Champagne or Sparkling? Or Both?

some of the small champagne producers in the region are producing fabulous wines at at fraction of the cost. And Champagne is beautiful as a region, so obviously I will have to go back. The only question is how soon and where to visit?

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As far back as I can remember I thought champagne was wine. Sorry I thought sparkling wine was wine, but my grandma called it champagne. In fact it was Baby Duck wine and I owe champagne, wait any sparkling wine, wait any drink you put in your mouth a huge apology for thinking Baby Duck was champagne. Or a drink of any kind. Baby Duck was a big deal in the 70s, the only way I can describe it is extra sweet alcoholic 7-up (sorry 7-up). But my grandmother loved it and I learned to associate champagne with glamour, special occasions, and celebrations. So obviously I wanted in.

It wasn’t until I was 19 I got try try actual champagne. My mom had bought a bottle of Dom Periginon to celebrate a birthday I think. Though my palate was underdeveloped (quite probably from a university diet of Kokanee beer and Southern Comfort, thankfully not together, but still shudder), I loved it. Bearing no resemblance to Baby Duck this s champagne was delicious and unfortunately  for my mother, it is the only champagne she drinks.

I say that because, the world of champagne, indeed sparkling wine are vast. varied, and delicious. I was always fascinated by champagne and learned quite early on that only the Champagne region of France can produce actual champagne. Everything else is a sparkling wine, or a cava, or a cremant, or a prosecco. Well you get the idea. But I didn’t really understand the difference. So I did what anyone would do, set a serious course of study and travel to understand the difference. That is my fancy way for saying, I started drinking a lot of sparking wine. champagne

My first real foray into the sparkling wine arena came courtesy of @benton8tor’s British cousins. My first trip to the UK was in 2006 and we were meeting them at a pub. For lunch. I thought we’d be ordering a beer maybe. Upon greeting us, his cousin ordered a bottle of Tattinger Champagne.( We actually ended up finshing 2 the rest of that day is a bit of a haze) I am still unsure if I was more surprised that the pub carried champagne or that we ordered a bottle for lunch. By the way, I have definitely gotten over the surprise at ordering a bottle of wine for lunch and embraced it. Though I still haven’t embraced the breakfast beer. Teresa poured us a glass and another and another. By this time, my palate had evolved and I was in, in in. This champagne was fascinating. The bubbles were light, with a hint of toast which I later found out is quite common due to the amount of time the wine rests sur lie ( on dead yeast cells). Ok champagne, lets do this.

However my budget can’t afford non stop champagne so I had to try other sparkling wines. I stupidly thought because they weren’t champagne, they’d be inferior, they aren’t. They are just different. I have tried cremants from Limoux in Languedoc France ( the actual birthplace of sparkling wine). They are delicious, light, easy drinking with still those toasty, nutty notes. I loved cremants from both Bourgogne and Jura. In fact I love sitting on a patio in Beaune on a hot day enjoying a Bourgogne cremant. It feels both decadent and light. thumbnail_IMG_0721

The British have really embraced champagne and upon visiting London, we often book afternoon tea complete with champagne (usually Tattinger or Bollinger). Eating those delightful cakes and tea sandwiches with a glass of bubbly is heaven. Sometimes I remember to drink the tea. The Royal Hourseguards offers a fabulous champagne tea. https://www.guoman.com/en/london/the-royal-horseguards/restaurants/afternoon-tea.html That said I personally love going to the old OXO tower factory that is converted with the fabulous OXO tower restaurant and enjoying a glass of one of their many champagnes while gazing out over the Thames.  http://www.oxotower.co.uk/who/oxo-tower-restaurant-bar-brasserie/This last trip to London we  found ourselves with sometime to kill before boarding he train at St Pancras. So obviously we had to go to the Searcy Champagne bar. http://searcysstpancras.co.uk/ Right in the middle of the station, this bar offers a extensive selection of champagne is a super cool art deco environment. It make you feel special and relaxed. Just like champagne!!! It really is the drink of celebration.

At home, cavas and prosseccos are readily available and I have learned to appreciate the cavas especially. Cavas are a sparking wine from Spain and have similar charactertics to the Limoux cremants. All these cremants,  cavas and California and Canadian sparkling wines (thankfully not baby duck) are made in the traditional method or ancestral (which is different but still recognized) method., which means they are made the same way as champagne,aged sur lie though less time,  riddled, disgorged, with a cuvee ect.. but they have a different climate, soil and grapes (well sometimes).Prosecco the Italian sparkling wine is not made in the traditional method. It is a light bright, sparkling wine and very approachable. It is not my favourite. It lack the complexity and flavours of the other sparkling wine which is appealing for some. Just not me. Either way I have learned to appreciate the less expensive but delicious cousins of champagne and use them for celebrations like Canada Day,melting snow, housewarmings, birthdays, Christmas, and Tuesdays. However champagne still has my heart.

It was this love for champagne that took me to its epicentre Reims. Reims for those of us who watched Max the Mouse cartoons growing up is where Joan of Arc met Charles the Dauphin. It is also home to the Reims catherdral where every French King was crowned.http://www.cathedrale-reims.com/ It is also the capital of Champagne and famous for St Remi converting Clovis to Christianity. thumbnail_IMG_0723And it is home to some of the most famous Champagne Houses on the planet. Mumm, Pommery, Bollinger, they are all there.  https://www.champagne-bollinger.com/en/INT/ But I had my sights set on Veuve Clicquot. Famous for being led by the widow Clicquot (hence the name Veuve Clicquot) in the 1700s who came up with the idea for riddling racks that ensure we don’t actually drink the dead yeast cells, Veuve Clicquot is rumored to be among the very best. https://www.veuveclicquot.com/en-ca

And it is. The tour led by an amazing guide Sammi Jo explains the difference and the process of crafting these beautiful wines. Champagne is set on a very distinct soil of limestone and chalk with fossilized sea creatures. Champagne is very far north for a wine producing region with less sunlight than the southern regions.  This contributes to a very distinct flavour profile. As well they take their traditions very seriously from the blending of the wine, to the riddling, to the aging to the opening of the bottle. Despite what popular culture tells us don’t pop that bottle. Instead use a towel and gently twist the cork out, you sure hear a soft hiss. This preserves the integrity and bubble in the wine and quite honestly it is much much safer. Also make sure you have the right glass to drink it in. The tulip shaped is best for fully appreciating the champagne. Flute is second best. Though retro and fun, a coupe is a terrible champagne glass and does nothing for appreciating the complexities of this delightful wine. The tour at Veuve Clicquot started with an explanation of the region and the grapes they use  ( only 3  Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay) On a 30 degree day and sweating we descended into the chalk cellar and it got cool really quickly. This is here the champagne we will later enjoy starts its life in the bottle. The cellars are fascinating but my favourite moment obviously is Sammi Jo pouring us a glass of Vintage Veuve Clicquot and it is simply the best champagne I  ever tasted. Light with floral and toast with the best bubbles, I finished my mothers as well. I am almost sure she was ok with that. Veuve Clicquot knocked it out of the park. I would recommend visiting the other houses as well. http://www.champagnepommery.com/en/marque/champagne-pommery Reims is a beautiful city that has tons to offer including said cathedral with Stained glass made by Mark Chagall. So take time to see it along with the Champagne houses. That said, some of the small champagne producers in the region are producing fabulous wines at at fraction of the cost. And Champagne is beautiful as a region, so obviously I will have to go back. The only question is how soon and where to visit?

But for now it is is the end of 2017 and start of 2018. So that means time to celebrate this first year of Vines and Voyages and welcome 2018 with a glass of Veuve  Clicquot of course. Cheers!thumbnail_IMG_0739

The Walled Cities, Carcassonne and Villefranche De Conflent

Carcassonne seemed to be the perfect place to stay. Close to both Limoux (famous for its wines, including being the birthplace of sparking wine), and Minervios, home of delicious reds, Carcassonne allowed us easy access

Carcassonne is one of France’s most famous walled cities. Its image is used frequently so when visiting the Languedoc region of France, Carcassonne seemed to be the perfect place to stay. Close to both Limoux (famous for its wines, including being the birthplace of sparking wine), and Minervios, home of delicious reds, Carcassonne allowed us easy access. Villefranche de Conflent on the other hand was a small (244 people to be exact) walled ‘city’ that @benton8tor was determined to see because of its historic and beautiful pink stone. We only spent an afternoon in VilleFranche however but that is enough time.

Carcassonne  is very beautiful and very touristy.

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Carcassonne

In fact 1 day is definitely enough time. Carcassonne is much larger than the old walled city but if you are going to Carcassonne you are going to see the walled city. It is full of shops, restaurants, and hotels. Many of them are very touristy bordering on cheesy but there are some amazing places to eat, interesting items to but, and local specialties to try… if you keep looking. My parents happened to be with us when we traveled to Carcassonne and my mother is an excellent shopping scout, bordering n full blown shopaholic. She managed to find local specialties including soaps to buy. In fact we noticed her staggering towards us under the weight of many bags. She had bought a bunch of things including soap, she has a weakness for French soap.

‘How many did you buy?’ my dad asks. ‘Seven” she says. I am skeptical and ask her how many she really bought.thumbnail_IMG_8430 13 she answers. I ask again. 21 she replies. Satisfied but thinking it is a bit much we start walking down to find a restaurant and I don’t believe her so I ask again. 27 she sighs. I still have no idea if she bought more.

However as good as she is at shopping, she is terrible at picking restaurants. That is @Benton8tors strength and Carcassonne’s wall boast surprisingly many good choices. We lucked out each of our 3 nights in Carcassonne with remarkably good restaurants. If you are in Carcassonne though you are probably going to try the cassoulet, one of the most famous regional dishes. We had great cassoulet at Les Terraces de cite http://www.lesterrassesdelacite.com/fr/carte-et-menus and at Le Trouvere (which had a super old coaching inn vibe that I loved) https://www.tripadvisor.ca/Restaurant_Review-g187151-d1207632-Reviews-Le_Trouvere-Carcassonne_Aude_Occitanie.html.  But you will need a break from cassoulet so head over to Brasserie Donjon for a break with some lighter choices http://www.cite-hotels.com/nos-restaurants/restaurant-brasserie-donjon/

Food was all well and good but I was there for wine. Not having a clue where I was going but knowing I could set the GPS for Minervios and we’d be sure to find some wineries. Well that worked but I would suggest doing research before as I made Ben drive around aimlessly for a couple of hours before finding a tiny little winery. But the winery was well well worth the  trip! Small and the tasting in a kitchen, these Minervios reds were amazing. Minervios was definitely worth exploring.

That said we were off to Limoux for its famous sparking wines. After the quaint tastings in Minervios that were so successful we arrived in Limoux at the Maison Antech. It is the complete opposite of the Minervois tasting. Modern and beautiful, @benton8tor decided the wine couldn’t be any good. Luckily we all ignored him and after the tastings, he too was a convert.

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Limoux Cremant

The cremants were particularly tasting with subtle toasty notes but still clean and refreshing. http://www.antech-limoux.fr/contents.php?la=en&site=oui&sp=l

Villefranche de Conflent is tiny. A small walled city in South West France near the Mediterranean, Pyrenees, and Spain, Villefranche is easy to miss. A walled city smaller than a North American Shopping mall. It is beautiful. famous for its pink stone lining the streets and building, Villefranche de Conflent is a sight to behold. It also boasts famous pottery (sorry suitcase) and some great restaurants including le patio with a fabulous gazpacho, and great local wines https://www.lepatio-66.com/ and the more famous and tasty Auberge Saint Paul. We didn’t spend a lot of time here and you don’t need to but it is worth the trip.

Overall the walled cities are interesting, fun but don’t plan a ton of time there. Go to the countryside, try the local restaurants an scout out some of the very underrated Languedoc wines. You won’t be disappointed.

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Pink Stone in Villefranche De Conflent