Friday, November 29, 2013

Champagne Travel At Harvest Time

Champagne Harvest Collage copyright Paige Donner 2013  Local Food And Wine All Rights Reserved

by Paige Donner

All photos copyright Paige Donner 2013 All Rights Reserved

Paige is the host of World of Wine radio program on WorldRadioParis.

Planning a trip through Champagne during harvest time might at first feel like mission impossible, but if you use a few basic principles by which to plan your itinerary it can be more gratifying than imagined being at the center of all the harvest action. Certainly it's guaranteed to be visually and sensorially rewarding.

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              First thing to do is check to see when floraison, or flowering of the buds, were for the year. That information is easy to come by in any of the wine journals or online. From that reference point, count about 100 days out and these are your dates for harvest time, give or take a couple of days. So with a solid three months in advance to plan your exact days of arrival and departure to coincide with the actual 10 days to 2 weeks of harvest, plenty of options will still be available for you when it comes to booking hotels and harvest time excursions.

This year's Champagne harvest had a relatively late flowering, in parts it was the end of June, in others it was the beginning of July. Which putvendanges this year into the first two weeks of October. A remarkable contrast with, say, the harvest of 2011 one of the earliest Champagne harvests in recorded history. That year put harvest time, a date of official decree by the CIVC, Comité Interprofessionel du vin de Champagne, late August /early September.

In the strictly managed appellation of Champagne, the grapegrowers do not have the right to harvest when they will.  "We are obliged to wait for the dates given to us by the official CIVC decree," explains Anouk Westeel, Champagne Bollinger's communications person. With 164 hectares owned by this venerable house, they wait with bated breath every harvest season for the CIVC announcement. Hence, the diverse region sees a staggered harvest with some areas beginning sooner than others.

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"All the vineyards you see spread out before you, they're a patchwork of parcels owned by different houses; Not all of this belongs to Bollinger," further explains Westeel, looking out from atop her preferred vantage point, the pinnacle of the very select Côte des Enfants, a steeply perched plot of Pinot Noir just up and behind the village of Aÿ that is used for their prestige cuvées. "Other of our vineyards are in the Côte des Blancs, for example, which already started harvesting a few days ago" she points out.

With a bit of astute planning, then, a harvest time trip through Champagne can be timed to be at the center of the action for the duration.The key to getting the richest experiences out of harvest season in Champagne is to skirt the bigger cities of Reims and Épernay and hug the smaller towns and villages such as Avize, Aÿ, Hautvillers and Rilly-la-Montagne. To do this, your own transportation is essential.

From Paris there's a fast train to Reims (45 minutes) or a slow train to Épernay (1hour 15 minutes). Either are good starting off points and both cities offer car rental options. You can also hire a car and driver or take taxis to various destinations, options you can tailor to your budget and spirit for adventure.

If you hire your own rental car, the Route Touristique du Champagne offers marked roads through some of the prettiest of the Champagne countryside, such as the ambling hills covered with Pinot Noir vineyards extending between Reims and Épernay, the Montagne de Reims region; Another area, the famous Côte des Blancs, revered for its much-sought-after Chardonnay grapes, extends just south of Épernay and its relatively flat roads and expansive terrain through hectares upon hectares of vineyards are also marked by the Route Touristique du Champagne.

Montagne de Reims

In the Montagne de Reims, Rilly-la-Montagne offers a choice of restaurants from the Michelin-starred Le Grand Cerf to local favorites such as Le Mont Joly which serves big, thick steaks on cutting boards and at reasonable prices. The prestigious L'Assiette Champenoise (two Michelin stars) is in neighboring Tinquieux - reservations imperative - and Rilly-la-Montagne even has its own Châteaux et Hotels luxury accommodations, the Château de Rilly ( This little enclave butts right up against theParc Naturel Régional de la Montagne de Reims, a designated national park reserve. In the early Autumn the Château in Rilly offers weekly jazzsoirées, well-attended by locals.

The great advantage to travel in Champagne during  harvest time is not just the spectacular visual backdrop of ripe bunches of grapes hanging from exquisitely tended vineyards that surround quaint little historical French villages, but also the wave of high-energy and activity that is evident everywhere you look when you are in the smaller villages. Even if you are not a Champenois, it's unavoidable not to get caught up in the activity, the high spirits, the frenetic enthusiasm that is vendanges.


A Champagne village that can offer these rich experiences is Aÿ, home to Bollinger Champagne and one of the original historical Pinot Noir growing villages of Champagne. Wine enthusiasts will particularly appreciate Aÿ with its champagne houses, such as Ayala, Deutz and Collet, seemingly on every corner, punctuated only by the requisite boulangeries, crêperies and pharmacies.

One of the loveliest and least known hotels of the region is to be found here in Aÿ. Hotel Castel Jeanson ( is the lovingly restored work of Madame and Monsieur Goutorbe whose champagne house is just a few doors down from the hotel. Deceptively simple when seen from its exterior, the hotel offers a large enclosed courtyard graced with stained glass windows on the buildings that surround the spacious courtyard which house its 17 rooms and indoor swimming pool.

When I casually commented to Madame Goutorbe that one would never expect such exquisite luxury from her modest website, her response was that she prefers not to boast about her hotel's charms, either in picture or in word, "I'd rather that my guests be delightfully surprised when they discover it for themselves," she confided. I told her that in English we have a phrase for this: "Underpromise and overdeliver."

For the Goutorbes, who are originally nursery managers and vine cultivators and now vineyard owners themselves, the 5 year restoration process for the dilapidated and abandoned building that their gorgeous hotel once was, was a much bigger labor of love than they had ever anticipated. And it shows. Busy seasons are May, June and September, October.

Of particular interest to the wine geek will be the discovery of the Villa Bissinger, the Institut International des Vins de Champagne. With a name like that it's easy to imagine that this is a year-round school for serious sommeliers studying for their Master of Wine certification. In fact, it is a facility, unique of its kind in Champagne, where champagnes in all their diversity and all their terroirs are presented, tasted, explained and discussed.

It welcomes groups of, "A minimum of 6-8 people, and up to 50," says Villa Director Etienne Monet. The modern classroom interiors and theater-like seating are in sharp contrast to the 19th c. mansion in which it is housed.  Groups traveling to the region can enjoy participating in a morning or afternoon or even full day of "courses" about champagne at Villa Bissinger and you needn't be professional or in the trade to qualify, but advance booking is required (

Another excursion Aÿ offers is a guided pedestrian trail that leads you past historical and cultural landmarks in the village. One thing you'll find about the tourist offices in the region is that when you know what to ask for, they will provide the information. It all hangs on knowing what to ask for. So if you ask for Les Musardises Agéennes, you will be given a brochure that marks a trail to follow through the village where plaques and signposts mark your way. The starting point is at Villa Bissinger. From there the footpath follows the small streets up along the vineyards which are just behind the village and eventually down past the former ancestral home of Jacques and Lily Bollinger at 16 rue Jules Lobet. The whole walking excursion lasts no more than an hour, not counting bakery stops and café pauses along the way.


Just a few kilometers past Aÿ is the celebrated and touristy Hautvillers. Famous as the village of Dom Perignon, the 17th c; monk and "inventor" of champagne, this charming little hilltop village gets its fair share of tour buses. But this hasn't diminished its charm and the church, L'Eglise Abbatiale d'Hautvillers, is a breathtaking gem which houses the grave of Dom Pierre Perignon marked by an inscripted stone.  The Abbey where the monk lived is just behind but is not open to the public, only to guests of the private corporation which owns it.

A local favorite hang in Hautvillers is Le 36 which offers a solid selection of grower champagnes by the flute with small-plate snacks to accompany. (Le 36 is not to be confused with Épernay's Le 26, hands down theCapitale du Champagne's friendliest place to order pizza and a bottle of champagne while you kick back and watch the rugby match on the big-screen TV with local vineyard managers and workers).

Just past Hautvillers is Fleury-la-Riviere, what many say is one of the prettiest little villages in Champagne. La Cave Aux Coquillages is the must-see here. It is a cellar-museum housing fossilized seashells from  Champagne's Kimmeridgean soils. Champagne connoisseurs will appreciate this as it's these seashells and the ancient seabed that the region of Champagne once was, that lends itself to the particular evolution and finesse of its chalky soils and elegant terroir.

The Côte des Blancs

Switching directions now and heading into Chardonnay territory still requires a vehicle. The Côte des Blancs boasts the most expensive grapes in Champagne. Its Chardonnay vineyards yield the grapes that give the most celebrated champagnes their elegance and finesse, say the experts. The majority of champagnes are a blend of the three AOC approved grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier. The exception to this are the Blanc de Blancs, blended completely from Chardonnay grapes and the Blanc de Noirs, blended from either or both of the red varietals.

Among the many, many excellent producers to be found in the Côte des Blancs, in the celebrated villages of Oger, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, and Vertus to name several, few enjoy the cult status of Anselme Selosse and his Selosse champagnes. Champagne connoisseurs travel to the region just to find some of this sought-after champagne which sells out in Japanese, English and Belgian markets in record time after its release.

Even if you're not on a mission to buy rare champagnes, you can still enjoy a bit of this rarefied air by stopping in at the hotel and restaurant opened by Corinne and Anselme Selosse a few seasons ago. The Hôtel Les Avisésis in Avize, one of the bigger little villages in the Côte des Blancs, home to the viticultural trade school of the region and also to the champagne house Selosse. The refined luxury of the hotel is the fruit of a meticulous restoration process of a building dating to the 1820's that "always had its history steeped in wine production." It's best to call to make reservations for one of the ten rooms as you may send 3 or even 4 emails to the contact address on the website before getting a response, or not (

Other than this emphasis on the need for your own transportation, things don't have to be difficult when touring the charming Champagne countryside. Hautvillers and the Côte des Blancs require a vehicle. But if you're without one, Rilly-la-Montagne and Aÿ can be accessed by the little commuter train that runs between Reims and Épernay every few hours from morning until early evening and makes stops in both villages. Roundtrip ticket fare is under 20 euros.



Monday, November 18, 2013

Dark Chocolate Vinaigrette - Lettuce Tempting

From Taza Chocolate

Made from 100% stone-ground, organic chocolate using only superior-quality ingredients, we call this Mexican-style chocolate our "guilt-free dessert." 

Notable Benefits of Pure Dark Chocolate
Chock-full of antioxidants
Reduces stress
Rich in iron, calcium and vitamins A, B1, C, D and E
Flavonols help protect from sunburn and UV damage
Copper, zinc and iron contribute to healthy, shiny hair
Helps lower blood pressure
Has been shown to reduce risk factors for heart disease

RECIPE: Taza Chocolate Vinaigrette


1 Taza Salt & Pepper Chocolate Mexicano Disc, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Kosher salt and pepper


1. In a small sauce pan, over medium low heat, combine chocolate and balsamic vinegar. Heat, stirring often, until chocolate is melted.
2. Allow to cool, then whisk in olive oil and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
3. Serve drizzled over summer greens dotted with goat cheese, sliced red onions, raspberries and toasted almonds.

Ready to indulge in chocolatey goodness?

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Burgundy Preview Harvest 2013

by Paige Donner

(translated from French)

christies-hospices-de-beaune cherie du vin

Roland Masse : « For both reds and the whites, the balance between sugar/acid is excellent. There's a relative consistency among the whites, with good maturity and an aromatic freshness thanks to the natural acid. The reds are less consistent, and some suffered from the grail storm in July. We have, nonetheless, great hope for the quality of our cuvees from Côte de Nuits, the Colline de Corton and also Monthélie, all of which are exhibiting a marked potential for aging. »

-  Press Conference, Hospices de Beaune, Christie's Auction House, Paris Oct. 29th 2013

Christie's Hospices de Beaune press conference photo copyright Paige Donner 2013 Local Food And Wine

Roland Masse Hospices de Beaune photo copyright Paige Donner Loca Food And Wine

Burgundy Wines 2013 – In The Eyes of Roland Masse, Director of the Hospices de Beaune Vineyards and Cellars

Burgundy's 2013 pinot noirs will have the distinction of a rare wine.  The Autumn-like weather we had in the Spring and the grail we saw in July served to ravage many of the vineyards in the Côte de Beaune.

The Côte de Nuit and the Colline de Corton escaped much of this climactic perturbation and will offer us their elegant ruby gems this year as is customary for Bourgogne Grand Crus even in difficult years.

The late harvest, started at the beginning of October, will give us reds that are both tannic and « tonic ». In general, 2013 is a year that varied significantly throughout Burgundy, weather-wise and this will be evidenced in the respective harvests from each of the Climats.

For the whites, the harvest was still a light one (30hl/ha) even though these vineyards were less affected by the capriciousness of the weather.

The one constant for the 2013 whites is their freshness, a taste profile that is associated with a solid maturity for Chardonnays.

In sum :  2013 is a rare and precious vintage.

Burgundy Wines 2013 

As Seen By Anthony Hanson, Master of Wine, Senior Consultant to Christie's

2013 is as promising a vintage for the Burgundy reds as for the whites.

The growing season for the vines this year played out delicately, as if in a stage play, but the vineyard managers and cellar masters of the Domaine des Hospices de Beaune superbly defied the forces of nature.

April and May were wet months with little sun which put floraison late into the end of June.  Great care was taken to prevent the setting in of mildew. In July, the sun appeared unabashedly, bringing with it warm temperatures and hours of sunlight that exceeded averages in recent years.  Rain was limited to four storms, one of which, that of July 23rd, when it hailed, damaged some of the vines. Vineyards that were affected were those of Beaune and Pommard as well as some of the neighboring villages to the north and south. By July, the vines had recovered to their normal growing cycles. In August and September the sun exposure stayed average and rain was only occasional which allowed for favorable maturation of the grapes.


For 2013, 43 Cuvées will be sold at the Hospices de Beaune auction. 30 Cuvées of red and 13 Cuvées of white wines. Of the 443 items for auction, 333 are of red wines and 110 are of white wines.

About 85% of the Hospices vineyards are classed as Premier Cru and Grand Cru which is an exceptionally high proportion.  At the time of this writing, fermentation is still underway and so it is too early to comment on the style of the 2013 vintage. Nonetheless, after seeing the quality of the harvest on the sorting tables, it is sure that we will have excellent wines this year, intensely fresh and fruity, and a silky texture.

- Christie's Auction House, Beverly Bueninck, Communications Attaché