Two words: Jet lag.
It is the torture that many people, including myself, must go through to enjoy a proper vacation. Some people can deal with jet lag without any issues. I used to be one of those people but I am not any more. Jet lag was going to be my big challenge for my European Vacation. Working in North America means I have to get the most out of the little vacation time that I have. There is no time to be jet lagged. My vacation plan is simple, get to Europe and do the following:
• Visit Champagne and visit at least one small producer and one big producer
• Make to Italy in time for the wedding
Depending on which of my friends you talk to, the main event of my trip was either of the two items. I was off for 10 days and had to make the most of it. Jet lag be damned.
People on the East Coast of North America are lucky. For East Coasters getting to Europe is as easy as flying to California (and sometimes cheaper). Getting to Europe from California is a challenge. Direct flights are rare, multiple connections are common, as are flight delays and running to make your connections.
For me to get to Europe, Paris specifically, involved two 6 hour flights and a 90 minute layover in Newark. I arrived in Paris with only 4 hours of ‘airplane sleep' and a huge adrenaline rush. It was 7:30 in the morning; I had a rental car waiting and my BlackBerry GPS to get me where I needed to go.
Surprisingly, it was easy to get through passport control, get my car and get on my way. Negotiating French traffic was a challenge but not as big a deal as I was lead to believe. After about an hour or so I was off into the French countryside headed to Reims.
It takes about 2 hours to get from Paris to Reims. There is a nice big motorway (the A4) to get between the two cities with a nice high speed limit (130 kph or about 80 mph). Traffic was light and I was able to make good time. The plan was to stop at my hotel and then start visiting Champagne houses before jet lag set in.
I arrived in Reims around 10:30 am, which was easy enough. I then promptly spent the next 45 minutes driving in circles trying to find my hotel. My driving experience up until that point was not very different than being in North America; big roads that are well signed. Then I was reminded I was in Europe as soon as I exited the motorway. Street signs are small if they are there at all and they are never placed where you expect them to be. Eventually, my hotel was found, bags dropped off and a quick clean up was performed. Then it was time to head out for my only appointment of the day. I was off to visit a small winery called Champagne Jacquesson in Dizy, just north of Eperany.
Overview of Champagne
Even though Champagne is famous, not everyone knows where it is. Champagne is a province with in France 160 km (100 miles) east of Paris. The two main cities in Champagne are Reims and Epernay. These two cities are home to the biggest and most well know Champagne brands including Moet & Chandon, Pierre Jouet , Pol Roger (Epernay), Veuve Clicquot, Tattinger, and Pommery (Reims). However, the countryside in between these two cities is dotted with numerous smaller houses. Champagne is situated at the 49th parallel which means it is at the same level as the majority of the border between the US and Canada. The Champagne province is most notably known for the sparkling wine it produces. As many of you know, sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it is produced in Champagne and adheres to the rules of Champagne production (Méthode Champenoise). The grapes for Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and all are grown in a chalky soil.
Chateau Jacquesson (website under construction)
Château Jacquesson is located in the town of Dizy to the north of Epernay and directly across the street from another Champagne house, Vautrain-Paulet. In fact, there are at least 12 Champagne producers in the town of Dizy.
Chateau Jacquesson is a small, family owned Champagne house. By Champagne standards they are small with only a 500,000 case production. They only account for 0.1% of the overall Champagne market.
They are not a grower champagne (a producer that only uses grapes they grow) but they do own 31 of the 42 vineyards they source fruit from. All the vineyards are Grand Cru, which is the highest classification in Champagne. The vineyards around Dizy product mostly Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
I was met at Champagne Jacquesson by Jean-Herve Chiquet who is one of the co-owners of Champagne Jacquesson. Jean-Herve conducted a personal tour of the grounds including vineyards, production facilities and storage.
One thing that I noticed right away about the vineyards is that the vines in Champagne are trimmed much shorter than in California. They are about half the height I expected. In addition to the height, the canopy (leaf coverage) was also cut back significantly. I was told that this is legislated by the Champagne AOC and both are meant to deal with the two main challenges of growing grapes in Champagne: the lack of sunlight and high humidity from frequent rains. In fact, Champagne uses clones of grapes where the individual grapes are farther apart to promote air circulation to prevent mold creation from humidity.
Jacquesson is a blend of old and new and sometimes, to me, at opposition to each other. Jacquesson, like many producers in the area, have been around for many, many years. There is history and tradition within the old buildings they reside but they are populated with modern production equipment that can look out of place. It is neat and odd to see very old buildings (200+ years old) and modern equipment.
The presses for the grapes are gigantic. They allow for grapes to be spread out over a large surface and evenly pressed. The juice is feed into concrete tubs a level below.
No maloactic fermentation done to keep wines crisp with good acidity. There is some debate on whether maloactic fermentation should be done or not within Champagne.
Mechanical riddling has been embraced by most Champagne houses. The smaller houses have gone almost exclusively to Gyropallets. They can accomplish what would take 2 to 3 weeks worth of manual work in one week. According to Jean-Herve the real benefit of the Gyropallets is not the time but space. As he puts it, Champagne is all about taking their time, which they have a lot of, but building more caves and storage is something that they can't do.
It seems all Champagne producers will make three styles of Champagne:
• Non Vintage (NV) Champagne – Champagne made from the current harvest combined with reserve wines (wines from previous years)
• Vintage Champagne – Champagne made from grapes harvested in one season
• Prestige Champagne – Usually a vintage Champagne with very selective juice
Jacquesson is no exception. Where the difference is that their NV Champagne is more vintage than other producers in that it is more an expression of a particular year. As such, the Jaquesson NV is numbered. The current Jacquesson NV Champagne is named Jacquesson 732. The number indicates the number of the cuvee blend and is based on the number of bottlings that the company has done over the years.
Here are the wines I was given the opportunity to try:
• Jacquesson 732 – (3/5)
Golden in color with pear, apricot and lemon aromas. Tart green apple flavors, very crisp with great acidity.
• Jacquesson 733 – (3.5/5)
Unreleased Cuvee (this fall). More straw coloured with peach and yeasty aromas. More complex in the taste with pear, apple and dough. Again, great acidity but still a little tight.
• Jacquesson 1997 – (4/5)
Golden with a slight greenish hue. Classic yeasty and dough aromas. Complex wine with doughy, nutty flavors with underlying fruit.
• Jacquesson – Avize Grand Cru 2000 – (3.5/5)
Made from Chardonnay from three grand cru vineyards. Again, golden with greenish tinge to it. Aromas of dough with apricot which was also reflected in the taste.
• Jacquesson – Terre Rouges Rose 2003 – (3/5)
Very surprising wine. It was more of a cherry red than rose. Not opaque but much darker than expected. Strong red cherry aromas with traditional yeast, dough undertones. Softer acidity than other wines.
By the time we were done it was 4pm. I bought some wine jumped in my car and headed back to Reims. It was then that Jet Lag set in. I fought as hard as I could to stay awake but I was fighting a losing battle. By my calculations I had only 4 hours of sleep over a 30 hour period. Jet lag had won out. It was 8pm and I went to bed … besides I still had another two days in Champagne, I could afford to sleep now.
I have more to report but this has gotten long enough … next up: Ruinart, Champagne Caves, Vueve Clicquot, Epernay, Avenue de Champagne and Moet & Chandon.