Le Tour is always a celebration, a celebration of France, of a new champion en jaune and the celebration of all that is road cycling. As ingrained in French culture as Le Tour is, there are few things as quintessentially French as Champagne. Interestingly though, sparkling wine was actually “discovered” a long way south of that famous region, in the Languedoc, in the tiny commune of Saint-Hilaire. This year’s iteration of the Tour hits all the highlights of this bubbly, French cultural icon, with the stage 3 finish and stage 4 start in the respective Champagne capitals, Épernay and Reims, while the mountainous stage 15 launches from Limoux—the wine growing area around Saint-Hilaire.
As the peloton storms into Épernay to close out the punchy stage 3, with six short climbs in the final hour, the race enters the epicenter of the Champagne region with its chalky hills and rolling vineyards. These white, mineral soils give the wines their flavor and character, but the soft, porous nature of chalk, also means that it’s easy to excavate. That may be the true key to this region’s bubbles. Beneath the Avenue de Champagne in Épernay lie 110 kilometers of caves and tunnels holding more than 200 million bottles of the good stuff! Champagne’s secondary fermentation takes place in these caves, giving it its bubbles, its sparkle. The most extensive network of caves, and the most famous, belong to Moët et Chandon.
The house once called Moët et Cie. [that’s short for Compagnie] was founded in 1743, the first winery in Épernay to exclusively produce sparkling wines. It began shipping Champagne to Paris and became the favored bubbly of Louis XV until his death in 1774. Today, Moët et Chandon is without a doubt the world’s most famous Champagne house, producing 28 million bottles a year. The company also produces the world’s most famous Champagne, Dom Perignon. Moët though has never sacrificed quality even as one of the largest Champagne producers.
Like most Champagne houses, the wines produced at Moët et Chandon tend to be blends across a variety of vineyards, as well as vintages (years). This non-vintage approach (the norm here), is done in Champagne the same way it might be done with Scotch or Bourbon to achieve an expected and preferred style. Moët et Chandon also produces a number of single vintage Champagnes, each signifying a special year—these are wines that tell a story of a moment in time in Champagne.
While Épernay sits among the bucolic vineyards of Champagne, Reims is a proper city and the region’s commercial capital. The Tour will head out of this northern French city on stage 4 toward Nancy on a 213.5-kilometer stage destined for the sprinters. Reims is home to some of Champagne’s most prestigious brands and big names like Krug and Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. Alongside those big names, newer houses such as Champagne André Jacquart—founded by a family that for generations grew grapes made into Champagne by other producers and began producing its own wines in the late 1950s—and the upstart Champagne Bruno Paillard, founded in 1981.
These new producers signal a modern movement in the relatively conservative world of Champagne, which is one of the most deeply traditional wines in the world. These fresh, creative wineries certainly respect and honor those traditions while bringing something new to the table. At Champagne Jacquart, new generations of women are leading this producer and making its wines. It is a proper grower Champagne, in that all of its wines are made from its own 59-acre estate vineyards, rare among the big brands that source grapes from across the region. At Paillard, which began acquiring estate vineyards in the mid 1990s, the staff does work with other growers to produce its blended wines. Paillard though, the first new name in the Champagne region’s business in nearly a century, designed an aboveground cellar, using modern technology to aid in the production of its wines. And so this French classic remains in good hands, the standard bearers safeguarding tradition, side by side with new kids on the block offering fresh takes on an iconic wine.
MOËT & CHANDON: 2009 Grand Vintage Brut
This vintage Champagne, 10 years on, may be the perfect wine to toast the occasion as the 2019 Tour de France rolls across the vineyards of Champagne on your television set. It is a mature Champagne that hints at its age with aromas of toasted brioche, hazelnuts and white flowers. The palate is elegant yet powerful and impressive with flavors of fleshy stone fruit, honey and lemon crème. $75 moet.com
MOËT & CHANDON: 2012 Grand Vintage Brut
A slightly more youthful take that still shows plenty of benefits of ageing wine. This blend emphasizes Chardonnay, while the ’09 is Pinot Noir dominant. (These two grapes, along with Pinot Meunier, are the only grapes allowed in Champagne.) Aromas of ripe pear and crème brûlée, and a lush palate of lively fruit, almonds and a yeasty, full mouthfeel. $75
ANDRÉ JACQUART ROSÉ DE SAIGNÉE EXPERIENCE: Brut Nature NV Premier Cru
This is a more typically non-vintage grower Champagne. A blend of 80-percent Pinot Noir from a 5-acre parcel located within the Vertus Premier Cru and 20-percent Chardonnay from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger Grand Cru, the wine is fermented in new-oak (25 percent) and old-oak Burgundy barrels. Aromas offer a glimpse of the unique Jacquart approach, along with the fairly dark hue, and you can pick up the newoak hints and cut strawberry. The palate is rich, Montmorency cherry, with a long finish of strawberry crème. $58
BRUNO PAILLARD CHAMPAGNE ROSÉ: Brut Première Cuvée
This wine is as pretty to drink as it is to look at. A blend across vintages that includes reserve wines dating to 1985, this Champagne is uniquely almost 100-percent Pinot Noir; the percentage of Chardonnay in the wine is kept secret. A beautiful light pink wine balances delicacy and fullness. Aromas of cut strawberries and lemon crème, the palate belies the light pink tinges with dark fruit flavors of cherry, blackberry and dried figs. $70