Friday, 11 March 2011

The Champagne caves of Etoges

On our recent trip to France, we took the opportunity to explore and exploit the champagne cave tours hosted in the Etoges area of the Champagne region.


We drove down through the fairly flat fields in the cold but sunny air and worried that as we were a little out of season, we would be turned away. The holiday cottages organised a bus trip to the caves during high season, but we chose to make our own way in the car and take a chance.We drove the hour car ride to the Borel-Lucas caves and knocked on the door eagerly awaiting and anticipating the sight of a cave right there behind the front door.



Instead, a very straight woman answered the door with her 'sleepingbag coat' and she unbolted the door from the inside to reveal a lovely, lavish lobby area where I presumed you could taste the champagnes after the tour. She lead us through to the yard where she opened up the closed up factory just for us and we were met with stacks of boxed and wrapped bottles of local champagne. The first thing we saw was the huge grape press and storage vats below where the juice fell to be stored at the first stage. There were no signs of a single grape, but it was February so not too surprising. The smell of corked and thick wine funk was very strong and rustic in your nostrils and I was wondering where all the wine was!


She then showed us the stainless steel vats were the grape juice is stored in varying combinations. For example, when mixing a rose they add a 10% red wine mix to the champagne.


We headed down to the actual caves where tiny dim lights illuminated the rows of circular bottle ends all bottoms up and pointing downwards. She explained that champagne carbonates inside the bottle and this is how it is fermented in order to trap the bubbles. In normal wine, this is done in the bulk process so the carbon dioxide is released before bottling. When inside the bottles the mix is turned a quarter of a turn every day for a very long time!!! Then the fermented bottle is frozen in a machine and the very top frozen block in the neck of the bottle, once frozen is removed while retaining the air and contents. This way only the sludge and fermentation residue lying at the neck of the bottle is removed which is made possible after storing them at the 45 degree angle. The caves are very cold and so work to preserve the contents.






We were then shown the corking and labeling processes. We watched all this with interest and then we were led back into the lobby for a good old tasting. The woman opened three bottles of different champagnes for us to sample, a blend of three grapes, a chardonnay and a sweet champagne.




We decided to buy six bottles in total as this worked out quite cheap, so we came away with one of each available kind plus two more!! It was nice to feel like we were doing something with a bit of culture while also being educated on the trickery of Champagne!

Although the whole tour took only an hour, it was worth it. I do feel that maybe during the summer months it might be a bit more exciting. You may actually see the grapes being juiced in the big press or a few bottles being popped at once making for a good atmosphere. On this cold February afternoon however, there was just me, my two sisters and Tom. This just made it all the more special!


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