Still Can’t Pop Champagne

Prior to a recent weekend trip, I didn’t know much about Champagne- the beverage or the region. I had drank champagne (most often with OJ) under the assumption that it came from Champagne, France, and could probably name a handful of the most widely recognizable brands, but I was likely pronouncing their names incorrectly and was (still am) certainly unwilling to spend over $100, let alone $500, on a single bottle. Luckily, our visit to the Champagne region of France was not for naught and I am proud to say that I departed with more knowledge of the famous bubbles, and definitely less thirsty.

Dan and I headed out after work on Friday evening and after a pleasant three hour drive via highway and narrow winding roads, arrived in the town of Hautvillers, where we had rented our Airbnb for the weekend. We chose to stay in Hautvillers based on our friends’ recommendation, but there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of places to stay in the area- whether it be Reims, Épernay, or other small towns. We were very happy with our decision as the apartment had a large patio overlooking the vineyards and while it was still a bit too cold to sit outside late into the evening, we were able to enjoy the views in the warm afternoon sun.

Hautvillers, a rural quiet village nestled amongst the vine covered hills, offers plenty of opportunity for affordable sampling at the local champagne houses, but perhaps its real claim to fame is its connection to the monk whose name is so closely associated with champagne- Dom Pérignon. Pérignon was the cellar master at the abbey in Hautvillers and is known for pioneering a number of winemaking techniques around 1670, which included the mastery of bottling wines in order to capture the bubble that makes champagne a sparkling wine. It wasn’t actually until more than a century after his death that the development of sparkling wines became the main style of production in Champagne. And to bring it full circle, that expensive bottle of champagne we know as Dom Pérignon is actually one brand of vintage Champagne produced by the Champagne House Moët & Chandon. It’s their most prestigious and most widely recognizable thanks to the work of a monk!

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Sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it is made with certain grapes from this region

The real fun started Saturday morning with a run, uphill both ways (really!), before a mid-morning outdoor breakfast at one of the very few cafes in town- Café d’Hautvillers. The town streets were small and quiet throughout most of our visit, but where people were gathered to eat and drink, there was a lively atmosphere. To give you a sense of how small this town is, we were seated next to a bachelor party (we think) at our breakfast and proceeded to run into them at each of the subsequent three places we visited that morning and afternoon. By the third stop, we were greeting each other warmly.

We enjoyed our breakfast of fresh French bread and cheese on a sunny but chilly morning before we made our way to the real meal of the day. Again, the town is quaint, so there are select places to eat, especially in the evenings, but Au 36 sure delivered on lunch! We opted for an indoor seat to warm up and then ordered our first champagne sampler to go with a chicken and vegetable stew. The champagne samplers at AU 36 are “brand blind” so you aren’t told which brand you are drinking until you’re finished. Fortunately, they do label the glasses with the type of wine you are trying, in our case, the champagnes were made from the pinot noir, meunier, and chardonnay grapes. My favorite was the meunier, while Dan’s was pinot noir.

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Dan on our lovely balcony overlooking the vineyards

From our lunch spot, we walked just up a couple blocks to our first champagne house- Champagne G. Tribaut. At the smaller, local champagne houses, there is no need to make a reservation, you simply pop in and request to do a sampling. A tasting of at least three champagnes will cost around 10 euros with the cost waved if you end up purchasing a couple bottles, which we had no problem doing! The staff were friendly and helpful in answering our questions in a relaxed, no pressure environment- a great first stop!

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Dan admiring our second round of tasting

I think we were still in the early stages of the tourist season because we discovered that the champagne houses seemed to close earlier than their Google advertised times. Between our late lunch and first stop, we weren’t left with a lot of options that remained open after 4pm, but a little venturing out past the Moët & Chandon fields led us to Champagne Pierre Gobillard. We sampled another round and left with two more bottles and a better understanding of the kinds of grapes that we preferred.

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The Moët & Chandon vineyards

We trekked back up the hill to our Airbnb to enjoy a pre-dinner appetizer with more champagne while enjoying the view from the apartment patio. Even though it required some serious layers and bundling, the peaceful atmosphere overlooking the vineyards was worth it!

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Pre-dinner snacks & hydration with a view

Our dinner at Restaurant de L’Abbaye was equally relaxing as we almost had the spacious restaurant to ourselves. I think the pre-dinner bottle of champagne was working its magic as I suddenly discovered that I could understand the waitress as she was explaining various menu items to us in French. She took our drink orders and walked away, at which point, Dan looked at me in surprise that I had been able to follow along with her questions and explanations. Let me be clear though- I was nowhere close to being able to respond in French, but later on when she explained that the meal I had ordered would take some time to prepare and therefore we may want to take an appetizer, I realized that I knew exactly what she was explaining. I’ve always said that my Spanish improves with wine, so I suppose my French comprehension improves with champagne… it also helps when the person speaking to me does so in a slow manner with plenty of gesturing. Dan’s French pronunciation skills still exceed mine and when the champagne wears off, I return to normal Kaitlan who has, on occasion in Brussels, accidentally responded with “gracias” instead of “merci”.

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We tried to buy the champagne by the barrel…

Turns out that drinking a lot of champagne in one day will make you very sleepy and in small-town Hautvillers, the late-night activities are rather limited as it is. The next morning we were on our way back to Brussels, but not before making a couple stops along the way- first in Reims for a pastry breakfast and then to see the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims. The cathedral is beautiful and bears some resemblance to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame in Paris, but with fewer tourists.

Our final stop before arriving back in Brussels was at the Chimay Abbey where we walked the grounds briefly but weren’t fortunate enough to get a peek at the monks’ Trappist beer brewing.

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The Abbey at Chimay Blue

Our weekend in Champagne was brief but relaxing. Hautvillers is the perfect place to spend your day walking between champagne houses without an agenda and because I still haven’t mastered the art of popping a champagne bottle, we have a reason for a second visit.

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