Matt Fitch. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Mooney DePalmer.
Grape presses at Jacquesson. Photo courtesy Matt Fitch.
Deep cellared bottles at Pol Roger. Photo courtesy Matt Fitch.
Gateway to Louis Roederer. Photo courtesy Matt Fitch.
Hautvillers Abbey. Photo courtesy Matt Fitch.
Entrance to the Clos de Goisses. Photo courtesy Matt Fitch.
The deep chalk subsoil. Photo courtesy Matt Fitch.
Stairs leading to Ruinart’s caves. Photo courtesy Matt Fitch.
Ruinart’s crayeres. Photo courtesy Matt Fitch.
Spiral stairwell to Taittinger’s cellar. Photo courtesy Matt Fitch.
Crayeres of Taittinger. Photo courtesy Matt Fitch.
Mathew Fitch’s passion for wine began in 1998 while going to school for viticulture in Sonoma County. After moving to San Francisco, he has worked as a sommelier in some of the city’s best restaurants, including Rubicon, Coi, Quince, and, most recently, at Et Al.
Deciding to take a wine trip to France for a month takes a wee bit of time to plan and organize. I wanted to visit the regions that produce my favorite wines: Champagne, Burgundy, and the Rhône. I planned nine days in Champagne and the rest of the month travelling through Burgundy and the Rhône. First off, I’m a Champagne hound. Period. I love the look of it, the taste of it, the smell of it, the texture (I know, I sound like Goldmember from Austin Powers). I was told the region was boring and the people were not the friendliest, but I had to see for myself. So I booked 26 appointments at 9 large houses and 17 grower-producers. Sounds crazy, huh? Well, If you’re gonna do it, then do it up. Right?
After three planes, four canceled flights, and five trains, I arrived in Paris in a paralyzing record-breaking snowstorm. Driving from Paris to Champagne in the middle of the night took five hours due to the blizzard. After four hours of sleep I was on my way to my first appointment at Pierre Péters in a small village in the Côte des Blancs, which is chardonnay land. As soon as I arrived, I was greeted by the charismatic and very passionate Rodolphe Péters. He gave an extensive tour of the press and winery and then we tasted 10 Champagnes. I’ve always loved the Champagnes from this house. It always strikes me how inexpensive these wines are for the quality every time I’m reminded of their price tag. If you are looking for top-notch blanc de blancs Champagnes, look no further. All of their Champagnes are worth seeking out, including their vintage Les Chétillons from a vineyard on the east side of the village of Les-Mesnil-sur-Oger.
After leaving Pierre Péters, I arrived down the street at another small grower-producer named André Robert. Bertrand, Colette, and their daughter Claire were so warm and hospitable. We had lunch above their cellars and tasted through some fantastic bubbly. Their Champagnes hit the California market late last year. Look for their 2005 Grand Cru blanc de blancs, it’s a steal!!
Two more appointments at Pierre Gimonnet and René Geoffroy were thrilling, but I was fading fast. I was turning into a sleep-deprived zombie. A stop at the grocery store to stock up on provisions of Époisses cheese, foie gras mousse, and baguettes was just what the doctor ordered.
After a full night of sleep, I set out again for more phenomenal tours and tastings including Jacquesson and Gaston Chiquet in the tiny village of Dizy. To taste Jacquesson’s 2002 village vineyard-designated Champagnes was truly an amazing experience. They are pushing the quality of these wines to an all-time high. Nicolas Chiquet from Gaston Chiquet gave an extensive tour and in-depth lecture on the balance of health in the vineyard. Their wines are always so incredible, especially their Special Club and blanc de blancs d’Ay bottlings.
After leaving Dizy, the next stop was a town called Bouzy where pinot noir is king. Yes, Dizy and Bouzy jokes were flying the whole time. Champagne Jean Vesselle has always been a favorite producer and I was very excited to visit. They did not underwhelm and poured more than a dozen spectacular wines. They also have the smallest clos (walled-in vineyard) in Champagne. Tasting there was a real treat. The standout was the 2003 vintage prestige that I had to grab a few bottles to swig on my later travels. Soooo good! North Berkeley Imports in Berkeley carries these unique Champagnes at an incredible price.
Next up was Épernay, the largest southern city in Champagne. My destination was Champagne Pol Roger, a larger house that the Brits go bonkers for. Our host Sylviane was insanely nice and generous. After seeing smaller houses it was eye-popping to see this giant facility with three-story tanks and room after room of equipment and labs. Then we took the plunge 115 feet below street level. The caves are the deepest in Épernay and contribute to the slow, cooler extended fermentations, which translate to the richer textures and style of their wines. The caves are vast and are more than 4 1/2 miles long. Most impressive is that they hand-riddle every bottle of their Champagne. Yup! Every bottle! It is a dying art in most houses. We returned back from the cellars to the tasting room where we tasted all seven of their wines. Good stuff!! The 2002 blanc de blancs and 2000 Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill were the major standouts.
After a few more days in Épernay, it was time to head north to Champagne’s largest city, Reims. I was very excited for a day of appointments that included Krug, Roederer, and Vilmart. After a security guard escorted me from the main gate to the office entrance, I entered the elusive House of Krug and was told to wait for our host. While I waited, all kinds of scenarios went through my mind of the possible shenanigans that had taken place to warrant such heightened security, or perhaps they were brought in because of my arrival. I started to get the giggles in a major way. The host arrived through a side door to welcome me and luckily I regained my composure. She led me into a small room and I was poured some Grand Cuvée. After a spectacular tour of the caves, reserve wine tanks, and library, we were back in the room to taste more wines. Two vintages, a rosé, and more of the Grand Cuvée. The whole experience was amazing!
After a quick lunch I arrived at Roederer. Roederer has to be one of my favorite Champagne houses. I’ve poured their entry-level Brut Premier at virtually every restaurant I’ve worked in. The cellar was amazing and the foyer with the skylight made from crystal bottle bases was breathtaking. The two hours spent there were truly magical.
The next appointment was at Vilmart, just south of Reims. After Krug and Roederer, I didn’t think anything could get better. Well, I was dead wrong. It had been a long time since I tasted Vilmart Champagnes. Tasting with the proprietor Laurent Champ was an absolute pleasure. It was also perfect timing as the American distributer had visited the day before so there were many open bottles. Fourteen bottles of pure hedonistic bubbly were strewn across the table. By the way, If you see any Vilmart champagnes in a retail store or restaurant wine list, buy them! After we tasted through all the wines, Laurent asked me if I would like to help myself to anything on the table. Ummmm, is the Pope Catholic? I practically did a swan dive into the bottles. That was definitely one of the best tasting days of my life.
The next few days of tastings were paced a little more leisurely, and I made some time to visit Verzy Forest, the WWll memorial of the Declaration of Surrender, Reims Cathedral, and Hautvillers Abbey (Dom Pérignon’s final resting place). I also had an amazing lunch out in the country at Le Grande Cerf and stuffed my face with chocolates at Waïda in downtown Reims. If you go to Champagne do not miss Waïda or Le Grand Cerf.
As my days in Champagne were coming to an end, my appointments were scattered all across the area. I went back to Les-Mesnil-sur-Oger for an incredible tour and tasting at Salon and Delamotte. Touring the late Mr. Salon’s estate home and cellar was epic. The view from his backyard was truly awesome, as was the newly built tasting room. The Delamotte bubbles were stunning. The 99 Salon was ethereal.
After a quick view of Krug’s Le Mesnil vineyard, I was off to Philipponnat. On the drive to this prestigious house, I was full of excitement and was hoping they would let me taste their crown jewel prestige cuvée. It’s called Clos des Goisses and comes from a single vineyard that the house owns in the town of Mareuil-sur-Ay. Upon arrival, I was asked if I wanted to see the famous clos. Of course I said yes and we walked a quarter of a mile down the road and there we were. It’s truly an impressive sight and I had no idea how steep it was until we climbed halfway up. They actually put nets at the base during harvest to catch falling workers. The amount of chalk underneath the vineyard was hard to believe until I saw an outcrop on our way back to the winery. It looked like there might have been six inches of soil on the chalk. The tasting that followed included not only the Clos des Goisses, but Charles Philipponnat himself. It was truly an honor and a surprise.
The last tastings in Champagne had legendary cellars. Ruinart and Taittinger have deep caves of chalk pits (called crayeres) dug by the Gallo Romans in the heart of Reims. Walking down into these caves is hard to describe. The smell, temperature, and sight of these crayeres are unbelievable. The rich history that encompasses these caves can be seen carved all over the walls of people who lived here during the World Wars. Ruinart’s property is like a castle and after the tour of the caves I was able to taste with the winemaker. Ruinart’s Champagnes are legendary and full of finesse. Taittinger’s caves are equally grand. Their prestige Champagne, Comte du Champagne, is freaking awesome.
Visiting this region was mind-blowing to say the least. The people of Champagne have to be the most humble and generous people in the biz. Although it is a quiet area, there is plenty to see and do. Getting there had some challenges, but looking back I can now laugh at the crazy escapades. If you get the chance to go, DO IT! Cheers!