Spring Mini-Break: Bubbly & Bordeaux
My “homework” over spring break this year was to explore two of France’s renown wine regions—Champagne and Bordeaux—and decide which is the more enjoyable side trip from Paris. My hypothesis: Each region is similar to its eponymous wine. Champagne is effervescent, elegant, and effortless; Bordeaux is complex, multifaceted, and lingering. Here’s my cheat sheet about Champagne and Bordeaux; Jetset Extra Insiders may decide it’s all a matter of taste.
For ease of transport, Champagne wins over Bordeaux. Champagne is a quick 45 minutes from Paris on the TGV train; however, our readers may prefer the comfort of a chauffeured pickup at their Paris hotel, such as the one we had from Paris City Vision. By the time I finished my morning pain au chocolat and shot of espresso, the approximately one-and-a-half-hour car ride had gone by in a flash. We arrived at the first stop on our tour: Reims Cathedral.
Reims is the historic heart of the Champagne region, and its beautiful Notre-Dame Cathedral is the traditional starting point for most day tours. Besides being one of the first monuments to receive a prestigious UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, this architectural triumph holds a meaningful place in French history because it was the traditional site of French coronations.
Art aficionados will particularly enjoy these stunning stained glass windows by Marc Chagall completed over six years from 1968 to 1974.
From history to terrior, our Champagne immersion continued with a tour of the vineyards operated by the legendary Moët & Chandon, where we learned about growing conditions and the optimal factors for harvest.
The first quiz question: What are the only three grape varietals used in Champagne assemblage? The answer is Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
Another fun fact: “Sexual confusion” is used as a natural pesticide on the vines; pheromones are deployed to confuse male butterflies, preventing them from laying caterpillar eggs that make the grapes susceptible to rot. An overall theme is Champagne grapes experience a highly regulated process from vine to bottle to create the perfect bubbly.
The Moët & Chandon château is resplendent with gold chairs, elaborate floral displays, crystal chandeliers, ornate baroque furniture, and grand fountains in the garden. These design flourishes are perhaps reflective of Moët & Chandon’s fashionable history; the founder’s grandson, Jean-Remy Moët, hob-knobbed his family’s bubbly product to fame with the French aristocracy. Today, Moët & Chandon is a significant piece of the venerable LVMH Moët Hennessy luxury goods corporate empire.
Moët & Chandon’s cellar is the largest within the Champagne region, spanning approximately 17.4 miles. A sip of their signature rosé in their elegant tasting room demonstrates large production and global distribution still makes for an extraordinary tasting experience when it comes to this Champagne house.
An intriguing contrast to the gilded Moët & Chandon corporate empire, Pierre LeBoeuf in the charming small village of Aÿ has been family-owned for five generations. The vintner’s daughter led the tour and proudly showed us the hand-operated press where her forefathers crushed the grapes.
With panache and cheer (not to mention excellent English), she gave us an overview of the riddling process—the hand turning and tilting of bottles on a rack to collect sediment at the bottleneck. She also explained the process for expelling the sediment from the bottle prior to corking.
At the conclusion of the tour, we were invited to the vintner’s own dining room for a tasting of the 2011 Brut Grand Cru.
After having our fill of bubbly, we continued our oenology studies the next day by jumping on the TGV train to Bordeaux. The three-hour TGV train ride from Paris felt like an extra credit project—some additional work, but you are rewarded handsomely for the effort.
In the city center of Bordeaux, a stroll down the Rue Sainte-Catherine can make you feel as carefree as a kid out of school. This 1.2-kilometer-long pedestrian-only thoroughfare—lined with an assorting of boutiques from independent labels to French classics such as Comptoir Des Cotonnier to international mass-market standards such as Zara—can offer hours of luggage-stuffing retail therapy.
Bordeaux’s quaint cobblestone streets also offer many cafés for drinking espresso and watching the world go by. A favorite is Le Bordeaux, a 19th century Belle Époque-style café at the beautiful historic Grand Hotel with a lovely terrace overlooking the Opera House. Sitting at this café, a simple scoop of pistachio ice cream and a pot of fresh mint tea can turn into a decadent afternoon-long delight. But if you can tear yourself away from this study break, a lesson in Bordeaux wine awaits.
We kicked off our Bordeaux tour on a chivalrous note at Château Lascombes, which was founded in the 17th century by none other than a knight. The modern-day vineyard owner is a French medical insurance company, although the vineyard’s second label still serves as a symbolic nod to its founder, Chevalier Antoine de Lascombes.
From an initial view of the breathtaking château grounds, we were whisked into the historic wine cellars, where we were shown the French oak barrels used in the aging process. We also got a peek at the wine library, featuring the vineyard’s earliest vintages of wine.
Back in the tasting room, it was time for another quick quiz: What are the main grape varietals used in Bordeaux blends? They are Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, with Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot added for seasoning. In the tasting room, we were treated to a taste of the 2006 Château Lascombes Margaux, a classic Bordeaux blend of 50% Merlot and 45% Cabernet Sauvignon with 5% of Petit Verdot. We delighted in the deep cherry notes it left on the palate and its dry finish.
Our next stop was Château Siran, owned by the same family since 1859. This vineyard has a colorful history that includes being purchased from the grandparents of the world-renown artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec for only 100,000 francs.
One of the unique flourishes at Château Siran is the helicopter pad added by its idiosyncratic owners to the roof of the main house, where we ascended to take in the 360-degree view of the vineyards surrounding their property.
Another bit of family trivia: The vineyard workers used to wash their hands after the harvest against the side of the house, resulting in a stain on the sides of the buildings; the family decided to incorporate this stain into the design of their home by painting all the buildings the same pale pink.
We were offered tastes of the Saint Jacques de Siran 2011 (known for its subtle tannins), the S Siran 2008 (known for its blackcurrant notes), and the Château Siran 2007 (known for its aromatic nature).
Our final exam: What is the legend of the “angel’s share”? Since each oak barrel magically absorbs 3 to 5 percent of the wine it stores, legend has it the angels descend from heaven to “drink” from the barrel after the harvest. You might say we’re following in the wake of angels.