Mike Martin is an experienced travel journalist, who has written for Teletext and The Travel Editor for 10 years. He specializes in food and wine, culture and activities holidays, and his favorite country is France.
You may have read a lot recently about Champagne – and not all of it positive. Falling sales due to the economic crisis and the strong euro, the rise of other sparkling wines from Spain, New Zealand and even good old England, and some poor product might lead you to believe Champagne’s days are numbered. Don’t believe a word of it – as a visit to the northerly French region confirms, this is still, and will forever be, one of the world’s truly great drinks. It’s true that other countries’ sparklers are improving all the time – a New Year’s Eve bottle of Nyetimber 1999 from Sussex was truly memorable – but if it’s not from Champagne it’s not Champagne. MD of Bollinger Andrew Hawes, commenting on 2008’s falling sales, said: “The British have a deep love affair with Champagne. The market will bounce back.”
Throw in the facts that the Champagne region is easily reachable, has lots of great places to stay and eat, and features gorgeous countryside, and it’s an attractive short-stay destination. At around 270km from Calais, it’s probably best to drive straight to a hotel and start your tour the next day – you don’t want to be too ambitious and/or drink too much. A good starting point is Chateau d’Etoges, a classic Chateau in the tiny village that bears its name and right in the middle of some vineyards. Its Orangerie does classy French cuisine from €60-€90 depending on how many courses you have, and it has a good selection of wines. After a tasty dinner it’s a short stumble into your massive, four-poster bed.
English wine geeks will point out that sparkling wine was almost certainly ”discovered” in England – Christopher Merret gave his famous paper about it to the Royal Society in 1662, some six years before Dom Perignon arrived at the Abbey of Hautvillers in Champagne and told his fellow monks “come quickly, I am drinking stars.” Perignon may not have “invented” Champagne as many people declare, but he certainly studied and refined it, and worked out that different blends produced different tastes.
Nowadays Champagne is big business, but the charm of actually visiting the region is to discover smaller wineries where you can visit, tour and meet the wine-makers themselves. One such place is Chateau Launois, south of Epernay on the Cotes des Blancs, which is Chardonnay country. Champagne is made either of Chardonnay (Blancs des Blancs), Pinot Noir, Meunier (Blancs des Noirs), or a blend of all three. Launois concentrates on its local grapes, so produces several Blancs des Blancs, a more refreshing, light fizz perfect for a party or aperitif. You can compare it with a 100% Pinot Noir, which for my money has far more power and length, a really gutsy wine. The English-speaking guide will explain why 2008 was a good year, whereas 2007 was poor, and 2004 was fantastic, during the tour and tasting (€7-€15 depending on which fizzes you fancy). You can of course buy some if you find one you like.
For the non-driver or if the thought of visiting single Champagne houses is too intimidating, the region has finally come up with an idea that is as simple as it is brilliant. In Epernay, a five minute-walk from the (lovely) train station and main Avenue de Champagne where all the big names are, there is a small wine bar, the C Commes Champagne in Rue Gambetta. It’s a chic, comfortable place where you can sample Champagnes by the glass. If you like one, you simply walk down into the cellar and buy one – and, here’s the really good news, the prices are extremely reasonable. Very few of the bottles are over €20, some are as low as €12, and the fact you can try them all first takes out any risk. The caves downstairs are well worth a browse as every different house is clearly labelled with where it’s from in the region, if it’s a Grand Cru and even – a real breakthrough for the French – the percentage of each grape that’s in your bottle. For a country that refused to put the grape variety on their wine for the best part of 100 years, we can only deduce they are at last listening to the rest of the world’s wine-tasting habits! C Comme Champagne has English-speaking staff to guide you through, and there is no obligation to buy, you can just taste away to your heart’s content. It’s €17 to taste a select five, up to €50 if you’re after Grand Crus stuff. A real discovery.
From the pretty town of Epernay it’s a short drive to Hautvillers, a tiny town famous because of one man – Dom Perignon.
Hautvillers translates as “high place,” and it’s one of those picture-perfect French villages with a bar, church and a few pretty houses. In the square you’ll find the Tourist Office where, for €3, you get a gentle walking tour with an explanation of Perignon’s life and the effect he had on perfecting Champagne. The highlight is the Abbey where he is buried.
If you’re going to Champagne, you should spend at least one night in Reims, the capital, where a lot of the big names are based – Veuve Clicquot, Taittinger, Pommery, Mumm and Lanson. You can tour all of them, and you’ll be amazed at how much detail goes into producing the stuff.
Hotel de la Paix is excellently situated just off the main shopping and eating spots and is a chic hotel with a great bar and a cute pool. From here you can explore Reims’ attractions — an excellent Musee des Beaux-Arts, a famous cathedral which hosted Coronations, a planetarium and a museum in the same schoolroom where the German surrender was signed on May 7, 1945. One of the most interesting buildings, however, is the home of Pommery. The estate hosts art exhibitions inside its famous caves. You get the usual informative tour but can also enjoy the surprise exhibits down there in the chalk, like inflatable tanks, revolving giant propellers and hidden huts. It’s all great fun but, if not to your taste, the selections of fizz afterwards will act as a pretty good salve. For €10-€17 you can compare Pommery’s different styles of Champagne, and rest your eyes on Gallee’s carving on the side of a giant barrel which depicts the arrival of Champagne in New York – a suitable image to keep in your mind as you head home.
Calais is around a 3.5-hour drive from the Champagne-Ardenne region. For more information on the four regions of Champagne-Ardenne see www.champagne-ardenne-tourism.co.uk.