Updated: Mar 6
An early Sunday morning greeted most of us at St. Pancras International, but we were soon equipped with a reassuring glass of Taittinger and a bacon butty with a chance to mingle with the other early risers who had joined the course.
The Chance of a small degust on Eurostar gave the chance to meet a couple of friends (from the annual dinner) and some new faces, with a flute or two, soon putting initial nerves to rest.
The first of many quick turn arounds from the hotel, saw us heading to the Royal Champagne and Spa to meet our hosting Houses, presided over by Pierre Emmanuel Taittinger. A rousing introduction certainly prepared us for the coming week and reminded us all of the unique position that Champagne holds. Canapés and a glass or two gave us the most fantastic of introductions to the week that we had in store.
A few weary heads hit pillows soon later to prepare for an early start on Monday to begin our series of lectures and visits…
Despite first day nerves, the Academicians got through today’s exam unscathed, thanks to a warm reception by Caroline Caparros and the team at Moet & Chandon. Phew, we live to learn another day! The morning lecture on climate, terroir, varietals and sustainability was expertly delivered by today’s three host Maisons. It’s clear Champagne takes its responsibilities seriously, with ESG at the centre of viticultural practice development.
Marie-Christine Osslin at Moet shared practical and conceptual tips on pairing food with Champagne before hosting a memorable lunch, accompanied by a collection of ethereal Grand Vintages, in the resplendent surrounding of the Trianon, a house steeped in history. 2004 and 1978 en magnum were breathtaking and can still be purchased in the UK if you know where to look.
A short stroll up the Avenue de Champagne and we arrived at Pol Roger. Hubert de Billy entrusted the tour and tasting to Axel Gillery who delivered a superb visit of the house’s entire operation, from cuverie to bottling line, via the historical caves, followed by a comprehensive range tasting which demonstrated the signature house style and finished with the legendary Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill.
Back to the hotel to revise and pack before we whizzed off to Tours Sur Marne where Laurent Perrier’s Frederique Chaise encouraged us to look more closely at their newest Chardonnay vineyard – a great practical refresher for tomorrow’s exam. The candidates were then treated to a tutored tasting that included Grand Siecle and the rare Alexandra 2004 Rosé, followed by a beautiful and delicious dinner.
Stories were shared, friendships were made and it was a shame to have to say goodbye to our three hosts. But bed beckons.”
To start off the day with the champagne pour by the glass was always going to be a pleasure… having known Willem for many years and to come to the Maison was incredible.
Our day began with a lecture from winemaker Cyril, and it was fascinating. An insight and education to the reality of those celebrating the Champenoise .
We were offered an opportunity to blend our own “blanc de blancs” which was such an interesting experience. Making champagne is a lot more difficult than you think and there is an even more of an appreciation for those that dedicate their lives to preserve this history, philosophy and style.
We then went onto to try what for me is the best value NV on the market.
My eyes brimmed with excitement just as our waiter poured the glass… I could tell this was going to be class…. And I wasn’t wrong.
The whole selection finishing off with Blanc de Millenaires 2007 was a great way to start proceedings!
We then went onto Pommery. Wow! One of the most theatrical maisons! Having been past it on my previous visits to Champagne I admired the elaborate views!
However this dramatism was soon followed by a visit and tour of what the house represented: exciting with a keen understanding on what champagne should be….fun!
To then have an outstanding tour from Sara in a museum-Esque cellar and restaurant was fabulous.
Clement, winemaker, was young and thoroughly knowledgeable showcasing some bangers of champagne… then the bell rang… cuvee Louise time… 2004 from magnum. Thank you.
We then went onto drink some amazing champagne from larger formats and this was a truly unforgettable experience.
For the continuation we headed back to the hotel for a quick break and a change of clothes as the evening plans were nothing short of special. Upon arriving at Ruinart HQ we sat down for a tasting of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs from three different formats in an educational masterclass by Frederic Panaiotis, their chef de cave. The session was informative and surprising, filled with technical and precise information from Frederic and his team. We then went down to Ruinart’s famous crayéres to visit this patrimony. The overwhelming emotion of walking in this historical sites were only matched by the dinner we were all to share shortly.
We resurfaced after enjoying the coollnes of the caves to make our way to the eponymous Michelin starred restaurant Les Crayéres in Reims for a fantastic night of food, Dom Ruinart of multiple vintages and enjoyment amongst Champagne enthusiasts. The night, landscape and atmosphere were incredible only to be matched by the company and wine we shared on that night.
On yet another gloriously sunny morning, our coach pulled up to Piper-Heidsieck in Reims with its ultra-modern building (which wasn’t what I was expecting from a Champagne house with over two centuries of history). Here we were warmly welcomed by Stéphane Gross from Krug, Lison Blanchemanche from Veuve Clicquot and Dominique Cima-Sander from Piper-Heidsieck. After the morning exam the three of them gave a lecture on everything from the blending to the packaging of Champagne.
Following the lecture, Dominique gave us a tour of the production facilities at Piper-Heidsieck. We walked in and across a bridge with stainless steel tanks all around – including two giant tanks which started on the floor below us and rose up either side of the bridge and into the ceiling. She was excited to tell us that these two beauties hold half a million bottles of wine each! The other side of the bridge was a sleek glass wall, behind which was a beautiful tasting room where we got to try a wide range of the Piper-Heidsieck Champagnes, from Blanc de Blancs to Demi-Sec which all carry the signature fruit at the forefront.
Next up was Veuve Clicquot, where Lison let us taste three red base wines from the 2021 harvest which each make up a component of their Rosé, Vintage Rosé & La Grande Dame Rosé. It was an incredible feeling to try the Vin Clair wines in isolation, with the purity of the Pinot Noir fruit, and the crunchy yet silky Chardonnay. She then took it a step further and re-created the blend of the Rose NV from the Vin Clair wines before pouring the real Rosé Champagne NV so we could see the evolution: a behind the scenes look at how the time in on lees and in the cellar helps this wine to transform into the bottle that we all know and love.
To top it all off we were then taken to Hotel du Marc, where Lison explained the history of the Veuve Cliquot house and introduced us to a number of their Champagnes whilst we enjoyed a beautiful lunch full of culinary delights. After which we were able to briefly explore the grounds – where some of us indulged in a game of pétanque, whilst others played darts, reclined on deck chairs in the sun, or recited music on the piano (all of course branded with the iconic yellow colouring and the house name). Then it was time to return to our hotel, where we could grab a brief moment to revise the lecture from earlier in the day and get ready for the next Champagne House.
At 18:00 sharp the coach pulled away form the hotel and took us to Krug. We were greeted by Stéphane and a glass of the Krug Grande Cuvée 170th Edition on the terrace. This was my first time trying Krug so it was a very special moment for me. Olivier Krug joined us shortly afterwards to explain the history and ethos of the Krug family. His passion for the house and the Champagne Academy was infectious! We were then treated to a tour of the cellars, before being led to a tasting room with 400 coloured glass bottles lining one wall – each one representing one of the 250 wines of the vintage and 150 reserve wines which audition for the chance to be a part of the new edition of Krug Grande Cuvée. Here we got to enjoy a truly sensory experience, pairing music with Krug Champagnes. It was an immersive and humbling experience, bringing out emotion from several members of out group (and I’m not ashamed to say that I was moved to tears at points).
Once the experience was over it was time to relax and unwind for the day in their private dining room with an exceptional selection of dishes and yet more amazing Champagnes. Yet despite the formal surroundings, after spending the day with Dominique, Lison and Stéphane it was like sitting down to dinner with old friends – relaxing over good food, great conversation and some Academy hopefuls even breaking out dance moves by the end of the evening. It truly was a day to remember.
Friday’s visit to the modern Lanson cellars started with a stop in their excellent ‘Hall of History’, which features pictures and display bottles from the key points in their history from 1760 up to their partnership with Wimbledon today.
Past the walled ‘Clos Lanson’ and through an impressive array of fermentation tanks, we saw their very smart oak vat collection, each adorned decoratively with the name of the Cru from which the grapes are sourced. We tasted Lanson Blanc de Blanc NV on its own (which should have been a clue for the exam the next day!).
Our transfer to Taittinger’s ‘Demeure des Comtes de Champagne’ felt like stepping into history, as this is the place where ‘Les Comtes’ resided and were crowned as French Kings. Appropriately, after being welcomed with Prelude and then Brut Millesime 2015, we enjoyed some wonderful Comtes Rose 2009 with our beef main course. An unforgettable setting.
Onwards to the Cellars of Louis Roederer where we saw some really interesting use of large oak vats to ‘concentrate’ their base wines (and some really cool drone-shot vineyard visuals), before tasting the excellent Collection #242 and Cristal 2014.
Back on the bus to head up into the hills for dinner at Mumm’s Moulin de Verzenay, featuring the most breath-taking view of the valley from every side of the property with a glass of Blanc de Blancs 2014 in hand. Not bad!
The night was rounded off back at the Basilique Saint Remi to see the sound and light show projected onto the front of the building which was a lovely way to unwind after a fairly hectic day!
Day 6 - Final Day
The Saturday started off with the academicians checking off the hotel, trying to decide whether to revise or have breakfast and making sure to be dressed for the occasion as this would be our last day together, ending with a big celebration of Champagne and our newly made friends.
We arrived at the Taittinger Reims headquarters at the 13th century Saint Nicaise Abbey remains, a great location for our final exams, the building has the grandeur and coolness of an ancient abbey with lots of natural light and air. Perfect for blind tasting wine which occurred after answering our Marketing, export and sales written last exam. The exams were hard, and the blind tasting was challenging but a great exercise to do after a whole week of tasting and learning about champagne.
We left the Abbey feeling a collective sense of relieve and achievement for having survived this intense week of exams and lectures. Our destination was the 3 Michelin starred hotel and restaurant L'Assiette Champenoise by Arnaud Lallement in Tinqueux. A perfect example of family history and greatness that marry so well with the Champagne ethos. We were greeted by magnums of Champagne to quench the thirst and cool off the heat of the day (Saturday was close to 38C, the hottest day of the trip). The familiar faces of the house representatives were also there so we could all celebrate together the success and hospitality of the whole week. The canapes and champagne were flowing in the terrace when Rachel Debenham from Taittinger and Andrew Fullerton the chairman of the academy announced we would be called in to receive our certificates. The whole team had passed! And many glories were given for those who received mentions, honours, and the podium winners of the top 5 scorers of the group.
The celebrations started soon after with a brilliant array of bottles provided by Taittinger, Ruinart and Bollinger the past present, past, and future presidential houses. The food was precise, flavourful and absolutely beautiful, a fest for all the senses. The academicians Nick Zalinsky, Michel Pazsto and Caroline Palma followed Clovis Taittinger speech, to show their gratitude towards the houses, congratulate the fellow academicians and show our love for the chairman Andrew and the Champagne Academy who had now welcomed us as lifetime members. Goodbyes were brief and emotional but with the certainty we would be all meeting soon again.
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