EPERNAY, France – You can feel the temperature falling as we walk down the long, stone staircase descending into the cellar. The cool air feels exhilarating, peaceful and wonderfully familiar.
There’s truly nothing quite like a wine cellar in Champagne – the barrel-vaulted ceilings, the near-total darkness of the labyrinth-like maze of tunnels and all those bottles, thousands of them neatly stacked floor to ceiling or upside down in V-shaped racks scattered throughout the cellars.
And then there’s that air. That wonderful, brisk, damp air as cool as a foggy fall morning in New England. No matter what time of day or season of the year, the temperature in the cellars in Champagne always stays the same – roughly 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
That constantly cool air helps create these masterpieces in the bottle. So do the chalky stone walls. That’s why Champagne tastes so wonderfully crisp and dry. That’s why the French are so protective of Champagne. Only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France can legally be called Champagne. Everything else is sparkling wine.
As I walk down into the cellar and feel the goosebumps on my arms, I am instantly transported back to 2017.
That year, my wife and I visited three Champagne houses in Reims, France.
Six years later, just a few weeks ago, we visited two iconic Champagne houses nearby in Epernay – Moet & Chandon and Perrier-Jouet.
One of the great things about France’s Champagne region is how close it is to Paris. You can easily get there by train for a day trip.
Our journey to Epernay starts that morning in Gare De L’Est a few minutes after a long, antique-looking blue train with gold trim slowly pulls into the station. It’s the Orient Express. (Yes, that Orient Express, Mon Ami!) I wouldn’t believe it if I saw it in a movie.
Less than two hours later on a direct train gliding through the French countryside, we arrive in Epernay.
The small, stone train station is right in the heart of this charming, compact village. From the station, you can easily walk to many restaurants and Champagne houses, including the two we are visiting that day. Overall, there are more than 300 Champagne producers in the Epernay area.
We have half an hour before our first appointment. It’s a beautiful, sunny day in late May. There’s barely a cloud in the sky. We wander through the narrow, tree-lined streets past banks, bars and brasseries made of stone.
Everything in Epernay seems to be made of stone. It’s no surprise. Many of the stones removed from the wine cellars to make those massive tunnels were then used to build many of the buildings throughout Champagne.
After we pass through a traffic circle, we stroll through a tall, black iron gate into D’Ventures Du Parc, a beautiful, tree-lined park with winding paths that looks like a miniature version of Central Park South in Manhattan.
A few minutes later, on the other side of the park, we find Avenue De Champagne, the boulevard where many Champagne houses are located in Epernay. One of the first ones we find is the massive stone and brick building containing Moet & Chandon, the largest Champagne producer in the world.
20 Avenue De Champagne, Epernay
Public tours available most days of the year
Founded in 1743 by wine trader Claude Moet, this Champagne producer added Chandon to its name in 1833 when Pierre-Gabriel Chandon de Briailles, who was married to one of the Chandons, joined the company. Moet & Chandon also created Dom Perignon, a high-end vintage Champagne starting in 1921.
Nowadays, Moet & Chandon and Dom Perignon are separate businesses owned by the world’s largest luxury brand company, Louis-Vuitton-Moet-Hennessy, which is better known by its acronym of LVMH.
Moet & Chandon’s sprawling limestone cellars meander 30 feet beneath the winery for 17 miles. You can easily get lost in this maze of caves. That’s why you have to be part of a tour to visit the Champagne house.
The tour starts in a stark white room on the ground floor filled with paintings featuring many of Moet & Chandon’s owners over the centuries. There are also historic Champagne bottles celebrating different milestones in history and an impressive tower of Champagne glasses, something Moet & Chandon is well known for, according to the tour guide.
Downstairs in the cellar, we learn about the Champagne making process as we walk through the long, dimly-lit arched stone cellars. Like other Champagne cellars, there’s a quiet calmness to Moet & Chandon’s cellars. There’s also a sense of history.
Moet & Chandon has long been a favorite among kings, nobles and aristocrats. The Champagne was especially popular with Napoleon Bonaparte, who was friends with Claude Moet’s grandson, Jean-Remy Moet, and who would often visit the Champagne house.
One of the cellars, the Imperial Cellar, is named in honor of Napoleon. In the Imperial cellar, there’s also a massive wooden port wine cask Napoleon gave to Moet & Chandon in 1810 when Napoleon was the Emperor of France.
Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut: No, it’s not called “Imperial Brut” because it’s some tough thug working for the royal family. This is the Champagne house’s best-selling Champagne, named in reference to its Imperial cellar. “Brut” means “raw” in French and refers to the sweetness level of the Champagne. Brut Champagnes taste dry. That’s because they have less sugar than other Champagnes. This iconic Champagne is made with a blend of the three grapes that can only be used to make Champagne – chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. The result – a light, refreshing, subtle Champagne with hints of pear, sea salt and almonds. Let me add this glass of Champagne was served at about 45 degrees and tasted perfect.
2015 Moet & Chandon Extra Brut: The 2015 means this Champagne is made with grapes grown and harvested that year, making this Champagne a vintage Champagne. The “Extra Brut” means this Champagne is even drier than a Brut Champagne. Made with a blend of the same three grapes as the Imperial Brut (with a bit more pinot noir), its flavors are rounder, softer, more delicate. There are also subtle hints of toast, vanilla, almonds and wood smoke. An absolutely lovely, crisp, dry Champagne.
26 Avenue De Champagne, Epernay
Public tours available most days of the year
A short walk up Avenue De Champagne from Moet & Chandon, Perrier-Jouet feels like a different place from a different time. Specifically, you feel like you’re stepping back into France’s famed Belle Epoque (“golden age” in French) era, circa the early 1900s.
Perrier-Jouet was founded in 1811, but the Champagne house is now more associated with the Art Nouveau movement nearly a century later. A response to mass industrialization, Art Nouveau celebrated craftsmanship and nature’s curving, sinuous lines.
The owners of Perrier-Jouet adored Art Nouveau and the “movement’s exuberance and creative freedom” during the Belle Epoque era, according to the Champagne house’s website. You can see that influence today on every bottle of Perrier-Jouet, which features gold-trimmed white flowers first painted on four bottles in 1902.
But to truly dive headfirst into Art Nouveau, make sure you visit Maison Belle Epoque, the former Perrier-Jouet family home built in the late 1800s. The house feels like a museum, filled with art by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Auguste Rodin as well as room after room containing original Art Nouveau furniture. In fact, Maison Belle Epoque has the largest private collection of Art Nouveau art in Europe.
However, the two Perrier-Jouet employees guiding us through Maison Belle Epoque insist that the house is not a museum. Instead, they hope visitors think of the house as a home where people still come to gather and celebrate and enjoy life.
Downstairs in Perrier-Jouet’s rambling cellars, there’s more art as well, including a stunning piece called “Lost Time.” Several strands of beads hang from the ceiling above a pool of water. The beads look like stalactites and perfectly capture the way time seems to move at a glacial pace down here in this dark, mysterious world.
Back upstairs, we taste several Champagnes in a charming, intimate private bar in Maison Belle Epoque. We’re surrounded by glass artwork hanging from the ceiling, vintage Champagne glasses and many bottles of chilled Champagne. None of it seems real. It’s like I’ve somehow wandered into a beautiful Belle Epoque dream.
Perrier-Jouet Blanc De Blanc: The first of three non-vintage Champagnes we try at Perrier-Jouet, this one is made entirely with chardonnay grapes and looks like a pale-yellow chardonnay. Taste wise, this refreshing Champagne has bright, floral-like aromas and flavors with hints of sea salt, citrus, peach, apricot and lemon. Distinct and delightful.
Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut: This non-vintage Brut Champagne will appeal to traditional Champagne fans. Here, you can practically taste the chalky, limestone walls in this crisp, toasty Champagne with hints of roasted almonds, melted butter and an unexpected dash of apricot.
Perrier-Jouet Rose: This non-vintage rose Champagne looks beautiful and tastes delicious. A delicate salmon-like color, this elegant rose Champagne actually tastes a bit like roses, along with hints of strawberry, raspberry, sea salt and peach. Absolutely superb.
2012 Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Cuvee Blanc De Blanc: The first of three vintage Champagnes we try at Perrier-Jouet, it’s difficult to move onto the other two after tasting this wonderful, complex Champagne. Like the other Blanc De Blanc, this vintage one is made entirely with Chardonnay grapes. However, the flavors here are bigger, brighter and yet somehow more subtle at the same time. In a way, this vintage Blanc De Blanc reminds me of Brut Champagne with its hints of toasted almond, roasted butter and a crisp, mineral-like finish. There are also surprising hints of pear and ginger.
2014 Perrier-Jouet Brut: Like the non-vintage Brut, this vintage one will definitely appeal to traditional Champagne fans. Its fresh, crisp, complex flavors are muted with a mineral-like finish along with dashes of toast, butter and sea salt. There’s a reason why certain foods or drinks become classics. Everyone loves their familiar, delicious flavors. This vintage Brut Champagne perfectly illustrates why.
2013 Perrier-Jouet Rose: The final vintage Perrier-Jouet Champagne we taste before catching our train back to Paris, this magnificent rose Champagne brings to mind a whole host of words that start with the letter S – subtle and soft, strawberry and sea salt, stunning and superb. There are also hints of raspberry and passion fruit. Drinking this wine with my wife, I’m reminded of the final scene of “Before Sunset,” one of my favorite movies, which also happens to be set in Paris. Not to give anything away, but one character says to the other, “You’re going to miss that plane.” Tasting these six Champagnes, I think it’s fair to say the last thing my wife and I care about is making our train. We do make it on time. But it’s not easy. We just want to stay. Who wouldn’t?