Champagne Travel Review Part Two: Visiting the Champagne Houses of Pommery, Ruinart & Drappier (+ tasting notes and tips)
By Alison Blackman and John Dunham
This is Part 2 of our Champagne Travel Guide: Things to Know & 6 TIPS Before You Go! Part One of our Champagne Travel Guide introduced you to the Champagne region, offered a bit of history, and tips on how to plan your visit to Champagne.
Now let’s learn about what you might experience when you visit a champagne house, and once home again, how to enjoy this celebratory wine.
On our trip to the Champagne Region of France, we visited the celebrated champagne houses of Pommery, Ruinart, and Drappier. All three of these houses are open to visitors, but only family-owned Drappier (several hours by car from Epernay) accepts visitors without advance reservations.
Where to Visit: Champagne Pommery: Ancient Roman Chalk Caves and Impressive Art
The first champagne house on our journey was Champagne Pommery which seemed fitting, as Pommery was where brut Champagne was invented. It was also one of the first businesses owned and operated by a woman, Madame Louise Pommery. She was not just a good businesswoman, she was a visionary. Madame Pommery began two traditions that carry on throughout the region. She was the first to name different cellars after cities where Pommery exported wine, and she also was a huge patron of the arts.
Madame Pommery wasn’t just a good businesswoman, she was also a visionary. Madame Pommery began two traditions that carry on throughout the region. She was the first to name different cellars after cities where Pommery exported wine, and she was a huge patron of the arts.
Art Old and New, in the Caves:
Pommery is one of the big Champagne houses built over ancient Roman chalk mines that pepper the hills surrounding Reims. These chalk caves are the perfect environment for aging champagne and have been expanded on over the years. The majority of the tour at Pommery is spent exploring these magnificent underground structures with ceilings so high you can’t help but marvel at how the Romans managed the construction.
In the 1800’s, Beautiful Romanesque carvings were placed in the chalk walls of the cellars as they were expanded, and Pommery also has extensive modern art installations throughout both the cellars and visitor center. They’re well worth the visit for both wine and art lovers.
A full tour of Pommery costs 35 Euros, and includes a tasting of their famous Brut Champagne.
Tasting Notes for Champagne Pommery:
Pommery Brut Royal is a distinctive brut Champagne that is beloved everywhere. Made from a blend of 40 crus from throughout the Champagne region, it contains all three Champagne grape varieties, including about one-third Chardonnay. It is aged in the chalk caves under the Chateau for three years and is considered the quintessential Champagne.
Straw yellow in color, the wine has a nose with apple, lime, peach notes. On the palate, the wine has a balanced acidity, and features notes of apple and grapefruit. It is a perfect pairing wine, but its style and elegance also makes it a great choice for anytime drinking and for celebrations like weddings or anniversaries. Keep this wine in your collection for special occasions and when you just want a moment to feel special.
Where to Visit: the Villa Demoiselle at Pommery:
If you are fortunate enough to come on a day when the neighboring Villa Demoiselle is open, it is well worth a visit. This beautiful house is a blend of Art nouveau and Art déco. It was the former house of the winery’s General Manager during the Victorian period, Henry Vasnier.
Art Deco and Art Nouveau:
Fully restored, Villa Demoiselle also features a wealth of paintings, sculptures, and art objects both from his extensive collection and from the collection of the Museum of the City of Reims.
A full tour of Pommery costs 35 Euros, and includes a tasting of their famous Brut Champagne (ticket information). Expect to spend at least 2 hours touring the winery, more if you’re going next door to Villa Demoiselle.
Where to Visit: Maison Ruinart:
Directly next door to Pommery (if you can say next door when you are basically talking about castle-like mansions) is Maison Ruinart.
The Oldest Operating Champagne House:
Founded in 1729, Champagne Ruinart is the oldest operating Champagne house. Like Pommery it is built over the Roman chalk mines, which have been expanded into miles of cellars.
Ruinart has installed a number of major art exhibitions throughout the cellars, which are named for the various export markets.
Art in the Cellars:
The company, which is now owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA. has had a long-standing relationship with the arts, and the brand is still closely involved with contemporary art and plays a role in numerous international events.
Erwin Olaf’s Art Project:
One particularly interesting exhibit at Maison Ruinart is a series of photographs in the cellars taken by Erwin Olaf. Each year, the House of Ruinart gives an artist carte blanche. Erwin was fascinated and impressed by the depth and immensity of the crayères (the chalk mines), and decided to concentrate on the details of their prehistoric natural formation and the traces left by man. His amazing series of photographs is documented throughout the tour.
We were particularly smitten with some of the graffiti left by former visitors, including a “selfie” by the chemist, Louis Pasteur.
Ruinart only offers small guided tours, which include tastings of two wines (we had a VIP tasting of four our on ours). The company is famous for its blanc de blanc and Chardonnay is at the heart of all of the company’s wines (see tasting notes in the sidebar). The tours are approximately two hours long, and are given to no more than 10 people at a time. our guide, Annelies Pieters, was a fantastic Ambassador for the house. The cost is 70€ (learn more)
Visiting these two houses and the Cathedral would make for a very full day in Reims. We’d recommend visiting no more than two houses in a given day. That might not seem like a lot, but after tasting champagne and standing and walking, some rest time is required. We highly suggest at least taking a lunch and afternoon break if possible.
Tasting Notes for Champagne Ruinart:
Champagne Ruinart is known for its blanc de blancs which accounts for the vast majority of its overall production. The wine is light golden yellow color with a persistent mousse. The nose features pear, some orange notes and toasty notes that remind me of French toast.
The wine is smooth, across the palate, with apple and pear notes dominating but offset by citrus and honey flavors that come out in its long finish. Ruinart Blanc de Blancs is produced from a blend of 100% premier crus Chardonnay grapes from the best of recent vintages both from the ancestral home of the Ruinart family and by grapes from other premiers crus vineyards in the Côte de Blancs and the Montagne de Reims.
Where to Visit: Meeting “Family” at Champagne Drappier:
Champagne Drappier is based in the Urville region of Champagne in the southernmost Vignoble de L’Aube region. This area is centered around the towns of Bar Sur Seine and Bar Sur Aube. Epernay is about 2 hours by motorway, but more like 3 or 4 hours (each way if you’re staying in Epernay) on the smaller scenic roads.
The house of Drappier is located atop cellars that were part of an old monastery (a portrait of a monk hangs over the fireplace). It was founded in 1808, and is one of the finest boutique champagne producers in the world. It is also family owned and run.
It was later in the afternoon when we finally made it through the farm roads and small villages to Maison Drappier. Granddaughter Charlene (who we met in New York and who had invited us to visit) was not in town, but we were greeted warmly by her Dad, Michel Drappier, the current head of the winery.
While waiting to taste some of the Drappier champagne, we were joined by a couple visiting from Switzerland there to purchase a Nebuchadnezzar of wine for their wedding. As we were chatting and sipping our first glass of champagne, to our delight, Grandfather Andre Drappier appeared as well. He sat with us, drank champagne, and while our French wasn’t good enough to converse freely, the young couple translated. It is one of those memories we remember most fondly.
Not only were we able to taste about 8 different champagnes at Drappier, but we were shown through the 12th Century cellars, and also taken to the production facility. It was the last day of production for the year: perfect timing!
It is possible to visit Drappier in Urville Monday to Saturday without an appointment, but for a tour and tasting an appointment is necessary. To visit, it might be better to spend a day or so in nearby Tours, which is also home to much of the fashion production in France, and has many outlet stores.
Tasting Notes for Champagne Drappier:
In a 2014 article in Forbes, Nick Passmore listed Drappier as number three in a list of the best Champagnes that you never heard of. Drappier is truly one of the best Champagne houses and is a producer of some excellent cuvees.
While we were at Drappier, we tasted a number of different bottlings, but we selected two in particular: the Brut Natural Rose and the Cuvee Charles De Gaulle.
The Drappier Brut Natural Rose is 100 percent Pinot Noir. It is produced using the saignée method meaning that the color comes exclusively from the skins. The wine is produced without dosage or filtering. The wine is dark, almost orange in color. The nose comes from the Pinot Noir grapes, lots of strawberry and raspberry with some florals. The wine tastes fresh with notes of red berries and hints of orange and with good minerality and a lovely color.
Charles De Gaulle visited Drappier often as he had a home not far from Urville. The cuvee which today bears his name is an 80 percent Pinot Noir bottling made exclusively from the juices from first pressing.
Like the Drappier natural wines, this champagne is not filtered. Yellow gold in color, the nose is redolent with apples and a bit of citrus and spiciness. On the palate, the Charles de Gaulle Cuvée exhibits a remarkable complexity, pear, apple and light orange flavors that persist to the throat. This is a rich wine with enough mineral characteristics to allow it to stand up to most non-heavy foods.
Champagne Travel Tip #6: Find Your Favorites in France, but buy and Drink Your Champagne at Home:
As we have discussed, most of the champagne houses are not in the business of selling and shipping champagne and anyway, it’s risky to pack champagne bottles in your luggage, not to mention it makes your bags very heavy! You won’t find all the smaller producers at home, but you will find plenty of the larger producers easily online or you can ask them to order it at your favorite liquor store.
You Don’t Have to Be Rich To Drink Champagne:
Champagne is a French treasure, but you don’t have to be a millionaire or a jet-setter to drink the real thing. You can find genuine champagne in every taste preference, and budget, from precious bottles than run upwards of hundreds and maybe thousands of dollars for rare vintages, to delicious champagnes that are under $20.00 a bottle.