It is the beginning of another month and thus time for another installment of the Ohmygod saga (to catch up on the previous installments click on the Ohmygod menu up top). As you will recall, I used to be a cycling tour guide in Europe for several years. Through that job (yes, it is a bit difficult to call it a ‘job’) I met countless interesting people and have a few compelling stories to tell, but most of them pale to the story of Ohmygod, one of the clients that I had for three weeks. Some may wonder about the moniker, but the name chose itself really; it is what I uttered repeatedly during just about every interaction with him.
In the previous installment (Part Thirty-Four), I left a tasting at Gosset in Epernay and was actually aided by Ohmygod in my efforts to rid myself of the overly amorous Maggie. The problem was that I was then stuck with Ohmygod for the ride back out to Villers-sous-Châtillon for another tasting. As fate would have it, just as I was about to try to drop him, I looked back to find him already gone.
I was on my way to Villers-sous-Châtillon, a tiny wine town in the Vallée de la Marne and to one of my favorite producers, Collard-Chardelle. I had visited once before with a rather large group and had a great tasting, which was the first time I had been exposed to the wonderful champagnes.
Collard-Chardelle is one of the few remaining champagnes that ages at least part of their wine in oak casks (others include Bollinger and Krug). The oak gives the wine a depth and a coarseness that not only makes it more complex, but also renders the wine much more adaptable to food—these wines reach their fullest potential when paired with dinner.
I pulled into the driveway (many small producers across France sell their wine right out of their houses which stand adjacent to the winery), locked up my bike, and rang the bell. After a couple of moments, Daniel Collard opened the door. Even though we had met once before, it seemed as though he did not recognize me (I was pretty sure he does not come across many 6’4” Americans clad in lycra on a daily basis, but you never know). After a bit of a re-introduction, he recalled my previous visits but he said he was afraid that he did not have time for a tasting, as he needed to be in Reims in an hour.
I mentioned to him that I had called and made an appointment, but he assured me that there was no such entry into his date book. A bit dejected, I thanked him nonetheless and turned to head back to my bike.
“Attendez, vous êtes tout seul?” He asked, wanting to know if I was alone.
After I responded affirmatively, he shrugged his shoulders and said there was time for a quick tasting. I followed him into his basement, which was set up as a rather professional looking tasting room. As I was about to sit down in the inviting armchair I realized that I was sweating profusely— I had just covered 20 kilometers in a little over a half an hour and it was a very warm day in Champagne.
Do the math.
As Daniel returned with a couple of flutes and two bottles of champagne, he threw me a rather perplexed look as if to say “why are you still standing?” as he motioned to the chair before me. Either he did not notice my “moist” condition or he did not care (I assumed it was the second since the French have a long history of ignoring body odors).
So I sat—who was I to argue? The guy had two bottles of cold champagne. I have been called a lot of things, but rarely has “idiot” been one of them.
He sat down in an opposing, but identical chair and poured the first wine. I immediately knew that I was in a bit of trouble: he filled the flutes to the top.
And there was no spit bucket.
I did the math: I was about to suck down a couple full flutes of champagne in about a half an hour on a relatively empty stomach, after having ridden 20 kilometers in near 35ºC (95ºF) heat.
This would be interesting.
We started with the N.V. Cuvée Prestige (18€) which is the bulk of Collard-Chardelle’s production. The wine is bright and lively with an active mousse and just a hint of the oxidation that takes place in the oak barrels. I eagerly drank every drop. Outstanding. 91-93 Points
We then moved on to his N.V. Blanc de Blancs (most champagnes are made from the clear juice of two black grapes–Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier–and one white grape–Chardonnay–the Blanc de Blancs, however, is made with 100% Chardonnay). Blanc de Blancs are usually described by their “finesse” or “elegance” since that is generally what Chardonnay adds to champagne. I, for one, am not usually a fan of Blanc de Blancs since I relish the backbone and power that comes from the Pinot Noir. This wine (another “full pour” by the way), however, was my kind of Blanc de Blancs since the time in oak clearly added a depth of flavor, while keeping the finesse. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
As we were finishing the Blanc de Blancs, I mentioned to him that I had tried his top wine, the 2002 Saveurs d’Antan just a few weeks earlier with a good friend back in Paris. Without missing a beat, he asked if I would also like to try it again now.
I was sitting there in his house, so I did not reply “Duh!” but I was surely thinking it. I almost mentioned the time (I had been there a solid twenty minutes already), but instead I just replied “Gladly!”
He said it needed a brief “frappe” (chill) in the ice bucket, so he offered to take me on a tour of the facility in the interim. I quickly agreed and the winery, immediately adjacent to his house, was very impressive despite their tiny production. He explained (again), as he showed off his magnificent barrels, that he was one of the few producers to still age his wines in oak, which had been the practice for all producers of champagne before the advent of the stainless steel tank. He elaborated that the stainless steel was attractive to many since it was much more predictable and controllable and he insisted that while one could still make fine champagne using steel, it lacked the character, the soul, that oak provides.
After a trip by the disgorgement line (where the dead yeast sediment is removed after the secondary fermentation in the bottle), and the view of thousands of bottles stacked on top of one another, we made our way back to the living room/tasting room/office area where the Saveurs was waiting.
The 2002 Saveurs d’Antan is really something else. Finesse, muscle, elegance, refinement. Really great tropical fruit and that hint of oaky oxidation. I would love to taste this next to a Krug (also aged in oak)–as I bet it would hold its own. Incredible. 94-96 Points.
As we were sipping our way through his top champagne, we started talking a bit about other wines, and he asked if I would like to see his own personal cellar. Being the wine geek that I am, I nodded with enthusiasm. After we finished the flute, he led me down some stairs and into a low hung room with close to 1,500 bottles many of which he inherited from his father (including a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée Conti Richebourg, 1929).
We got back to the tasting room and he noticed that there was still a bit of the Saveurs left (as in a half of a bottle), and he insisted that we finish it, since, as he put it, it was not going to be any better tomorrow.
Who was I to argue?
I ended up buying six bottles (three each of the Prestige and the Savers), which I carefully loaded on to the back of my bike. I still had a good 65 kilometers to ride up to Reims, one of my favorite cities in France, and the town where we would be spending the next two nights.
Despite the heat, my lack of a real lunch, and the close to five glasses of champagne that I just consumed, I was feeling rather spry as I hopped on my bike and headed down the hill toward the D1 that would take me back past Epernay. I would then head north over the Montagne de Reims and then to the hotel (although it is called a “mountain” the Montagne de Reims is not much more than a glorified hill).
Just as I was reaching the turn, I saw a figure clad in a stained bright yellow cycling jersey flash by right before me. I stopped and turned watching the cyclist continue up the road, I thought for a moment that I had to be hallucinating–I last saw my nemesis almost two hours ago in Epernay and I was now 20 kilometers in the opposite direction of where he should have been heading.
I considered for a moment that I was in some sort of champagne induced hallucination, but as I looked again, the twelve inches of matted gray hair extending out of the helmet was unmistakable.
It was Ohmygod.
Headed up the hill I just came down.
I was thus faced with yet another Ohmygodilemma (which is far worse than your standard dilemma since most of those, while perhaps difficult, usually have a modicum of logic involved): let him go and leave his fate to the gods of Champagne, or follow after him and at least get him riding in the proper direction, knowing that this had the potential to be a much bigger problem if he did not make it to Reims that night.
Thus, against the desires of just about every fiber in my being, I turned around and headed back up the hill in Ohmygod’s wake.
As I have mentioned several times, Ohmygod is a surprisingly strong cyclist and he already had a kilometer or so lead on me. Add the six bottles of champagne on my bike and nearly another bottle flowing through my veins, I knew that this was going to be painful. As I was trying to get some sort of momentum going up the hill, a couple of thoughts kept creeping in. First, on a certain level, I thought that this is what it must be like to pass a kidney stone–going through unbelievable pain to remedy a situation that was no fault of your own. The second thought was much more basic: I started to hate Ohmygod’s mother for giving birth to him.
The hill that we were climbing is rather wide open–I could see Ohmygod just up the road ahead of me, and I could tell that I was not really gaining on him.
I started to hate his father at this point.
I thought he was heading for Villers-sous-Châtillon, the town I had just left (I assumed he had somehow remembered the name of the town where I was going), but instead of turning right and heading to the village, he kept climbing the hill toward the town of Châtillon-sur-Marne.
I was not sure if he had any siblings, but if he did, I hated them now as well.
Sure enough, he turned left at the top of the crest, heading for Châtillon. And up an even steeper hill. The good news was that I seemed to be gaining on him a bit. The bad news was that I know hated his entire province of Ontario, and was well on the way to hating all Canadians.
Just as I was a mere couple hundred meters behind, he entered the town and turned abruptly to the right and I lost sight of him. The town is not huge by any definition, and really he needed to come back down the hill we were on to leave town, so I figured I would find him rather quickly.
I made the same right as he had, but he was nowhere to be found. I circled around the town looking for his obnoxious yellow jersey, or at least his bike.
I even figured at some point I would have smelled him, but no luck.
As I was about to leave and head back down the hill, I decided to stop in a boulangerie to grab an eclair (one of my true weaknesses). On a whim, I asked if the woman behind the counter had seen any other cyclists (I did not really want to admit in any way that I was “with” Ohmygod, thus leaving my question sufficiently vague). She nodded affirmatively and mentioned that one rather odd-looking “maillot jaune” had headed up to the statue.
The statue she was referencing was that of Pope Urban II, born in Châtillon, was Pope from 1088-1099, and is perhaps best known for ordering the First Crusade. The statue is enormous, about 25 meters (80 feet) high, perched on the top of the hill.
Despite my better judgment yet again, I trudged up the hill where I indeed found Ohmygod. Although, I had not seen him take a single picture in close to two weeks, there he was with a little point and shoot, taking picture after picture of the statue.
I went up to him, but he was in a bit of a trance, intently focused on his subject. Rather perturbed at this point (understatement), I tapped him on the shoulder. This was clearly not the best idea as after he nearly dropped his camera, he recoiled into a pretzel-like contortion with his hands bunched into fists as if it were some martial arts defense technique of his own creation.
Great, not only was I not able to catch him on the hill, he was now going to try to punch me in the head.
I hate Canadians.
Eventually, he realized it was me and relaxed his stance.
I thought about lecturing him for the umpteenth time, but the curiosity was far too great.
“Ohmygod, what in the hell are you doing up here taking photos of this statue?”
“The pictures are for my mother–she is a bit of a Pope-buff and Urban II [he then motioned to the statue as Vanna White would introduce a new puzzle] is one of her favorites.”
I pondered his statement for a second or two, but then just simply shook my head and told him that we needed to get going–it was nearly 3:30 and there were still 60 or so kilometers (40 miles) to ride.
He then let out his characteristic “Hmm erp” sound followed by “OK.”
Soon enough, we were back on our bikes and headed back down the hill toward Epernay. I quickly realized that something I had been avoiding the entire trip–riding with Ohmygod–was now my lot for the better part of the next 2.5-3 hours. I had no other choice as I needed to get his reeking carcass to the hotel in Reims before dinner.
Given his surprising ability on the bike, it should not provide too much of an obstacle, but I knew taking anything for granted with him was a potential disaster.
One thing was certain, however: I was not going to talk to him. Not one word. I did not even want to know why he seemingly stepped in and bailed me out of a rather sticky situation with Maggie back at Gosset. I just wanted silence–I was going to pretend he was not there.
Which actually worked.
We made it to Epernay, up and over the Montagne de Reims, and to the outskirts of Reims surprisingly quickly and without incident.
Then, as we were stopped at a traffic light, he spoke:
“Hmmm, erp, Jeff?”
“Um, hmm erp, I think that is the rest of the group over there.”
Sure enough, a group of clearly lost cyclists where on the opposite side of the intersection, maps drawn, trying to figure out both where they were and where they were going.
Normally, this would have been a welcome sight as there would have been a host of others to distract me from Ohmygod. But that was not the case.
The group would now be expecting me to lead them into town and to the hotel and despite being called a “tour guide” I have an absolutely horrendous sense of direction. What made the situation that much worse was that we were heading into a large city (Reims), which made it much more difficult to navigate and therefore infinitely more daunting.
Surprisingly, after gathering up the five of them, the journey into the center of town went off without a hitch. Aided by street signs and the faint memories of having done the exact ride about 30 times, I was able to get us all to the cathedral unscathed.
If only the cathedral were not another 400 meters from the hotel.
From the cathedral, we still had to pass through a pedestrian area and a city bus terminal. I proceeded slowly, telling everyone that the pedestrians technically had the right of way, and deserved our attention. As I turned left on to the main road I looked back to see an elderly woman crossing the street. She was maybe 70 years old, or so. Ohmygod was just about to negotiate the turn. I could not tell where he was looking since his sunglasses cover almost his entire face, but he clearly was not looking at grandma making her way across the street.
He clocked her.
As if she were a little tiny dot and he were Pac-man.
They both went down, and hard. I circled back to deal with it. The poor woman was apologizing profusely (as if it were her fault) as Anne and Ellen tried to gather up the oranges that were now rolling down the street. As per his norm, Ohmygod was rather oblivious to the whole thing–he simply hopped up, got on his bike and continued in the same direction we had been heading. The woman did not appear to be hurt, but she had a 45 centimeter (18 inch) bike tire mark on her khaki colored skirt.
Classic, real classic.