The Champagne Academy - Passion peaked (#6)
Hey wine lovers,
If you have read my previous blog posts, I hope I have articulated well that I think being a wine professional is the best job in the world! I literally could not think of anything else I would rather do (except maybe being a food writer/ restaurant critic – but I’d have to work out a lot more!). What everyone asks me the about the most however, and what I am best known for, is Champagne. Today, I will take you behind the scenes of the UK’s best kept trade secret: a network of Grandes Marque Champagne houses and inspiring Champagne professionals and enthusiasts, coming together to promote this magical region. Welcome readers, to The Champagne Academy…
I first heard about the Champagne Academy back in 2016 which was no mean feat considering I didn’t know anyone else who had been on the course (actually I did, I just didn’t know that back then, ha!). I was instantly amazed at how I’d missed all prior knowledge of this organisation in the press and at trade tastings around London. My interest was sparked, and upon research, I realised that it was more of a ‘who you know, not what you know’ type of situation. Being my normal bolshie self and muscling my way in with the right people, the following year I was invited onto the course. Little did I know just how much this invitation would change my career and life forever.
Onto the course itself. Each year, 16 lucky candidates from the UK wine trade are selected and sponsored by our 16 Grandes Marque Champagne houses. These are:
Moet & Chandon,
And Veuve Clicquot.
What these 16 fortunate people are selected for exactly, just cannot be described sufficiently in this little blog post, but in basic terms, these buyers, sommeliers, business owners, sales people, hospitality professionals etc, are whisked off to Champagne for a week and given the best education experience that money simply cannot buy. They are to be looked after not by the marketing representatives or tour guides from the houses, but by the owners, wine makers and family members themselves. People that even the most prestigious wine buyers may only meet in passing on their business trips. Those representing each house express how this week is not normal for them either, and how lucky they feel to be involved in such an important and historic link to the UK wine trade. A rare chance to come together with the other houses exploring ‘competitor’ cellars and taste base wines from their neighbours. All the normal rivalry (although the houses are all friends and often linked by family), is dropped for a week while they enjoy leaning from each other and celebrating what the region has to offer.
The aim of the course is to educate those in influential roles in the UK and create mini ambassadors for the region upon their return, keeping the ‘buzz for Champagne’ alive within all the linked sectors and job roles. The entire week is totally non-biased with each house getting the same time with the academicians, and even though each house sponsors an individual, that person will never find out who funded their education to protect them from favouring one house over another. Honestly, I would kiss the feet of whoever chose me to attend so I totally agree with this decision!!!
Each day we would visit around three houses. Normally for a Champagne breakfast, lunch, and dinner, may I add! Michelin star menus created specifically for each cuvee by the regions top chefs seemed the norm by the end of the week – how spoilt the experience made us! The first evenings meal location was kept a surprise. I remember the anticipation between us all of which hotel, restaurant or Maison we would be dining at, only to be led down the stairs into working cellar tunnels (in heels), which eventually opened out into a breath-taking carved out room, decorated decadently by local artists for the purpose of hosting us for the evening. What a first night and introduction to the Champagne Academy that was!
As well as enjoying the food and drink, we also had daily lectures, exams based on the previous day’s tuition, tutored tastings including still and base wines, and cellar/ vineyard/ bottling plant and press house visits. The lectures covered a wide range of topics including the history of Champagne and the Grande Marques, viticulture and vinification, marketing and analysis of world markets. I had died and gone to Champagne heaven! However, back down on earth, the last day of the course was actually very scary indeed as we faced final exams which held the largest percentage of our overall theory mark, and a mega blind tasting featuring Champagne we had tried within the week. Over the course duration, we tried over 150 cuvees, of which I was the geek of the group and wrote a tasting note for each one, even when I was, lets say ‘feeling particularly inspired by the bubbles’, so in fairness, some of them are more informative than others. In the flight, we had to pick out the predominant grape variety or percentage of different grapes in the blend, the vintage, region, general style, and the house for extra marks. During the award ceremony at the final luncheon, my group were all relieved to pass the exams and be awarded with the highly regarded and rare Champagne Academy Diploma. Rare - because only 16 people a year get the chance to pass the exam, and even then, it is not a 100% pass rate annually. There is an overall winner who is awarded with the silver ice bucket prize, and a magnum from each of the 16 houses. Yum. Our years winner was the first from Ireland and invited us to her hotel the following year to enjoy the bottles with her at the K Club in Dublin – what a treat!
After finishing the course and gaining the Diploma in Champagne, the academicians are then invited to join the academy as a member for life which opens up special access to various tastings, events and dinners throughout the UK with the opportunity to invite guests along also. These events bring together hundreds of people who have either been on the course themselves staring back in 1956, the house representatives and wine enthusiast guests who are lucky enough to have an invitation extended to them. The events really are the most VIP proceedings within the wine trade, and I have met so many industry ‘famous’ and influential people. Network, network, network!
Since joining, my personal experience with the academy is still flourishing after being invited to sit on the committee where I assist with the running of the organisation, and specifically look after our website. This has been a wonderful opportunity where I get to learn how this magical week is put together and aid the planning of the London based functions. A second full time job currently following the trauma of Covid-19 and having to postpone our 2020 proceedings for a year completely. As I work my way through the ranks and various roles within the academy, in the not too distant future I will be chairlady of the Academy and run the entire show for a year – a scary but very exciting thought! I’ll change my name to Champagne queen for that year I think…
A major takeaway from the experience has been the friends and connections I have made. I have been on other wine trips where you bond with people you have not met before. It is easy over romantic vineyard tours and a bottle too many in the evening but being joined to the other 15 on this incredibly unique journey, was something totally different and special that we will all treasure. I now have a group of genuine best friends across the country that I go away with outside of the academy events, and love meeting up with at the dinners and tastings to reminisce of our trip and gloat about recent visits back to the region over a glass of two of bubbles. I even got myself a new boss out of the experience!
To round up, I would like to share a favourite memory from the course - although I won’t say at which house this was to remain unbiased. I was looking out over a stunning landscape one afternoon within a glass box style tasting room trying cuvees from a house I had never given much time too before. Earlier on, we had been down to the world famous Crayeres (large underground cellars) with the head wine maker who asked me to choose whatever I wanted to taste with the group back above ground. WOW. I nervously pointed to an extremely dusty magnum, but upon opening it was corked! Towards the end of the tasting (and I just could not bring myself to spit any of this stuff out), I came over all emotional as I looked around at my surroundings and new friends. I am laughing to myself typing this out now, but I actually shed a tear in the moment (which I recorded on my tasting note for the 1995 vintage we were enjoying at that point). The joke of the afternoon then became that if a ‘hard-faced Charlotte’ cries, then the wine must be bloody good! Move over Parker points, ‘Charlottes tears’ were the new scale system for the rest of the week!
So, UK wine professionals that are passionate about Champagne, if I have done a good job and bigged-up this experience up enough, you need to express an interest to this once in a lifetime experience! The spaces are getting harder to come by each year as more professionals rise through the ranks and discover this trade secret. As mentioned, the 2020 course has been postponed a year so the next opportunity to attend will now be 2022 of which we already have interest expressed.
For more info, please visit our website 😊 - https://www.champagneacademy.co.uk/
Follow me on Instagram for posts about Champagne, wine, food, and drinks – @charlottedrinkschampagne