Well, I had to squeeze at least one 'wine day' into this trip, and the three-star Gothic cathedral in Reims was the hook. Okay, there was no hook, the family obliged me on this one.
The original plan was a quick tour of the cathedral, a stop at one or two cellars in Reims and then a quick tour through the vineyards in Epernay. As one might see from a map, this was an ambitious day trip from Lille, especially with three young kids, but that′s what those mini DVD players are for!
We arrived in Reims before noon, parked the car, and walked up to the cathedral. Rather impressive, this 13th century cathedral was the historical place for the coronation of French kings. However, despite a beautiful cathedral and millions of bottles of pricey Champagne just below street level, the city had a tired feel to it - not at all quaint like Lille, Honfleur, Bayeux or Bruges - and in that sense I was somewhat disappointed at first. But the trip was about wine, so we went to two wineries for a tasting, and to pick something up to bring back home.
The Rick Steeves guide refers to the tour of the Piper Heidsieck cellars as "cheesey" and "Disneyesque". Hmmm...Disney, children...daddy and the kids having fun at a winery together...this might work!
I can safely say this tour was the only wine tour my kids will ever enjoy (before the age of 18, of course). Descending into the caves, you pass a small display of ancient Champagne-making equipment, cross a bridge over blinking blue Champagne bottles (I am not joking), and arrive at a round, white 'vehicle'. The vehicle takes you on a tour of the cave, stopping and turning to face displays that light up when you arrive (a la Disney), and then going on to the next stop, all the while discussing in very vague terms the making of Chamagne. You even get to travel through a fictitious set of Casablanca (no really, I am not joking) with a statue of Bogart sipping Piper. The kids absolutely loved it, and I learned nothing about the making of Champagne.
At the end you arrive in a posh room showing movie stars, and then take a lift up to the very red velvet tasting room, where your pre-purchased flight of Champagnes is awaiting for your pleasure on a pre-printed tasting note sheet (hooray, no more travel brochures for scoring!). This is where the tour gets serious!
I paid up for a slightly better flight of wines - they were fantastic:
To the left was the Piper Heidsieck Brut Divin, a "Blanc de blancs" (i.e. 100% Chardonnay). Pale yellow in hue, with a greenish tinge (they say 'emerald'), this bubbly delivered tiny bubbles and a nice mousse. On the nose it was almost creamy, with scents of gingerbread, lemon, white flowers and nuts. On the palate it had a beautiful, soft mousse - elegant, with nice structure and good persistency. Very nice, and a bottle came home with me.
Next was the basic Piper Heidsieck Brut Non Vintage. It appears to be a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, but it is a white wine. Sparkling, pale gold in colour, the mousse did not appear as fine as the previous. It displayed yeast/toasty aromas with some mint and fresh cut grass. On the palate it was ever so slightly sweet, with lemon and nice fizz, light-bodied, simple and refreshing.
Price: €28 (est)
On the right was the Piper Heidsieck Rose Sauvage, a pink bubbly. A lovely nose of black currant, plum, and jammy toast. On the palate it had nice mousse and a kind of kir/grenadine and orange flavour with very nice balance. Refreshing and substantial, this is a wine is not just for sipping - it could pair very well with a meal. A bottle of this also made the trip back to Montreal.
G.H. Martel & Co.
Martel was the exact opposite of Piper Heidsieck - quiet, homey, and tucked away in a corner near Tattinger and Heidsieck, it has the aura of a family run business (although I believe it is part of a larger conglomerate). Tastings are free (with a purchase) and the hostess went out of her way to serve me a wide array champagnes, asking me a number of questions to choose a flight that she thought both my wife and I would like. Note that the winery uses a lot of Pinot Noir in its bottlings, leading to rather substantial wines - don't look (generally) for lightweight quaffers here.
Overall, Martel's bottlings were a slight notch below Piper, in my opinion, but the prices are so much better that it is really worth a stop (I bought two bottles here). Moreover, 60% of their production never leaves the country, so you pretty much have to buy it in France.
My notes were short (no show for the kids...): the Martel Cuvee Romance, 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, showed a nose of butter and caramel with some lemon notes. Light and refreshing, this was a great deal at €19 (Score: 17/20) and the attractive bottle would make a nice gift - a bottle came home with me. The 2000 Martel Vintage Champagne, 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay, was excellent - vanilla, almonds, caramel and toast on the nose, powerful, nice persistency and mousse. Nice price for a Vintage Champagne at €20.50 (brought a bottle home), Score: 17.5/20. The 1990 Cazanove Brut Millésimé, is one of Martel's other labels, and is a blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot. A very nice mousse with scents of lemon peel and brioche, nice persistency. Nice (Score: 17/20), but less impressive than the 2000 Martel, and it costed €26. Get the 2000, in my opinion. I also tasted the Rose and Demi-Sec, but I preferred the Cuvee Romance at a similar price.
My only criticism of this winery (Champagne house) is the dizzying array of labels - they should really focus their product line a bit, in my opinion.
In the end, the passage of time and the long trip back to Lille required us to cancel a tour through Epernay (home of Moet & Chandon), so tantalizingly close...