A Visit to Moët & Chandon

Moët & Chandon

One of the things that France is known for, and does very well, is luxury. Or, as it’s shortened to, in French — le luxe. It’s a world that I don’t often dip into. In fact, I’m usually on the other end of the stick. When I worked in the restaurant business, I was always the one in the back of the kitchen, stirring and baking away while everyone else was having a fancy dinner. My idea of luxury in those days was getting home at 2am, taking a shower, putting on a bathrobe, and eating a bag of tortilla chips and salsa with my feet propped up on a cushion while watching reruns of The Love Boat – and not having anyone talk to me.

Higher up than tortilla chips, in terms of price (and to some, in status) is Champagne, which is perhaps the most obvious product associated with French luxury, and fortunately, it’s an affordable one. I don’t sit around drinking it as much as I should, or would like to. (Imagine how much crazier this blog would be if I was drinking Champagne while writing it, rather than my usual trilogy of desktop snacks; bread, cheese, and chocolate?) But I do drink it from time-to-time, and it’s one of those things that in spite of globalization, the French still do best.

Moët & Chandon

One can buy a bottle of it, starting at around €20 or so in France, although prices go up from there, somewhat steeply. Still, it’s something that’s within reach of most people and interestingly, in the period starting in mid-November, through Christmas and New Years, almost every wine shop and supermarket in France has amazing deals on Champagne. I often stock up for the year! Come to think of it, I still have some from last year that I should probably use up before restocking the larder. (Who can resist a sale? Especially when it’s on Champagne…)

Moët & Chandon

Fortunately I don’t live far from Champagne, the region where the grapes are grown for the sparkler that we all love, then pressed and bottled in caves underground. Dotted around the region are the big Champagne houses, the ones that most people know about. And the smaller ones, which I’d love to visit at some point, although I need a designated driver, and that much-needed social secretary I’m waiting to show up, to make appointments as you can’t really drop into Champagne cellars unannounced, and belly up to the bar.

Moët & Chandon

One good tip, if you’re traveling anywhere in France, is to go to the tourism office and tell them what you’re looking for, and ask them what’s open and how you can arrange for a visit. Don’t be shy. That’s what they’re there for, and they are usually happy to help you, especially if you show an enthusiasm for whatever the region is known for. Although when we went to Niort a few years ago, which is world-famous for candied angelica, no one in town had a clue to where I could find the fresh stuff. Or oddly, what it even was.

Moët & Chandon

One of the bigger houses is Moët & Chandon, which has a presence in Napa Valley as Domaine Chandon, which I remember from my years living there. A number of the French Champagne producers wanted to get in on the “action” in the California sparkling wine business, and I remember the quality steadily improving over the years that I lived there. But you have to be careful and not call it “Champagne,” as that designation is reserved only for the sparkling wine that comes from this region. I goofed on the way to the domain and said “Le champagne de Californie,” (even though I know better – honest!) and was quickly corrected.

Moët & Chandon

And while it’s now a French company, the name Moët is Dutch, so you pronounce the final “t.” That much, I do know.

Moët & Chandon

I didn’t just “drop in” to Moët & Chandon, but was invited by a friend who works with them to have a visit and tasting. (Most Champagne makers, large and small, don’t have open tasting rooms and tours; you usually need to call in advance.) And because I refuse to do anything “luxurious” on my own (because I don’t want to make a fool of myself), I was happy to go with my friend Hélène of The Luxe Chronicles. We’ve traveled a bit together before, making a rather odd couple: she dressed smartly in couture, speaking impeccable French, and I, a disaster on both counts – the clothing, and the gaffes in French – as well as a few others.

Moët & Chandon

We once had lunch together in the Marais, near the Saint-Paul métro station, but not far from the Bastille. When it was time to go, even though the Bastille station had a direct train to where she was going, when I questioned why she was taking the métro from Saint-Paul, and not talking the two blocks to the Bastille, which has a direct train, she replied, “David…have you seen these heels I’m wearing?”

Moët & Chandon

So it was good to have her along, to provide a bit a class. (In contrast, to me.) And I’m dedicating this week, here on the blog, to upscale experiences…before I get back to what I do the other 362 days of the year.

We started our tasting adventures, not in Épernay, where their Champagne is made, but just off the Champs-Elysées in Paris, in the kitchen of Pavillon Ledoyen, where chef Yannick Alléno has just taken the helm.

Moët & Chandon

Chef Alléno chatted with us for a while, extolling the virtues of classic French cooking, while we sampled some vintage Champagne. And he even rubbed caviar on our hands, which he said improved the flavor of the caviar. He’s probably right, although I think that works best if you kept your hands off the métro handrails before the tasting.

(Fortunately as a former food service professional, I’d washed my hands after taking the métro, before entering the kitchen.)

Moët & Chandon

Most Champagnes are a mix of grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot meunier, and the larger houses are skillful at mixing the grapes to achieve a consistent product. They’re blended, usually from different years, to achieve a flavor profile that will appeal to a wide audience. Which is why if you pick up a bottle from a large producer, it’s going to be reliably good. (And there’s nothing worse than not-good Champagne.)

Moët & Chandon

Vintage Champagnes fall into another category and are the result of grapes from one years’ harvest and are stored longer than non-vintage Champagne. They tend to have more complex, deeper flavors, and are more expensive, of course. The first time I went to a tasting of vintage Champagne, I felt like a rube because I said that I didn’t really prefer it to regular Champagne. (See? I keep telling people that want to get together with me that I’m not fit to be out in public. That’s why they always push the pastry people to the back of professional kitchens.) But I’ve since come around to appreciate the deeper flavor of vintage Champagne, although I tend to reserve them for very special occasions. Like, when a handsome chef is smearing caviar on your hands.

Moët & Chandon

With our 2006 vintage bubbly, we tasted some “essences” that he’d made, which concentrated and focused certain flavors, everything from shellfish to mushroom reductions, which enhanced the Champagne experience. We didn’t get to dine in the restaurant, but it was nice to have a few sips and tastes in the kitchen with the chef. And I was tempted to snitch one of the gougères that were awaiting the lucky diners coming for lunch.

Moët & Chandon

However a few days later, we found ourselves on the zippy TGV train to Épernay, to meet Philippe Lesne, who took us out to the vineyards to show us the grapes.

Moët & Chandon

This year’s harvest was finished and there were just a few grapes left on the vines. Philippe said that they grow 38% Pinot noir, 34% Chardonnay, and the rest (do the math), is Pinot meunier.

Moët & Chandon

The leaves had turned beautiful colors, and I had to get down in my knees in the mud so I could get a better look. And for you to get a better look as well. As I’m learning, this luxury stuff is sometimes a dirty business.

Moët & Chandon

My always well-dressed friend Hélène was wearing heels so she was a bit more prudent than I was, with my German clompers on my feet. Philippe noted that because of the changement climatique (global warming), the weather was becoming more and more variable, and inconsistent. Even though the region is usually somewhat chilly, which is part of what gives the grapes a certain characteristic for Champagne; the grapes grow slower than other grapes grown elsewhere, giving them what the Champagne website calls a certain “crispness” and “freshness.” This August was their coldest in twenty years.

Moët & Chandon

When I brought up the thorny question of whether Normandy, the most northern part of France, and – mon dieu! – England, would someday be important wine regions, he said that no, Champagne will always be made in Champagne because of the terroir, which includes the chalky soil the vines are planted in, which provides good drainage and lends a mineral taste to Champagne.

Moët & Chandon

After traipsing through the soil, it was hard to leave the gorgeous foliage behind, as each leaf was pretty spectacular in its own right and I was mesmerized by them, we left the cool air outside, and headed inside to taste a few vintage Champagnes with Benoît Gouez, who runs the Champagne cellars, and lived in the Napa Valley for quite some time. Although the Napa Valley doesn’t have anything like this – oh la la!

Moët & Chandon

We sipped a few different vintages…

Moët & Chandon

…including a little 2006 rosé Champagne.

Moët & Chandon

Moët & Chandon

And how come I’ve never worked in kitchens that had open bottles of vintage Champagnes on the counters? Actually, when I worked in one particular restaurant, we had an unofficial rule that if the dining room was full, we got Champagne at the end of the night. Fortunately we were pretty full most nights. And when we weren’t, we really pressured the hostess to accept any and all walk-ins.

Moët & Chandon

Lunch was a glorious three-course affair served in a lovely dining room, that, for those of you who admire my life, I have to tell you, I had to walk away from mid-meal, and split.

Moët & Chandon

Fortunately I did get to taste a lovely trio of scallops, lightly smoked in the kitchen.

Moët & Chandon

But because I had to race back to Paris (good thing I was wearing sensible shoes…) due to a scheduling snafu, I missed the last two courses.

Moët & Chandon

Chef Pascal Tingaud had prepared some fregola sarda, which I saw on a pre-lunch visit to the kitchen.

Moët & Chandon

And later at the Paris airport, when faced with a poor selection of meal choices, I was craving le doggy bag.

Moët & Chandon

Perhaps one with veal and chanterelles (called girolles, in French).

Moët & Chandon

And perhaps a few post-lunch financiers : (

Moët & Chandon

But there’s no use crying over missed Champagne.

Moët & Chandon

Well, maybe a little.


To Visit Champagne

If you want to visit Champagne, and have more time than I did, you can arrange a visit at Moët & Chandon cellars, which is close to the train station, and by visiting the website of other producers to see who offers visits and tasting. There are regularly scheduled high-speed TGV trains from Paris, departing from the Gare d’Est – the trip takes approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes. Champagne tours can be arranged by the Champagne Tourism Office and Épernay Tourism. Or you can contact individual producers to make your own arrangements.


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38 comments

  • November 19, 2014 5:11pm

    A perfectly timed essay with magnificent photos and fascinating information. Thank you.

  • Zed
    November 19, 2014 5:17pm

    “When I brought up the thorny question of whether … England would someday be important wine regions, he said that no …”

    Unfortunate news for Philippe… the South Downs region of England has been turning out some increasingly good sparkling wine, and I’ve read that the geology there is strikingly similar to Champagne. I’ve even heard that the chalk layer in both places was part of the same landmass in prehistoric times.

  • November 19, 2014 5:54pm

    Brilliant post with beautiful photos. Thanks for sharing. Now I need to book a tour……. :D

  • November 19, 2014 6:02pm

    Not too shabby! Wish I could have done that tour, and enjoyed a few glasses of champagne

  • Eline
    November 19, 2014 6:30pm

    I love your humor David!
    And although I have enjoyed champagne from the big producers (moet, bollinger, taitttinger, etc) I thoroughly recommend going back and visiting the smaller houses. I took my parents on a tour through the vineyards around eparny and we did a couple of tastings (first one at 11 am!) I do recommend house Tribaut. You can simply walk in, do some tastings, and buy a few bottles to bring back with you….or a few boxes, like we did :) the family that runs the place is quite friendly and happy to answer questions.
    As always, great post!

    • November 19, 2014 6:34pm
      David Lebovitz

      Yes, would love to tour some small producers. I know you need a car (and a designated driver) – but nice to know that some are open without an appointment. And, yes, I’d be certain to bring back several boxes, too! : )

  • November 19, 2014 6:35pm

    Wow! I love this post.

    I especially like two different things:
    – One is obviuous and it´s the pictures. They are colourful and call my attention deeply.
    – The second is the introduction you do; You take away all romanticism of living in abroad, especifically in France. Sometimes living abroad in an exotic country is overrated.

    Congratulations! I will drink more Champagne from now on :)
    Best regards

  • November 19, 2014 6:51pm

    David, your bubbly prose has more than the usual typos this time, leaving me to wonder if a flute or two joined the bread, cheese, and chocolate snacks on your desk — cheers! :-)

  • John Wm Schiffeler
    November 19, 2014 6:58pm

    Moët & Chandon has continued over the past few decades to favor us with their splendid sparking wines from Napa Valley, California. In particular, I recommend their Domaine Chandon Blanc Noir with its distinct flavoring of the pinot noir grape. Without question, their wines are some of the finest and most sought after in the world.

  • November 19, 2014 7:13pm

    David,

    Back in October 2001, I was attending culinary school in Philadelphia. Our end of term class trip was to France – where we spend a great deal of time in the Champagne and Burgundy regions (with one small trip to Paris at the end). It was EXACTLY 1 month to the day of 911. People all over France were exceptionally gracious to us on this trip. One of the many highlights was a day spent at Moet & Chandon and at MUMM cellars. We traveled deep into the caves, smelled old dust, felt old bottles, watched them being turned, and then saw a true Sabering of an old bottle opened just for our group. I have always been a Champagne lover – of both the bubbly and the location. Your post reminds me of that glorious trip made bittersweet by the political climate of the decade. I’ll have to dig out my photos and journals when I get home tonight. Thank you.

  • November 19, 2014 7:16pm

    Cher David
    First, I had to laugh a few times and had bubbles rising up in my throat – just see Pamela’s comment!! :) I couldn’t possibly put it any nicer and I enjoy this rare ‘meandering’ as much as a glass of bubbly.
    Then; drinking champagne AND thoroughly enjoying it is something I only learned living here in France. Before, it was ‘just’ something extraordinary and often with not so terribly good stuff, here it’s a ‘something special on every day (if need be!)’ and although at the beginning I voiced a few times that Champagne didn’t do anything for me I am now a firm defender and promoter of this delightful sparkly and incredible stuff.
    Finally, both, your post and the incredible photos, are – once again – out of this world. Thank You!
    Je bois à ta santé

  • Lynn
    November 19, 2014 7:25pm

    To follow on from Zed’s comment above, the Carmel Valley area of Cornwall (not the Carmel Valley of California) is also turning out sparkling wine which is acceptable for the price – around $30 a bottle, I think. The underlying rock in that area must be granite or Delabole slate, so probably gives the grapes a mineral taste.

  • November 19, 2014 7:25pm

    A fantastic post and beautiful pictures! I learned, laughed, RELATED, and enjoyed a lot. Going to read it again.

  • Elizabeth
    November 19, 2014 7:28pm

    I love this post — Champagne is one of my favorite food groups! We visited the region last year, and had some wonderful, and very different, tasting experiences. We visited two of the “biggies”, Pommery and Mumm, the “smallest of the big houses”, Ayala, and two tiny producers outside of Epernay, Pascale Henin and Tallemart (I think — it was a total stumble-upon). The small producers were the most fun — sitting around someone’s kitchen table while a couple of generations wander in and out, telling you about their wine, was priceless. It’s totally worth a little leg-work to set up those kinds of tastings.

  • cheryl
    November 19, 2014 7:34pm

    David, I don’t know how you made that choice to leave the meal! I think something would have had to make me miss my next appointment…

    We recently repatriated to the US from Paris and I just can’t bring myself to drink the stuff they call “champagne” from California. I see a recommendation from a previous post (thanks John) so will try that but I typically just don’t have a palette for California wines.

  • Chuck Carlsbad
    November 19, 2014 7:46pm

    Hello David, What a wonderful article you have written. I remember our visit to Moet as though it was yesterday. Riding in a van at breakneck speeds with me begging the driver to slow down and him making excuses that we would be late for our appointed tour time. The other family took it all in stride, however I was thinking of the disaster of several people killed on a tour bus earlier in the season, albeit somewhere other than France. We arrived at Moet et Chandon precisely 32 minutes ahead of schedule. The timekeepers at Le Mans would have been happy. So we sat and waited for our tour.

    It all got better. Hundreds of thousands of bottles in the cellars, listening for an occasional pop of one exploding as they do; and finally the tasting room. We left for our hotel with 3 bottles of Dom Perignon Vintage 1993 and made amends with our driver at a rest stop after visiting the home Parish of Dom Perignon and viewing his relic at Abbey of Hautvillers, Champagne, France. Our plan was to enjoy 1 of the Dom’s and take the other two home to California.

    Upon arrival back at Hotel de L’Esperance, Madam Helene softened a bit when she saw the bottle that I was hoping she might chill down for us and sure enough she was thrilled to be of service. We enjoyed the champagne as each of the aromas and tastes developed over the time we drank it. After a day trip to Lyon, Madam chilled another and again on our last night after a marvelous trip on the Seine after sunset on the Vedettes de Pont Neuf.

    We left Paris 5 days later empty handed of Dom Perignon, only the memory and….a nice liter of Grand Marnier for which someone accepted a US $20 bill. See you in Paris come next April. We can’t wait. Thanks again for the great article.

  • Camille
    November 19, 2014 8:07pm

    I visited the Champagne region by bike this summer and it was an absolute highlight of a month and a half in France. The tourism offices in Reims and Epernay are so helpful. Over the summer the Epernay office even has two rotating producers sampling champagne for free. We had a great time visiting the producers outside Troyes in the south of the region as well. Champagne was much more affordable than I thought it would be – we had amazing bottles at between 14-18 euros. If anyone is interested, some of the bike routes we used were from Lonely Planet’s Cycling in France.

  • Kim B.
    November 19, 2014 9:06pm

    Pascal is so talented!! I saw him there in profile — lucky you!!! And he’s such a sweet guy too.

  • Gavrielle
    November 20, 2014 3:13am

    Mmmmmm….. The definition of hell: being the designated driver on a tasting tour of Champagne. I’d need a hell of a lot of caviar smeared on my hands to volunteer for that.

  • RPD
    November 20, 2014 6:24am

    Not sure what the scheduling snafu was but it would have been insanely important for me to duck out on that lunch. It looked amazing!!

  • susan wing
    November 20, 2014 6:46am

    Though I realize you are photographer and writer as well, how I would have loved to see your hands being rubbed with caviar!! That sounds like a sensuous scene from a film.

  • shelly matheis
    November 20, 2014 9:59pm

    “Three be the things I shall never attain:
    Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.”

    Dorothy Parker

  • Gary
    November 20, 2014 11:16pm

    One of our greatest pleasures, in traveling throughout France, is meeting the people and tasting the treasures they produce, in the area it is produced….cognac in Cognac, camembert in Camembert, and so forth. My very best memory in this line was a tiny Calvados distillery in Normandy….besides the drink, the elderly owner proudly showed me his antique automobile collection, which included dozens of 1920’s and 1930’s French heavy trucks and cars.

  • November 21, 2014 3:19am

    Great post. I really enjoy reading your posts and I LOVE your instagram pics! You make me laugh and teach me much. Thanks!

    I always try to have champagne in the house now. Give me some ripple chips and a few glasses of champagne and you’ve got a happy camper! :) Simplicity meets luxury.

  • November 21, 2014 6:56am

    I loved this post and I love that you’re a mere mortal like the rest of us. I had some Moët & Chandon the other day and thought I should learn to live more luxuriously. Then I went home, put on shorts and a t-shirt, took off my shoes and went to work.

  • Sandra
    November 21, 2014 9:34am

    I guess Freddy Mercury never got the memo about pronouncing that “t” :-).

  • LWood
    November 21, 2014 10:18am

    The leaves are beautiful. Thanks for braving the mud to share with us.

  • November 21, 2014 3:03pm

    Sparkling post indeed! All the photos are excellent, but the last one is beyond fabulous with its cool monochromatic tones and elegant composition.

    I am absolutely fascinated that smearing caviar on your palms will improve its flavour! Perhaps the underlying reason for that to be valid plays a role in why eating while using your fingers is so appealing.

  • Darcie
    November 21, 2014 7:12pm

    A lovely and informative article. I volunteer to be the “sober cab,” because I can only drink small amounts of Champagne before I experience excruiciating heartburn (yes, this is a terrible affliction). Since my French is, well, non-existent, I will hardly be of service other than driving. (Wouldn’t it be a ‘gas’ to take an old Citroen 2CV on such a tour? I can drive one and fix it as well, which may be necessary.) Cheers!

  • November 21, 2014 9:02pm

    A beautiful post… colourful, informative and *spirited*!

  • Susan
    November 21, 2014 9:03pm

    Thanks for a trip down memory lane for me. I was in Reims 4 years ago, and was amazed to see the champagne cafes open on a Sunday – and right across the square from the cathedral. My seatmate on the chunnel train had told me about Roderer , and so I brought a bottlke home with me. Wish I had had more room in my suitcases. I’ll know better when I go back !!
    Cheers !!!

  • November 21, 2014 9:19pm

    Oh, how divine! I wish I would have done this while in Paris last year. Being a Napa Valley native, even I long for French wines and Champagne. I love visiting Domaine Chandon and even Mumm Napa Valley, but I still need to make it to Domaine Carneros.

  • Robi
    November 22, 2014 4:49am

    I just finished “The Sweet Life in Paris” and went directly to your website and blog, which increased not only my hunger pains but also added to my longing to return to France. Your trip to the Champagne region and your wonderful photos makes me want to grab a suitcase and catch the first non-stop.
    Maybe someday soon………………for now, I live vicariously through your wonderful recipes and hiliarous stories. Merci

  • Susan
    November 22, 2014 6:31pm

    Nice shout out in Wall Street Journal today !

    • Chuck Carlsbad
      November 30, 2014 3:40pm

      I loved our vistit to Moet et Chandon. Your article brought back the smells of the caves. I am reading a real barn burner, “Murder by Champagne a Denise Caron Mystery” by Keith Spicer, right now and your article really made me think. Can’t wait to get back there and can’t wait to get back to my book, too. Keep up the great work, David. Looking forward to your next piece.

  • milandra
    November 23, 2014 9:21am

    Yannick Alleno is yummy.

  • Laura Bryant
    November 29, 2014 5:01am

    On November 13th our tour company notified us that Moet & Chandon would be closed one year for renovation. Champagne Mercier would be substituted for our November 18th tour. We went with the flow and enjoyed our tour until we read your wonderful post. We were sad about the tour but worse is missing your book signing by a few days.

  • November 30, 2014 1:42pm

    Fantastic article and great pictures. Looking forward for the next glass of champaigne :)
    Thanks a lot for the information

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