Thursday, June 6, 2013

Champagne Thiénot - Reunion with Garance

Special gift from our visit with Garance - 2002 Grande Cuvee Alain Thiénot

Reims was our first destination on this trip for a 3-day mad dash around the Champagne region. And first on the list of a packed itinerary was a visit with Garance Thiénot, the capable and lovely Director of PR at Champagne Thiénot and daughter of founder Alain.

Our first meeting had been only a couple of weeks before at a special Champagne dinner at the Plumed Horse, one of my favorite restaurants. The San Francisco Bay Area had been the last stop for Garance in a big cross-country US tour, and despite this she looked classy in French boho chic as she graciously introduced the house (established in 1985) and its Champagnes to the expectant crowd of diners. When told that we’d be visiting Reims very soon, she generously extended an offer of a personal tour of the Thiénot facilities.

The appointment was the very same afternoon we arrived in France. We’d driven from the airport in Roissy to Reims - Champagne country! After crashing for half an hour on the wildly floral bedding in our suite at the gorgeous Domaine Les Crayères - a château in the heart of Reims sitting on 7 hectares of lush vegetation - we dragged our jet-lagged bodies out into the grayness and rain to attempt driving to Thiénot in nearby Taissy.

(Of course we got lost. Roundabouts take some getting used to. And nearly every place we would go to in Reims and Burgundy, including here, was on some really tiny street that did not show up on digital map data. Heck, some villages didn’t even show up on the maps. Getting to places = Looking at maps beforehand, making vague approximations, panic, pointing, and frantic exclamations of “Here! Turn here!!”)

For a “small” Champagne house, Thiénot was very state of the art! It boasts a very modern facility in an nondescript industrial complex that, if I remember correctly, also had an airplane parts manufacturing company nearby. It was a relief to come in from the rain, although of course the facilities - once we left the cozy lobby - were a chilly 10 degrees Celsius as dictated for all Champagne working areas and storage.

We just happened to visit during the week where most Champagne houses were en tirage - bottling for the 2012 harvest - and workers were busy with a noisy, conveyer-belt style bottling machine. Clink-clink-clink-clink! times hundreds of bottles, and you get the idea.

This was after we’d walked through a narrow space containing many steel fermentation tanks with the openings for gas to escape at the top. (Explosions would be bad.) The tanks were inscribed with the house name, very classy. Thiénot prefers to control everything, including the induction of malolactic fermentation - I later learned some some makers wait for nature to decide, but this is not scalable for a growing house with greater production volumes.

Garance moved us into the next large space, where a hulking machine out of Star Wars was the centerpiece against a backdrop of crates upon crates of bottles in storage - all the way up to the high ceiling. She was very proud of this machine that stacks bottles into crates en masse - it was acquired last year and is affectionately called “Le Nain Jaune”, or “The Yellow Dwarf”!

The bottle-stacking machine did resemble Le Nain Jaune!

I learned about the remuage, or riddling, of the Champagne bottles - it can be done the old fashioned way, fait à la main (manually) in pupitres or in giant, cubic machines. Obviously it’s faster with the machines - most Champagne houses, I learned, will do the careful bottle rotations manually for special cuvées and vintage bottlings, and the “regular” editions in the machines.

Garance showed us some crates of unlabeled bottles, stored perfectly upside down - sur point - so that the sediment settles into the neck of the bottle. The necks are then frozen in a special liquid and the put into a machine where the seal/cap (no cork yet!) is removed - BAM! - the pressure (400 - 600 kPa per bottle) forcibly ejects the sediment and the “disgorgement” is done! Again, this can be done manually but obviously it’s not pleasant and a bit dangerous. Thanks, technology!

Then comes the dosage - you lose some liquid with disgorgement, so you need to add some back in the bottle. Excitingly, this is where sugar levels are set to determine what kind of Champagne results - dry (brut), semi-sweet (demi-sec) or sweet (sec) - or whatever level in between suits the chef du cave’s fancy.

After, there were the machines for the corks and wire cages … labeling … palettes of cases ready to ship. Garance makes sure that there are enough supplies to ship constantly throughout the year. The facility also handles Champagnes from two other labels, but they keep them separate from the house’s namesake products.

Although Thiénot may be considered small compared to the massive houses like Mumm, it’s clear that they are gearing up for the big time. In fact, they’re already the Champagne of choice for the Academy Awards!

Before leaving - Garance was so sweet to spend time with us especially since she had to rush off to pick up her two children from school - she presented us with a bottle of 2002 Thiénot 'Grande Cuvee Alain Thiénot'! We were flabbergasted and delighted.

After we made it back to Les Crayères, we relaxed at the beautiful lounge La Rotonde, with stunning views of the gardens. We were presented with “welcome Champagne” glasses - I didn’t even know what it is was we drank but who cares?! We’d made it! We were in Champagne country, and had already completed one appointment on my massive list. I was exhausted, but thrilled. The journey had begun.

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