In full disclosure I will say that after my tour of the Pol Roger winery our hostess treated us to two bottles of 2006 Vintage, six Champagne flutes, and a complimentary bottle at a restaurant they suggested. It's not to brag. I never expected to receive anything, but as I spoke with our hostess afterwards she explained that tours are the only marketing they do. Pol Roger rarely open to people not directly involved in the wine industry. However, these gifts speak more than I can about their hospitality and care for their product.
When in Paris you can drink Champagne for more advantageous prices than the United States, or you can visit Champagne and gain a priceless experience. The train from Paris L'Est will have you in Epernay or Reimes before there is even a chance to fully appreciate the countryside. I traveled for a tasting scheduled by a dear friend into Epernay, a quiet town where kids get let out of school in the afternoon and walk home on the Avenue du Chamagne. It is almost mystical to see a working village spliced through with huge chateaus for Moët Chandon, Pol Roger, Perrier Jouet, and the like.
The village is fairy-tale-like quiet in the morning with mist still settled right above building height. We were ragged and jet lagged, heading out for a 9am tour our first full day in Europe. Taking the train from the Paris L’est station is easy enough and tourism to the east is dedicated to these viticulture behemoths so you cannot get lost. The walk to the Pol Roger estate was almost comical how ‘normal’ it is to walk along the marble-slab looking streets.
Champagne and Burgundy have a back-and-forth over who is the more “ideal” region for tourists to visit to get a sense of French wine country. If you find yourself in Paris, however, a simple day trip out of the city commotion is exemplified in Champagne. Tours are the common, and possibly only, activity once you get there. They will vary based upon chateau; whether or not you either have to purchase a tour and then a tasting or you are treated like family. I was fortunate and experienced the latter.
Epernay, like most of Champagne, has an interesting history that you can learn about while drinking. A win/win for me. I learned how Pol Roger was Winston Churchill’s favorite champagne and that it is the only Champagne poured by the royal family. Also, during WWII, as the Germans beared down on Paris, Champagne was the main geographical area they had to pass through. Despite all of this the locals never once stopped producing the bubbly.
We ended up eating at La Grillade Gourmande because our hostess left to get us some business cards for options and came back with a reservation already set up. We, of course, were not going to say ‘no’.
Fortunately, our hostess did not disappoint. This was the first of many times during the trip where I received excellent French hospitality. The meal was simple yet rich and succulent. I paired my champagne with oysters which were very salty, of medium size, and ice cold. The fringe of black around the mollusks was frightful looking at first, but delicious in the end.
Next, the poisson I chose was served with fennel and basil and baked potato. Again, simple yet delicious. The fish was light even with its French-quantity of butter drizzled about, and the potato was served with ‘whipped butter creme’ which is self-described as mouthwatering. Dessert is another story unto itself. The three of us at the table split a creme brulee (my absolute favorite dessert) with a tender custard and rock hard shell; a chocolate lava cake which needs no further endorsement; and the cheese plate.
My tip: if you are looking to taste a bit of every region of France stick with cheese. A huge board with almost 10 varieties of cheeses was wheeled over to us. There is no limit, you can eat everyone of them if you’d like, and every cheese is from a nearby farm using local ingredients for flavoring, i.e. champagne crystals, ash, smoke, etc.
There is not much in the way of shopping in Epernay, especially compared to the offerings in Paris. I would stick to finding the bottles of bubbly you enjoyed and to either ship them home (which can be quite expensive) or take to drink while soaking in more romantic views in Paris.
I left Epernay with a feeling of having transcended even my vacation status in terms of relaxation and luxury. Winston Churchill’s quote reminds me of walking Avenue du Champagne; “My tastes are simple. I am easily satisfied with the best.” Making wine is not an easy undertaking, but in the dream-like world east of Paris it seems to happen flawlessly. At least that is what the people of Epernay would like for you to think.