Part Deux: Lord Have Mercier!

Tuesday morning was cold and sunny. We had a breakfast of croissants, yogurt, and crusty breads with jam and nutella in the winter garden, overlooking the green lawn in the hotel’s courtyard. The hotel itself had an ancient feel to it, which was an interesting juxtaposition to the two black gorillas on the property, splattered in multi-colored paint. There was also a Pétanque terrain partially secluded by some hedges, but we were off to Épernay that morning for our first foray into Champagne.

Courtyard in Le Jardin d’Hiver

The village of Épernay was a short 30-minute drive from Châlons, and we arrived around 11am, a few hours early for our 2pm tour of Mercier. We passed the time by parking in town and sharing a surprisingly delicious lunch at Brasserie la Banque, a stately restaurant with a majestic interior where dim lights hung from the ceiling and shone like moonlight on the glossy wooden surfaces of the tables. We ordered two glasses of Champagne, which appeared sparkling before us in beautiful tulip-shaped glasses. For lunch, I ordered us some kind of scallop and shrimp appetizer “pour partager”, but the waiter brought out two dishes. I’d assumed he understood “partager” as me saying we wanted to share and went ahead and divided the serving into two plates, but when the bill came, it was clear that either my French was rustier than I’d imagined or the waiter ignored my request. Had I been more confident in my French, I might have argued the tab, but the dish had been so savory and the sauce so flavorful that I felt ungrateful after eating almost all of it and then contesting the bill.

Unlike Châlons, Épernay’s beige buildings held a twinkle of charm somehow, and the village felt a bit more like the French villages I’d been picturing. Located along the Route Touristique du Champagne, Épernay is home to some famous Champagne houses, including Moët & Chandon, as well as Nicolas Feuillatte, located a little outside of Épernay in the village of Chouilly. Just outside of Épernay, the green hills unravel beneath miles and miles of wire and vine, all neatly bending into perfect rows.

But not all is rustic charm. In Épernay’s town center, right smack in the middle of a roundabout, is a giant hot air balloon known as “Le Ballon Captif“, which makes it sound as if the balloon is being held captive by the village of Épernay. I imagine it floating over the city, carrying on its merry way, when suddenly a troop of villagers down below fires nets up at it, dragging it down to earth and anchoring it in this roundabout as some kind of prized hunting trophy. Only later did I discover that the balloon is not actually “captive” at all; carrying up to 29 passengers, the balloon apparently lifts up every once in a while to provide viewers with a 10-minute flight overlooking the Champagne region at about 150m above ground. For the surprisingly low cost of 23 euros, you can ride the balloon while sipping a glass of Champagne. Had I known this, you’d be reading an entirely different blog post. Oh well. Next time.

After lunch, we drove back to Mercier, which offered free parking on site. With an hour to spare before our tour, we crossed the street to a small Champagne house called Elodie D that boasted a sunny courtyard framed by iron gates and well-kept shrubbery. We crossed the courtyard, passing a man who was speaking with a group of women in English. He greeted us and then followed us into the house, where we stood in a small lobby with a counter and several bottles of Champagne on shelves.

“Where are you from?” he asked us. When we replied that we’d driven from Switzerland, he excitedly pulled a pamphlet from behind the counter and waved it at us. “Yes – lots of people have come from there recently!” The pamphlet cover bore a photo of the Swedish flag, so we politely corrected him and then asked if they did tastings. He shared the tasting menu with us and ushered us into the back room, empty apart from several ornate tables surrounded by plush, high-backed chairs upholstered in floral patterns that popped against the pink walls. I felt as if we were sitting inside of a teacup.

Elodie D feels like you’re a guest in someone’s home.

“Elodie D has been run by women for four generations,” he explained to us, gesturing to the room. “Hence, the decor.”

He handed us a booklet about the winery that included tasting options. For 43 euros, we opted for a tasting of 3 Champagnes, all of them vintage. The oldest one was a 1995, and without knowing anything about Champagne, we were intrigued. What tasting notes might emerge from grapes cultivated when I was just nine? Might the palate detect hints of Shaggy’s “Boombastic” and It Takes Two? (Remember the Olsen twins? Remember Steve Gutenberg? You will when you sip this vintage.)

Vintage Champagnes are marked by the year on their label, but they’re also distinguishable by their color; unlike their lighter cuvee counterparts, they dazzle the eye with their gold hues – but the tongue is a different story. We first sipped a slightly younger vintage – I can’t remember the year – and already the taste was a little jarring. Slide back to 1996 and it was intense.

“It doesn’t taste good,” the man told us, “but hold on. I’m going to bring you something that will change everything. Magic. Be right back.”

It was 1:37, and our tour at Mercier required us to arrive ten minutes prior to the 2pm start time. Not that we wanted to guzzle vintage Champagne, but we were a tad worried.

He returned with a small plate of cheese cubes, which we later realized is uncommon at Champagne tastings. (Champagne houses do not offer food pairings, so be sure to have lunch plans.)

“Now try it,” he said after we sampled some cheese. “The fat from the cheese mixes with the acid from the Champagne and it changes the taste.”

He was right. It was much rounder and more drinkable. For the 1995, a deeper gold, he returned with a plate of gingerbread crackers topped with foie gras. I do not eat foie gras for a number of reasons, but there was something about the enthusiasm and commitment he showed to our tasting, in his otherwise empty Champagne house, that made me feel unkind turning it down. I took a nibble and washed it down with Champagne. He was right again: the taste was different.

We might have sat there all afternoon, learning about Champagne-making and sampling food brought up to us from the kitchen, but Mercier called. We paid our 43 euros and headed back out into the sunshine.

Champagne House: Elodie D Founded: The house was built in 1881 Cost: 43 euros for a tasting of 3 Champagnes Tour: For 20 euro, you can tour the cellars; we did not do a tour Chill / Posh: Chill Parking on Premises: No What Makes It Cool: It’s female-owned. Food was provided. They use oak barrels for their Champagne, and recently went back to horse-drawn ploughing methods in their vineyards.

We crossed the street back to Mercier, whose polished white interior was a shock after Elodie’s living room parlor affair. We approached the desk, where a woman wearing a black blazer over a white collared shirt scanned our tickets and handed us two plastic cards that would serve as our entrance to the tour. A few handfuls of people had already gathered on the dark couches in the waiting area, but it was hard to focus on anything in Mercier except for the gigantic barrel that loomed over everything from the center of the room.

I knew nothing about Mercier, but my friend Christine had suggested we book a tour there because it involved a train ride around the cellars. Our tour was led by a woman from Serbia who also donned a smart blazer, collared shirt, and pressed trousers. I felt like a peasant in comparison, in my jeans and Converse. Then again, no one else on the tour looked particularly posh either. I wondered if the French-speaking tours featured more of a highbrow dress code and the American ones fit the stereotype of American tourist attire.

We were first shuttled into a small theater where we watched a video introducing us to Eugène Mercier, hailed throughout the tour as a clever innovator and ambitious inventor. In the year it was founded, 1858, Champagne was still very much a drink of the ruling class. Mercier’s goal was to make Champagne available to everyone, and it’s not so much that he ended up doing it, it’s how he did it. The barrel in the lobby was just one example of Mercier’s big thinking.

Determined to share his wine and his brand, really, with everyone, Mercier designed this gigantic wine cask to be brought to the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris. You’ll already be indirectly familiar with this event, because it’s where the Eiffel Tower was unveiled. The construction of the barrel itself was an international feat, with oak trees coming from Hungary over a period of 5 autumns. Imagine that. Every Autumn, for five years, you and your lumberjack friends go into the forest to chop down oak trees and send them to France. 170 in total, in the end.

Then the barrel was filled with the 1887 vintage – 1600 hectoliters of wine. I’m not sure what a hectoliter is, but 1600 of them seems like a lot. Some sources say the full barrel weighed something like 20 tons in the end. It was carted 142 kilometers from Épernay to Paris by 24 oxen and, on the occasional steep bit, 18 horses as well. Because the barrel is so enormous, it occasionally reached villages it couldn’t get through. But not to worry; if it couldn’t go around the village, they’d just “shave” off parts of building walls. This apparently worked just fine in the villages, because what could a peasant do? Hitting that snag when entering Paris was a little more difficult; Parisians are not going to be thrilled at having their building walls shaved off. Not to worry! Mercier went ahead and bought the buildings. Now the walls he’s shaving are his own. Oh, to be rich and to purchase buildings the way one purchases a bag of carrots at the supermarket.

The barrel was a success, and won second prize. (It might have been first, if it wasn’t for that pesky tower.) Now the barrel rests in the Mercier house and you can see it for yourself, which is actually pretty cool. Mercier also teamed up with the Lumiere Brothers to make a movie showing how Champagne is made, only since Champagne is made in the darkness of underground cellars, that posed a problem for filming. So they moved some equipment up into the light for the occasion. In any case, the movie or advertisement was a hit in spreading the word about how Champagne is made.

And here I have to inject a brief interlude, which is that before this trip, Dan and I both snubbed our noses at the idea that only Champagne made in Champagne could call itself Champagne. Let someone else share the magic, we’d say. But we have returned from Champagne converted. After seeing the intensive process that goes into making Champagne, the traditional methods that are still used today and have been passed down through history from generation to generation, it seems very sleazy for brands like Korbel or André to print “Champagne” on their labels. Why is it not enough to be a sparkling wine from California? In addition to what seems like poor manners and disregard for the AOC label, they’ve reimagined Champagne culture through an American lens, which apparently is all about brunch and mimosa-making. Which is fine, but just call it what it is: sparkling wine.

All the vines are labeled with what looks like a headstone bearing the name of the Champagne maker.

Back to Mercier. After our movie was over, we were led into two massive elevators that slowly dropped 30 meters underground. Through the glass walls, we watched soundless images project down the wall; we traveled down to earth, through the soil, into the Champagne making cellars and eventually into a glass filled with bright bubbles. Then the elevator doors opened and we exited into the cool, dark cellars. A train awaited us, and we clambered in.

Our tour guide explained the cellars and their construction, the Champagne-making process, and the fact that we were cruising through only a fraction of the 18 kilometers of cellar. Occasionally, we’d pass a loading area where a garage door opened into daylight and workers in reflective vests operated small forklifts. The entire thing must have been a labyrinth, which is why Mercier labeled the tunnels after streets; the cellars formed their own underground city, filled with dusty bottles of Champagne.

The electric train was self-driving and equipped with a fire extinguisher.

When we arrived back at the beginning, it was time to resurface for a tasting. The tour we’d booked was called “Let’s Talk About 2002”, and so we emerged into a sunlit tasting room where two bottles waited for us. Apparently, the harvest in 2002 was excellent. Conditions were sunny and mostly dry, so the vintages turned out amazing – and they were. We tasted a classic Brut first, and then the 2002 vintage. Both were delicious, and the fizzy effervescence of it all broke the indifference of the tour guests to one another. Dan and I ended up in a conversation with a family from Cherry Hill, NJ who had been in Paris for the marathon and were celebrating with a tour of the Champagne region.

We bonded with some Brits over our inability to identify any notes on the nose. When people talk about Champagne, they point out that you might taste biscuits, yeast, or brioche. No matter how hard I try, I cannot identify any of those. In fact, at Mercier, they had three plastic fishbowl type buckets lined up along a shelf, each with a white stone inside and a QR code printed above. An open tube extended from the bowl, so you could bring your nose to the edge of the tube and sniff, identifying the scent. Of the three, I identified orange. The other two were brioche and nougat, which the British woman impressively nailed.

The tour, labeled 2 hours on the website, actually wrapped up a little earlier than that. If you book a tour, the time given on the website usually includes the tasting time; I’ll admit I was a little worried at first about riding a train around for 2 hours talking about Champagne. We exited through the shop, purchasing a few bottles to bring back as well as two glasses. (Did you know that Champagne is best enjoyed in a tulip-shaped glass? Flutes are a bit narrow and the 1920s-style coupe glasses are too wide, causing bubbles to disperse. Or you could ignore glasses completely like André advises and just chug from the bottle like a simpleton.)

Back in Châlons, we played a game of Petanque before venturing out to the Michelin star restaurant in town. I’ve never before eaten at a Michelin star restaurant, so the experience was lovely and surprisingly good – and well-priced. In fact, I was shocked at how not-expensive it was. It was a delicious end to a fabulous day.

Champagne House: Mercier Founded: 1858. Cost: 40 euros per person, including a tour and a tasting of 2 glasses Tour: A little under 2 hours, 14 people. Chill / Posh: Closer to posh Parking on Premises: Yes What Makes It Cool: It’s old, with lots of history and pride. The electric train tour of the cellars is also unique. Between the train and the elevator, it’s more accessible for people of all ages and physical abilities, as most other cellar tours involve descending steep staircases and walking around the cellars.

On the way home, we stopped at Nicolas Feuillatte. They offered us a space on their tour, but we opted for a tasting instead. At 15 euros a glass, I think, it was delicious.
A tight game of Petanque.
This was delicious…and believe it or not, we were full when we left.

Categories: France

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