Champagne – The Region

There are many parts of the world’s Wine Country where they make sparkling wine.  It almost seems that every place that grows grapes makes some sparklers.  They may call it champagne, but only one place makes true Champagne and that’s in France.  The Champagne region is about an hour and a half drive from the Paris airports and lies, generally speaking, in the area between and around the towns of Reims and Épernay.

The September harvest in Champagne

Now, of course, any reader of Power Tasting will want to visit Champagne in order to taste the wines there.  But when you are there, there are many other reasons to enjoy the Champagne region.  For one thing, it’s a beautiful region of rolling hills and endless vineyards, with plenty of other farming where the land does not lend itself to growing grapes.  We were fortunate enough to travel in Champagne during the harvest; the sight of the workers in fields bursting with fruit in the vines was inspiring, especially knowing the destiny of those grapes.

The Chagall windows in Reims Cathedral

Both of the major towns are worth visiting.  Reims has a magnificent cathedral that has had its unfortunate share of warfare, especially during the two world wars of the 20th Century.  You can still see the marks made by artillery on the walls.  Fortunately, the parishioners took down the rose window and preserved it from the violence, but the windows in the Lady Chapel at the rear of the cathedral were not so lucky.  However, they were replaced after World War II with new windows by Marc Chagall that are among the most gorgeous works of stained glass, ancient or modern, to be seen anywhere.

The Hotel de Ville (City Hall) in Épernay

Épernay does not have the an equivalent architectural marvel, although many of the buildings that house wineries are wonderful examples of 19th century imagination.  You can see many of them on the Avenue de Champagne where some of the best known Champagne producers (and many lesser known ones, too) have their headquarters.  [More about that in our article on wine tasting in Champagne.]

Aside from the major towns, the Champagne region is full of history.  We recommend that you look up the Routes Touristiques de Champagne (in English at  It will show you all the little, out of the way places to visit.  Then, drive around looking for the signs that point out all the turns on the routes.

We are rather surprised at the lack of top restaurants in Épernay and Reims.  You can get a good enough meal, to be sure, but the restaurants aren’t up to the level of food we have come to expect in Wine Country, especially in France.  However, in the smaller villages in the countryside, there are many small cafes and bistros, as well as grand gastronomic establishments, where you can sample fine French cuisine.

Finally, a word about the name “Champagne”.  Americans pronounce it sham-PANE.  But the French say shahm-PAN-ya, sort of swallowing the last syllable.  Of course it’s their country and they have a right to say it their way (which is, after all, the right way).  But an American, even one who can speak French tolerably well, feels silly saying it their way.  Okay, you want to blend in so try it the French way.  But believe us, you won’t blend in anyway.  They can tell a tourist from kilometers away.


Champagne – The Wines

According to World Food and Wine, there are 19,000 (!) vineyards growing grapes to be used in Champagne wine.  Of these, 2,124 make and sell the wine itself.  Of course, the majority are small producers that are barely known outside their villages.  But there are 260 large producers, the top 76 of which are known as the Grandes Marques & Maisons, in other words the biggest players in the market.  These latter houses make two-thirds of the Champagne sold in the world and 90% of those exported from France.

Perrier-Jouët headquarters in Épernay

You surely know some of the Grandes Marques, such as Moët & Chandon, Perrier-Jouët or Taittinger.  But have you heard of, let alone tasted, such labels as Canard-Duchêne, Mansard Baillet or Charles Mignon?  These last three are also considered among the “big houses”.  And we at Power Tasting can assure you that there are many other smaller Champagne houses that make extremely high-quality wines.  They just don’t ship very much outside of France and even less that reaches North America.

Of course, with that many to choose from, no sane wine tasting visitor can hope to try them all.  Moreover, each house is likely to have a selection to choose among.  Almost all will have an Assemblage, made from the three Champagne grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  Then there will be a Blanc de Blanc made from Chardonnay only and, so we are told, most connoisseurs prize the BdB most highly.  Maybe we’re not connoisseurs, because we often favor a Blanc de Noir, made from red grapes, usually Pinot Noir.  Oh, yes, and then there’s the Champagne rosé as well.  And then each Champagne house has its top wines (known as the tête du cuvée) that you really want to try if you’ve travelled all that way to taste Champagne.  But don’t expect to taste too many houses’ Champagne in any one day.

There are local people and Champagne specialists who can differentiate wines from different sectors of the Champagne region.  It’s no different than being able to taste the differences between, say, a Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon and one from Calistoga.  (Quite frankly, we can’t do either one.)  But it is interesting, though not surprising, to see that the white grapes come from one part of the region and the reds from another.

The one thing that does makes true Champagne distinct from all other sparkling wines is the chalk just below the soil.  The caves where they age the Champagne are also made of chalk.  The controversy over terroir vs. winemaking skill will never end, but there is no doubt that the soil in this part of France makes Champagne different – and we would say better – than bubbly from anywhere else.

Of course there’s no shortage of winemaking skill in Champagne.  Some of the credit that goes to Dom Perignon may be apocryphal, but there is no question that a few centuries of making these marvelous wines do develop a certain proficiency.  And it is a very interesting exercise to taste a few different Champagnes, available by the glass, made by the winemakers from various houses.  This kind of tasty test raises the level of your understanding of the subtleties that go into making Champagne.



Champagne – Wine Tasting

With thousands of Champagnes to choose from, wine tasting in that region may feel overwhelming.  Where do you start?  How many can you taste?  Should you stick with Champagnes that you know or be adventurous and try a few glasses from producers unknown to you?  Can you really tell one from another, especially by the end of the day?

Let’s start with the best news: there are better Champagnes but there are no bad ones.  To paraphrase Mae West, when Champagne is good it’s great and when it’s bad it’s still good.  There is so much to learn when wine tasting in Champagne, and we’d like to start you off with a few tips.

  • Don’t try to do too much at one time. Champagne is a pretty big place so don’t try to drive all over in an attempt to see it all.  You will fail and you’ll lose a lot of time driving around.  It’s best to focus on one place at a time.  So a day in Reims can include Taittinger, Mumms and Veuve Cliquot, plus time for lunch and the cathedral.  A day in Épernay (Moët & Chandon, Perrier-Jouët and lots of less well-known houses) must include a stroll down the Avenue de Champagne.  And it’s a good idea to devote a day to visiting some Champagne houses out in the countryside.
  • Take a tour. Very few Champagne houses offer you the chance to watch their wines being made.  They do tour you around their cellars, where they store and age their wines.  There they will explain the wine making process that makes sparkling wines unique.  But quite honestly, if you’ve seen one cave, you’ve seen them all: long holes in the ground with a lot of bottles in them.  It’s a good experience to see a Champagne cellar.
  • Take advantage of the smaller Champagne houses. The big ones often aren’t open to the public at all and if they are, a tour plus tasting can be expensive.  And you rarely get to taste their top wines.  Especially in the larger towns, you can walk in, order a glass of Champagne (even their best) for 10 euros or less and sit in a pleasant courtyard enjoying it.  Out in the country, you can do the same thing but you’ll look at the vineyards while you sip.
  • Do some comparison tasting. There are many bars where you can order a variety of Champagnes.  In general, they tend to have the smaller producers although we have tasted Moët & Chandon and Pol Roger side by side.  There are so many comparisons to be made that you can, for instance hone your appreciation of Blanc de Noirs or contrast those with Blanc de Blancs.  And you don’t have to get behind a wheel to try several different Champagnes, you just walk around.
  • All the rules for managing alcohol apply in Champagne as much as anywhere else.  (However, the alcohol levels in Champagne tend to be lower, so you can have a bit more freedom.)  You need to put some food in your stomach.  In almost every restaurant, you can get champagne by the glass with your meal.


At the end of a long boulevard in Reims sits the Taittinger headquarters.  It sits on the site of a former Abbey of St. Nicaise that was destroyed by some zealots during the French Revolution.  Nothing remains of the Abbey, or at least not above-ground.  The ancient monks were winemakers themselves and they dug their cellars below their Abbey’s grounds, utilizing in part cellars created in the Fourth Century by the Romans, who were quarrying stone for buildings in the town.  So while all cellar tours are pretty much the same, a visit to Taittinger has quite a lot of history to it.

Stairs used by the monks of St. Nicaise to enter the cellars

Taittinger is one of Champagne’s largest houses, based on the number of cases produced.  Their wines are noted for their elegance and floral notes.  It is also the parent company of California’s Domaine Carneros.  Although anyone can reserve a tour and tasting, we used our membership in Domaine Carneros to obtain a private one.

Note that this storage cave contains 99,000 bottles of Comtes de Champagne

Today, the cellars in Reims are used solely to mature their top Champagne, the Comtes de Champagne.  Deep below ground (18 meters or nearly 56 feet) you will see stack after stack of bottles that they age for at least 10 years.  It is quite imposing.

But there are some things that you will not see.  For one, you won’t see the facilities for storing their other Champagnes, such as their Brut Reserve or their rosé.  For another, you won’t see the location where they actually crush the grapes and vinify their wines.  And you won’t see the Château de la Marquetterie that appears on their bottles, just as the Domaine Carneros winery appears on the labels of the American sparkling wines.  The château is actually in a small village called Pierry.  You cannot visit it, but you can look at it.

Château de la Marquetterie in Pierry

What you can see in the caves in Reims is a lot of history.  It does look yellow, because they use sodium lights to do the minimum damage to the Champagne.  You see stairways that the monks used to descend into the cellars.  You see beehive shaped vaults where the Romans excavated stone.  And you see the convocation area where the monks gathered centuries ago.

After touring you do get a chance to taste the Champagne.  The least expensive tour gets you a glass of the Brut Reserve, while the top-priced tour includes that wine plus the Comtes de Champagne, both white and pink.

Every trip to Champagne should include a visit to one of Grandes Marques, of which Taittinger is one of the leaders.  Alas, some of these are rather industrialized; the historical interest of the Taittinger caves gives you a reason to choose this one.

Oh, and by the way, Americans.  It’s not pronounced TAT-in-jer.  You should say tet-ahn-ZHAY.  It’s good to know if you go.



Located in the heart of the Valpolicella region in northern Italy, Zýmē ( offers a rather unique wine tasting adventure.  First, though, the name needs explanation.  Zýmē is a Greek word for “yeast”, which aside from being a critical ingredient in wine is, according to the winemaker, Celestino Gaspari, a symbol of naturalness, a leading value of this winery.  It’s pronounced ZEE-may and is located in the village of San Pietro in Cariano, not far from Verona.

We have to be truthful and say that the winery you will visit is not the same one we did.  Zýmē has recently opened a new winery, very modern on the outside and ancient in the interior.  When we visited not very long ago, it was literally a hole in a hill and the winery itself was in a cave.  The cave-like atmosphere is still maintained but it is now carved out of an 15th century limestone quarry.  Like the prior winery, walking through the cavern is a unique and rather thrilling experience.  The pictures accompanying this article, courtesy of Zýmē, are very reminiscent of what we saw and give some idea of the impact of a visit there.

The décor provides the wine tasting experience, but it would matter little if the wine weren’t interesting as well.  Power Tasting does not review wines as such, but we can say that Zýmē makes excellent wines in the Valpolicella style from the corvina, corvinone and rondinella grapes.  These are only to found in the Valpolicella region.  But Zýmē goes further, making wines from rarely encountered grapes as well as more common ones not usually found in that region.

This level of quality might be expected once one knows the background of the winemaker.  Signore Gaspari worked for many years at Quintarelli, thought by many to be the premier Amarone maker.  In fact, Giovanni Quintarelli was his father-in-law.  Zýmē’s wines have a different character than Quintarelli’s but you can tell in a simple tasting that they are made with craft and pride.

In addition to the traditional wines of the region, Zýmē makes a wine called Oseleta, from 100% grapes of the same name.  According to Wine-Searcher, there are less than 20 hectares of these vines anywhere in the world, almost all grown near Lake Garda.  Once almost extinct, Zýmē now makes this unique wine, keeping a distinctive taste, unlike anything else we have tasted, alive for future generations.

Another special wine made by Zýmē is Kairos, a Greek word (again) for “the opportune moment”.  This wine is a power hitter, weighing in at 15% alcohol and is made from the kitchen sink of grapes: Garganega, Trebbiano toscano, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syraz, Teroldego, Croatina, Oseleta, Sangiovese and Marzemino.  There has to be something in this wine to please everyone…or no one.

The Valpolicella region is not exactly unknown, but is generally not as well-regarded as Tuscany and the Piedmont.  That’s a shame, because there are some really spectacular wines to be tasted there.  And if you do go, you really should not miss a visit to Zýmē.

N’Ombra de Vin

Here is another in Power Tasting’s irregular series on great wine bars of the world.

Italy has some of the most beautiful cities in the world: Rome, Venice and Florence come to mind.  Milan, the country’s financial and fashion capital, was victimized by too many wars and lost many of its antiquities.  It still has some beautiful things – such as the Duomo, The Last Supper, La Scala – but it boasts modernity rather than an ancient patina.  Today, what typifies Milan is a very sophisticated lifestyle and all of us, as visitors, are invited to partake of it.

Milan revels in its wine bars and we love one in particular.  All over the city there gathering spots where fine wines are served and a great number of the populace assemble in the early evening for a glass of wine, a bite of food and the Italian national pastime, chatting.  Our personal favorite is N’Ombra de Vin on the Via San Marco (  Evidently there are others who favor this spot, because it is packed every evening.

As for the name, well, it doesn’t mean anything in either Italian or English.  “Ombra” is Italian for shade or shadow and of course “vin” means wine…in French.  Let’s just say that the name means “In the shadow of wine” in some combination of languages and that works pretty well.

And indeed, N’Ombra de Vin is all about wine.  It was originally and still is a wine store.  Not exactly originally; that is, the owners claim that the building goes back to the 5th Century and that in later years Napoleon’s army and Mozart himself frequented the location.  Who’s to say?  But in 1973 it definitely became a wine store.  In later years, N’Ombra de Vin added an Italian tapas bistro and a music venue, as it continues today.

We got there early.

But for our purposes and for those who jam the joint from 5:00 until at least 8:00 every night, N’Ombra de Vin is about the institution of the apertivo.  The list of wines by the glass is a compendium of the great winemaking regions of Italy.  It changes frequently but there are always a few excellent Tuscans and Barolos and also many wines from lesser known corners of Italian Wine Country.

And the prices, at least for those of us used to New York wine lists, are amazingly low.  We well remember having healthy pours of Quintarelli Primafiore for 14 euros ($15.50) a glass.  It’s one of our favorite wines and it’s  $50 for a bottle.  Imagine what that would cost in an American bar, if you could find it.

Snacks, on the house.

Along with your drinks there you will be served little complimentary plates of snacks.  There will be olives, cheeses, bites of pizza, nuts and whatever they feel like adding that night.  We always get to N’Ombra de Vin prior to dinner and we always eat too much beforehand.

The third great attraction is the crowd.  If you want a seat outside – and you do want to be outside if the weather permits – get there early.  N’Ombra de Vin will be empty at 5:00 and overflowing by 6:00.  If you’ve been touristing around Milan all day, you’ll appreciate sitting down.  But the locals all seem to want to stand and mingle.  It seems that everyone knows everyone and you’ll feel like you’re at a cocktail party with a lot of well-dressed people (they’re Milanese, of course).

Milan is often the port of entry to Italy these days, so no matter where we’re going, we land there.  And if we have even one evening in town, we make a bee-line for N’Ombra de Vin.


Mt. Etna

It’s unusual to have wine tasting, a natural wonder and history all in one place. But Mt. Etna, on Sicily’s east coast between Taormina and Catania, fits all three descriptions.  On any clear day – and most days in Sicily are fair – you can see steam wafting out of the top of the mountain.  Mornings are best for viewing, before the peak gets shrouded in emissions.

Mt. Etna looming in the distance, from Taormina

There are many tours available.  Unless you are an avid hiker in rather severe conditions, it’s best to take one of them.  Some tours are rather strenuous but others, such as the one we took, are for people who would rather take a brisk walk.  Much of the mountain is forested and quite pretty but the parts you’ll be most interested in seeing are those where there is hardened lava from previous eruptions.

And oh, yes, Etna does still erupt.  Leaving aside the ones documented in Roman antiquity (or even further back) there have been major blasts as recently as 2017 and 2018.  The former injured ten people.  The latter was accompanied by an earthquake that injured a few people as far away as Catania.  Your tour guide will show you lava deposits and note that this one was from 1928, that one from 1997 and that one over there was 2002.  Fair warning: The solidified lava is granular and has some sharp edges.  One of the people on our tour slipped and was pretty badly scratched.

As a tourist, you won’t be suddenly surprised by lava spewing during your visit.  The mountain gives fair warning by rumbling and burping before it blows.  The local authorities will keep you away from anywhere near Mt. Etna.  You’ll get some great photos if you’re there for an eruption (we know someone who was there in 2002) but your vacation will smell a bit of sulphur and smoke.

The remains of an inn buried in lava from the 2002 eruption

The people in the villages around Mt. Etna take the possibility of eruption with stoic acceptance.  If it happens, they take it in stride and visit their families somewhere else.  In the meantime, they’re preoccupied with making wine.  (And olive oil and sausages and pistachios, but let’s focus on the wine.)  They make whites from Carricante, Catarratto, Grecanico, Inzolia and Minnella, all of which are virtually unknown outside of Sicily.  As good as they are – and we find Sicilian whites very good indeed – they are best known for Etna Rosso, red wines made from two different clones of the same grape: Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio.  The majority of the vineyards are on the northern and eastern slopes of Mt. Etna.

To be a DOC Etna Rosso, a wine must be at least 80% Mascalese and many are 100%.  These grapes make mellow, tannic wines.  If you like to taste the minerally characteristics of grapes grown in lava, look for the Cappuccio.  If like us you don’t care for that taste, try to avoid that blending grape.




How NOT to Be a Wine Snob – Part 2: Italy and the Rest of Europe

The popular American view of European wine lovers is that they are all snobs.  Equally, many Europeans think that Americans, wine lovers or not, are hicks.  Of course, neither typification is true, but there are just enough people who fit either category to give life to the stereotypes.  It does no one any good to show a European that Americans can be wine snobs also.

In our experience, those Americans who try to show themselves as superior in their wine knowledge compared with their friends are a bit more restrained when they are in European sectors of Wine Country.  For one thing, many don’t speak the languages and so are somewhat intimidated themselves.  (English-speaking countries in Europe don’t have wine worth discussion.  Beer they do have and the folks there can be pretty snobbish about their bitters.)

Cartoon courtesy of the

For another thing, most Americans probably don’t have the familiarity with the wines of Italy, France or Spain than they do with those of Napa Valley.  So there’s only so much lording it over others that they can get away with.  Nonetheless, you don’t want to be one of those people who gives Americans a bad name overseas.

  • Don’t try to speak like a local. Unless you are truly multi-lingual, don’t fake it.  Most of the servers speak English, as do a great many Europeans today.  It’s okay to use terms like bianco and rosso, or blanc (don’t pronounce the “c”) and rouge but full sentences aren’t required.
  • But do learn a little of the local language. Contrary to the previous tip, it’s still a good idea to be polite and ask if the server speaks English before launching into a request for a tasting.  It’s not that difficult to learn “Parla inglese?” or “Parlez-vous anglais?”  Imagine if a foreigner came up to you and started spouting away in Italian or French.  You would probably just walk away.  So if they reply that they don’t know English, you’ve at least established the ground rules for some pidgin communications abetted by hand signals.
  • Don’t compare what you’re tasting with American wines you’re familiar with. Even in France, where the grapes are the same as in California, Washington and New York they just don’t taste the same.  And in Italy, Spain or Germany you may be tasting wines from totally unfamiliar grapes.  You can’t win.  If you say that the wines you’re tasting aren’t as good as he ones back home, you will have instantly proven that you ARE a snob.  And if you say that the American wines are worse, they’ll wonder why you’re comparing at all.  After all, they had all those grapes first.
  • Be appreciative. In the States, if you don’t like a wine, you (should) pour it out quietly and move on.  In Italy, for example, you may be tasting very unfamiliar wine.  It might take you a little while to become accustomed enough to a wine to know if you like it or not.  So even if you don’t immediately like what’s you’re sipping, show that you appreciate the opportunity to taste it.