Champagne – adored by millions and respected by the critics. ELISE RANA happily swigs her way along the best wine trail of all.
With a swipe of the ceremonial sword, the bottle is cut open and the pale liquid bubbles forth. Blue-uniformed members of the Confrérie des Sacrés de la Champagne hand around the glasses, and the Grand Master steps forward.
Do you swear to protect Champagne and the Champagne region?” As the Grand Master solemnly touches the sword to her shoulders, one visitor who came here a mere bubbly-lover will leave a defender of its realm. In all fairness, Janette is certainly worthy of a knighthood for services to the world’s most glamorous tipple, and not just for her dedicated consumption of the stuff. This is a woman who routinely opens a bottle of Moët for a night in front of the TV, has corks for light switches in her bathroom and is a fountain of fizz-related trivia – did you know that the pop of the cork should be no louder than a maiden’s sigh? Newly knighted, the maiden sighs and smiles, and we all raise our glasses.
The ceremony of ‘sabrage’ may be a flamboyantly crowd-pleasing way to end a cellar tour, but it’s more than just a bit of fun. The fact that such a dedicated sacred society should exist at all is indicative of how the French take their Champagne – seriously, and often. Some 170 million bottles are consumed domestically each year, compared to 300 million bottles exported, principally to the UK, US and Germany (Puff Daddy’s yacht perhaps rounding out the top five markets).
Keenly aware that their product retains the kind of priceless cachet that any other brand would spend millions on cultivating, only wines produced here in Champagne may use the C word on their product. And even here, production is strictly limited in order to maintain standards and exclusivity. This is a wine that isn’t going to lose its sense of occasion – or its ‘reassuringly expensive’ price tag – any time soon.
Fortunately, that’s not to say it’s a pleasure which is off-limits to anyone. With the extension of the high-speed TGV Est train line coming into operation early next year, the Champagne heartland is to become more accessible than ever before. So where better to develop a taste for the stuff – or decide for yourself if it’s worth all the fuss – than in its cradle of origin? Here are some essential stops on the tasting trail.
Phare de Verzenay
Is it the vastly fluctuating temperatures, the marly subsoil or just divine providence? To find out what it is that makes Champagne’s ‘terroir’ so special, start with a visit to the Musée de la Vigne housed in a rather randomly-placed lighthouse (phare). Built in 1909 by wine merchant Joseph Goulet as a promotional gimmick for his own Champagne du Phare, the lighthouse was once home to a restaurant, open-air dancefloor and theatre. The gardens still offer great panoramic views over the surrounding vineyards. See www.lepharedeverzenay.com.
Perched atop the vine-covered slopes of the ‘montagne de Reims’, this pretty village is known as the birthplace of Champagne for its connection to Dom Pérignon, the 17th century monk whose discoveries shaped the methods of Champagne production still used today. Today, more than 80% of Hautvillers’ economy is dependent on Champagne. See www.hautvillers.fr.
Founded in 1729, this is the oldest of all the Champagne houses and, now owned by luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, is still one of the most prestigious. Head underground to check out the perfect cellaring conditions provided by the pyramid-shaped chalk pits – up to 60 metres deep and dating from the 4th century, these crayères are unique to the region and were used as bunkers during World War II.
Moët et Chandon
Veuve Clicquot, Pomméry, Krug, Bollinger, Mumm … you’ll pass some seriously impressive addresses as you explore the region, but if time’s an issue then go for the name that absolutely everyone knows. Also owned by LVMH, a tour here is more an exercise in their super-slick marketing power than an insight into their iconic product, but it’s interesting nonetheless to see all those priceless bottles of Dom Pérignon slumbering away in the vaults.
For all the big-brand bling, it’s the passion and hard work you’ll see at smaller houses like this that provides the most convincing proof of Champagne’s true worth. A family-run producer of five generations and counting, Milan is one of less than 20 houses able to make top-of-the-scale Grand and Premier Cru Champagne, but it’s a supremely friendly and down-to-earth place to visit, offering meals and accommodation as well as very reasonably priced tastings. See www.champagne-milan.com.
• Fares to Chalons en Champagne start at £79 return with Rail Europe (0870-830 4862). For more information on the Champagne-Ardennes region, call the France Information Line on 09068-244 123 or see www.tourisme-champagne-ardenne.com or www.franceguide.com.
La méthode Champenoise: How the bubbles are born
Made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or a blend thereof, the still wine (vin tranquil) is tasted by cellar master, who then adds yeast and sugar (the ‘liqueur de tirage’). The bottles are then closed with a cap and cellared horizontally for a second fermentation, during which the yeast consumes the sugar and the carbon dioxide stays in the bottle. This ‘prise de mousse’ represents the birth of the bubbles.
After a minimum of 15 months, the bottle is placed on a riddling rack, gradually tilted and regularly turned so the yeast sediment (lees) settles at the neck. The neck is then plunged into a freezing bath, turning the sediment into a frozen block which, with six bar of pressure behind it, is then popped out. A mixture of reserve wines, sugar and brandy (liqueur d’expedition) is added to create the desired sweetness and a branded cork is driven into the bottleneck and secured with a wire muzzle.