The mood is set for a relaxing two weeks of enjoying the best of French food and wine. We are spending our first 2 days in the charming and delightful Chateau de Courban located in the Côte de Chatillon. However, before we slipped into the rural tranquility of Courban we decided on a quick detour to Reims, the capital of Champagne!
As we glide along the French motorway leaving behind a cool and slightly overcast Blighty our thoughts turn to the delights of the French service station. Stopping there is always a pleasure! There’s usually freshly baked, mouth wateringly good pastries and great coffee! Such a contrast to the limited offerings on British motorways. We stopped for an apricot pastry and a cafe au lait that was a triumph of French patisserie!
Pushing onto Reims with a scheduled arrival of just after 14:00 we phoned ahead and booked onto a tour at Champagne Pommery . We’ve stayed in Épernay many times but never made it to Reims so we thought a stop there was well overdue. It’s a complete contrast! A relatively modern city that had to be re built after being bombed with incendiaries by the German forces in World War One. Despite the bombardment the cathedral stands proud amongst the contemporary buildings which surround it, dominating the skyline.
The first thing that strikes you as you navigate your way across the invisible roundabout at the entrance to the Pommery estate is the sheer magnitude of it. We heard an amazing anecdote of how Madame Pommery keen to gain competitive advantage over her next door neighbour Ruinart, built one of the towers to obscure their building, hiding it from view to potential visitors!
Serendipitously we were early and offered the chance to have a private tour with Romain. In the main reception area is this
beautiful carved foundre which was used for a major expo in Missouri in the 19th Century. It depicts France giving the gift of wine to the Americans!
The tour began with Romain leading us down the illuminated staircase to the cavernous tunnels beneath the Domaine. We passed small 200cl bottles specially created by the innovative marketing department to meet the needs of discerning champagne drinkers hit by the 1929 Wall Street Crash and Great Depression that followed. Champagne was shipped directly to major cities until the Second World War. Each city had its own designated holding area in the cellars so as to demarcate their allocation. London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol are all names you can see. A selection of really old bottles on view.
After the tour Romain took us through the tasting. During which time we learned the following interesting champagne facts:
A standard champagne bottle is called a champenois.
A cellar master who uses riddling by hand can handle 40,000 bottles a day. Riddling by hand is time consuming and can take 6 weeks to move the lees to the neck of the bottle for disgorgement. A gyropalette can achieve this in 5 days but can’t handle any bottle bigger than a champenois.
There are 18 kilometres of tunnels under the Pommery estate.
Many champagne houses started out making really sweet champagnes. This was because the vendage took place in July (to avoid spoiled harvest) often before veraison had happened and the grapes were still green. Typically 150g/L sugar was added for the dosage! 150 times more than today’s dry Brut style champagne.
Pommery was the first house to produce a Brut style of champagne.
Champagne flutes were designed primarily to allow the sediment to settle at the bottom of the long glass. Cloudy champagnes with the lees still floating were commonplace in bygone days. As champagne making evolved to produce the clear style we know today the glasses remained popular as it was found they also helped to preserve the bubbles!
We tasted three champagnes. The classic Pommery which is a mix of the classic trio of Champagne grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Menier. This style is light and easy drinking with a floral nose, on the palate the aromas of lemon come through with a style that is dry with high acidity. I was first introduced to this at Le Majestic Barriere in Cannes where they serve this as the breakfast champagne complimentary!
Pommery Grand Cru Champagne
Made from only Chardonnay Pinot Noir from Grand Cru parcels and aged for a minimum of 6 years.
Pale gold in appearance with medium intense biscuity toasted brioche and caramel aromas on the nose. This champagne is developing nicely. On the palate, it’s dry with high acidity, medium alcohol, medium plus body, and a medium plus finish. It is well balanced and has integrated aromas with red fruit cherry, apple and lemon with more brioche and toasty aromas. A very good Champagne that is drinking well now with further ageing potential.
We also tried the new sweeter style of Pommery champagne which was a little too sweet for my liking at 37g/L. More like a sweet Asti Spumante in style but served on ice it reminded my more of Babycham than champagne!
After a fascinating afternoon at Pommery we headed South into Burgundy for our 2 night return stay at the CHÂTEAU de Courban .
After a quick swim we took pre dinner drinks and Amuse Bouche on the terrace: with Gillian taking the local Blancs de Blancs Cremant and I the local Rose Champagne from a few miles down the road in Gye- sur- Seine.
The second Amuse Bouche of Turnip cream with crab and sesame arrived as we sat down to dinner. Jean-Noel our excellent sommelier recommend:
2012 Beaune Clos Saint-Landry by Bouchard et Fils
This was medium gold in appearance with lightly smoky and toasty nuttiness on nose and stone fruits, with hints of pineapple and lemon. This wine is developing very well. On the palate its dry with high acidity, medium plus body, high alcohol. Aromas of peach, apricot, lemon and lime fuse together with a background of minerality and subtle cedar that is integrated in a complex and seamless way. Rounded off with a very long finish. This wine has great balance of all components, structural complexity and intensity of integrated primary and secondary flavours. It really is outstanding now and will continue for a few more years yet.
And so to the Discovery menu.
Gambas, with quinoa, pea, caviar, flowers, lovely fusion of clean and fresh flavours to highlight the subtle taste of the prawns.
Cod steamed on a blini of polenta,courgette from the garden, red basil, popcorn, small mushrooms, foam, sauce vierge concentrated puree. Sensory overload of both visual intensity with taste explosions with bombs of coriander seed and Shimeji mushrooms creating mini aftershocks in a good way!
Desserts of ginger chocolate with rich cream basil and sorbet which was tangy and rich but not heavy with a lovely lingering warmth of ginger in the mouth.
A stunning use of herbs and fruit with Peaches, cream with rosemary, apricot and jelly – amazing!
We rounded off the evening in true Burgundian style with a degustion of Vieux Marc from a local Cremant producer who has his own distillery. Smooth and heady this sent us off into a peaceful and blissful nights sleep.