or aged white wine for that matter! Distinct nose of sweet grass, orange blossom, green apple and minerals. The bubbles were very fine and came up slowly, making the wine nice and smooth. Yummy stuff.

With my belly full and my head buzzing a little, we head back to the hotel and call it a night...

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