It was a dark and stormy night.
The hot, humid weather here in Reims broke at about midnight last night with a fierce electrical storm that woke up pretty much everyone in the hotel. In its wake, it left cool, breezy weather. We're pretty happy about that.
We started the morning with a low-key breakfast in the hotel lobby and then we headed back to the Cathedral to get a better look. We were in such a jet-lagged haze yesterday that we missed all the details. This is gothic architecture, beautiful and creepy, with flying buttresses and headless bishops. We're a little blasé about old churches. They're beautiful, but we've seen a lot of them and we don't linger. We were more interested in this one for a couple of reasons... its sheer scale, and Marc Chagall's stained glass windows. The facade, the windows, the pulpits, and the organs (the largest of which was so big that we couldn't tell, at first, that it was an instrument) stand in stark contrast to the spaces provided for worshippers. Unlike the beautiful pews at a newer Cathedral like St. Patrick's, this one has row upon row of simple wood chairs that lack in ornamentation and are nailed together in rows of various sizes. Really, we were fascinated by this place. It took several generations to complete, and as grand as it seemed to us, we can't even fathom what it looked like to the medieval peasants who built it.
Our only commitment for the day was a 2:15 PM tasting appointment in Vertus, so we decided to spend the morning and early afternoon touring the surrounding areas. Our first stop was the amusingly and appropriately named village of Bouzy, a tiny, quiet collection of Champagne houses with many familiar names on the walls. We toured the village on foot, and then drove up a path through the vineyards to a lookout spot high above Bouzy for a panoramic view. The vines seem to go on forever, in perfectly manicured and delineated sections owned by God knows how many growers.
From Bouzy we drove to Epernay and Le Mesnil Sur Oger. We passed a few of the larger Champagne houses and spotted tour buses in their lots, but we knew we wouldn't see any buses where we were headed. We made our way to Vertus, where we killed a baguette and a wedge of raw milk brie de meaux on a park bench before our appointment at Veuve Fourny et. Fils. We had no experience with Fourny's wines before our visit, but since they're distributed by Kermit Lynch, we knew they'd be up our alley. We were early, so we walked up a block to the village cemetery. In a small village like Vertus, the names on centuries-old tombstones are the same names you'll find on local mailboxes. Ancient graves are as well tended as new ones. This cemetery is older of course, but it reminded us of the old McBride Pioneer Cemetery outside Carlton. If you have to be dead, what better place to rest than in the shadow of great vineyards?
One stone in particular caught out attention: a memorial to members of the French resistance who were killed by the Nazis during WWII. Many vignerons in Champagne went to great lengths to protect their wine during the Nazi occupation, even building hidden tunnels and vaults to keep their best vintages from being stolen or destroyed. They considered their wine a national treasure, and we've seen several monuments here that commemorate their efforts. As we learned during our tour at Fourny, many of the caves survived, but most of the buildings above them did not.
When we made our way to Fourny, we were nervous. We've visited many wineries over the years, but always in Oregon and California. French and German wines are our true loves, but the language barrier is intimidating. The moment Charles Fourny greeted us with a huge smile and fluent English, we relaxed.
In American tasting rooms, you usually pay a fee to taste the wines, and then the fee is refunded with a purchase. Sometimes the tasting rooms are staffed by people who participate in the winemaking process, but generally they are not. We had no idea what to expect here, but we were absolutely blown away by the experience. Charles, who is both an owner and vigneron at Veuve Fourny, spent more than three hours with us, showing us every aspect of how he produces his Champagne. He walked us through the vineyard, through the winemaking facilities, through the caves, and then into a diningroom to try the wines. We learned so much from him about Champagne in general, but also about the distribution process. We learned about how the chalky soil contributes to the outstanding minerality in these wines, particularly the ones that are 100% Chardonnay. We also learned why distributors serve an important purpose in the post 9/11 world.
We did not see any wine for sale in the tasting room, and the topic never came up. To our surprise, though, he gave us a bottle of vintage Blanc de Blancs to take home. From start to finish, it was our own personal Euro Disney.
It was dinnertime by the time we made it back to Reims. We were too tired and disheveled for anything formal, so we settled into a casual brasserie for a long, relaxing meal. They were kind enough to provide us with an English menu. The translations were imperfect, but absolutely charming. We both started with the "droppings of goat" (actually a goat cheese crottin atop puff pastry and ratatouille) and they were de-lish.
Off to Beaune...