Sparkling Champagne and not just the bubbles
Words and pictures by Lisa Gerard-sharp
London is officially the Champagne capital of the world, with Britain just declared the biggest importer of Champagne. For the first time, the consumption of white wine will overtake red on these tipsy isles. With that in mind, a visit to the homeland of the world’s best bubbles is called for – both to celebrate the news and to see whether Champagne, as a region, can seduce us with more than bubbles.
At first sight, my mission looks as flat and featureless as the landscape across the Channel. Champagne’s fortunes seem to be reversed on this side of the Channel. Champagne sales are used as a barometer of French health and happiness: in 2013 the omens aren’t good, with a five percent fall considered the greatest indictment of Francois Hollande’s presidency so far.
Undeterred, we speed away from Calais at a civilised time, long after the wild-eyed lorry drivers have screeched off into the petrol-fumed darkness. From Calais, the A26 wings us to Champagne country and the first gastro stop at Troyes, a medieval, half-timbered town where we happily while away a lost weekend. Close to the cathedral, La Commanderie, once a haunt of the Knights Templar, serves a feast beginning with cheese tart and bubbles. We learn that there are over a million bubbles in each flute but are far too tipsy to count.
Southeast of Troyes lies a lesser-known side of Champagne, an arty diversion known as the Renoir trail. Centred on Essoyes, this `artist’s village’ was Renoir’s summer retreat after the painter’s marriage to local girl, Aline Charigot. Rosy-cheeked and loose-limbed, the country girl was his muse, as was her cousin Gabrielle. The Renoir centre focuses on the life-giving influence of family on the artist’s work. Renoir’s studio also displays personal memorabilia while the garden depicts his favourite flowers. Essoyes itself evokes the spirit of Renoir’s paintings, from the half-timbered houses and flower-bedecked balconies to reproductions of his buxom washerwomen. Several signposted trails reveal the landscapes Renoir loved and painted, with copies of key paintings and murals in situ. The best trails lead down to the River Ource and, with a bit of imagination, Renoir’s sun-dappled views soon spring to mind.
The Champagne vineyards stretch from Troyes to Reims but we decide to call into a niche producer. Dumont & Fils is set near the Benedictine ruins of Clairvaux Abbey (sadly now a prison, although the cloisters are periodically open). In itself, this is a reminder that it was the monks who first launched wine-making in the region, and that Dom Perignon, cellar-master of the Abbey of Hautvilliers, is credited with the creation of Champagne in the late 17th century. After falling for a subtle, citrusy Champagne, we are told that cellar-masters compare the process of assemblage with the role of an artist choosing his palette of colours. So we are not so far from Renoir after all.
The ghostly monks return in the Abbaye d’Auberive, a sober Cistercian foundation, once the sister abbey to Clairvaux. Set on the banks of the Aube, the monastery flourished in the 13th century. The serene Cistercian spirit somehow prevails, despite the abbey’s checkered past as prison, cotton mill, detention centre, Benedictine retreat, then wartime Nazi headquarters. The soothing monastic gardens and pared-down spaces now form an inspired setting for exhibitions of contemporary sculpture and outsider art.
Further east is Langres, an unmissable fortified town commanding a rocky outcrop. Wrapped in ramparts, and dominated by a tower, Langres was bordered by medieval enemies. Gabled but still secretive, it makes an inviting lunch stop. In Le Café de Foy, on Place Diderot, we tuck into the tasty local cheese salad and mirabelle tart, washed down with a jug of Chablis. Cuisine champenoise tends to come in two forms: earthy or gourmet, with prices to match. The simpler bistrots, like this one, may serve sauerkraut, andouillette sausages, pigs’ trotters, white pudding (boudin blanc), as well as servings of Langres and Chaource cheeses. Playful `bouchons de champagne’, chocolate champagne corks, reflect the biggest regional brand.
Winding gently north leads to Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, a place of pilgrimage to the French, particularly for the older generation. In most polls of `the greatest Frenchman of all time’, de Gaulle rubs shoulders with Napoleon and Louis XIV. As General de Gaulle’s home, and sanctuary during the `wilderness years’, Colombey itself has become a symbol of French patriotism. La Boisserie, the family home, and the graveyard where de Gaulle is buried, draw reverent visitors. But for outsiders, far more telling is the Memorial Charles de Gaulle, the museum dedicated not just to the General, but to the extraordinary wartime period that has shaped our times. De Gaulle was also part of the postwar reconciliation with his country’s greatest enemy, and a pivotal player in cementing the Franco-German axis that bound a reconstructed Germany to Europe. He did also pay tribute to Winston Churchill: “During the War, we stood tall, but Churchill stood taller.” Whatever his failings as an obdurate leader, or as a dictatorial statesman, de Gaulle’s patriotism was never in doubt, and he paved the way for the current European Union.
We digest many of the unpalatable facts of modern European history in Hostellerie La Montagne, a charming Michelin-starred inn that de Gaulle would have found too creative for his traditional tastes. Nor was the General a fan of the local tipple. Instead, my drinking companion teases me about my Champagne consumption, quoting a sexist line of Chekhov: “When a woman starts on the slippery slope, she always starts with Champagne because it hisses like the serpent that tempted Eve.”
The road north naturally leads to Epernay, considered the epicentre of Champagne country. This wealthy wine citadel is riddled by a hundred kilometres of interlinking tunnels and cellars, all hewn from the chalk. Fine mansions line the Avenue de Champagne, headquarters of the most prestigious Champagne Houses. Nearby is the Royal Champagne Hotel, whose name offers a clue to the Michelin-starred restaurant and copious tastings within. Surrounded by vineyards, the restaurant follows foie gras and similar delicacies with Champagne-infused ice creams and sorbets, and a cellar of almost 300 vintage Champagnes. There really is no escape for the weak-willed or the abstemious.
Heritage, craftsmanship, creativity and superlative quality are the hallmarks of the leading Champagne brands, but the novice is often no wiser, except at the very top end. Although few of us can put it into words, Champagne aficionados claim to detect aromas of candied limes, zesty mandarins, dried nuts, salty butter and bitter marmalade in a few of the best bubbles.
Most non-vintage Champagnes are a composite of several different years but the leaders, such as Krug, can rely on nearly 200 options. This prestigious brand was beloved by Ernest Hemingway, John Le Carré and even the late Queen Mother. Krug cultivates its myth-making carefully. In accordance with Krug family tradition, Olivier Krug even had a sip of champagne as a newborn baby, before tasting his mother’s milk.
Snobbery permeates the world of Champagne but can be pleasurably amusing in small doses.
Krug may be one of the finest Champagne marques but Olivier Krug still remembers his grandfather scorning rosé Champagne as only fit for “birthday cake and girly clubs”. Paul Burrell, the late Princess of Wales’s butler, pronounced that when you open a bottle of champagne, “it should sound like a mermaid’s sigh”. Having never heard a mermaid’s sigh, I simply find pleasure in the celebratory `whoosh’ that signals the end of driving for that day. Supposedly James Bond, another arbiter of taste, would only drink Bollinger. At the release of Skyfall, Bollinger even created a cuvée in honour of 007, presented in a gun-silencer-shaped casket. Even more recently, 50 years of the Bond franchise were again celebrated in bubbly Bolly at this year’s Oscars.
If this sparkling trail has whetted your appetite, consider an enlightening weekend with Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours. A serious Champagne education requires a tasting of twenty-five top vintages in a weekend, beginning at breakfast. That’s in addition to visiting the great Champagne houses, such as Taittinger, Pol Roger and Veuve Cliquot, and also trying tiny, niche producers to choose the keenly-priced tipples for your own cellars.
On the (very winding) way home, we stop in Reims for a Champagne-fuelled tour of Taittinger, one of the most venerable Champagne houses, conveniently close to the grandiose cathedral. Royal Reims has also witnessed the crowning of French kings. The cellar tour is equally majestic, an entrée into a secret world straight out The Da Vinci Code. The beguiling cellars lie on the site of Gallo-Roman chalk mines and summon up mad monks, apparitions only dispelled by copious tastings of Taittinger. But, even here, in the royal capital, Champagne is a serious affair – beyond mere bubbles and balance sheets. Pierre Emmanuel Taittinger peruses de Gaulle’s Memoirs for moral lessons and, mindful of the Champagne dynasty’s duty to the region, has provided new stained glass for Reims Cathedral. Sparkling yet serious, Champagne is no bubbly blonde.
By Ferry: Brittany Ferries: Portsmouth-Caen/Cherbourg from £215 return (with cabin); P&O Ferries: Dover-Calais from £50 return; Langan’s Brasserie on board. Start as you mean to go on, with brunch in the best restaurant on board.
By Road: route planning, including tolls: www.viamichelin.com & www.autoroutes.fr. From Calais to Reims (300 kilometres) takes two and half hours on the A26; to Troyes (430 kms). By Rail: Eurostar to Paris Nord – then TGV Paris Est to Reims (45 minutes). Railbookers: bespoke holidays by rail (from £229 pp) for 3 nights in Reims.
WHERE TO EAT, DRINK & STAY:
Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours: the best Champagne tours, even Champagne weekends and festivals,www.winetours.co.uk, tel: (+44) 01730 263111. Shopping around can justify your trip: you can even bring back 36 bottles, often sourced at only €13 per bottle.
Champagne houses: list of great names www.maisons-champagne.com
Dumont & Fils: family producers, www.champagnedumont.fr
Epernay Champagne tips: www.ot-epernay.fr
Hostellerie La Montagne: Colombey-les-deux-eglises: www.hostelerielamontagne.com
La Commanderie: La Maison de Rhodes, Troyes, www.maisonderhodes.com, tel: (+33) 03 25 43 11 11, rooms from €165.
Royal Champagne: for grand rooms and Michelin-starred Champagne-matched gourmet cuisine near Epernay, www.royalchampagne.com
Taittinger wine cellar tour: 99 Place St-Nicaise, Reims, www.taittinger.com, tel. 03 26 85 84 33. Also visit Krug (www.krug.com), Lansin and Veuve Clicquot, close to Reims Cathedral (Reims tourist office: www.reims-tourisme.com
WHAT TO DO:
Abbaye d’Auberive: www.abbaye-auberive.com
Memorial Charles de Gaulle: www.memorial-charlesdegaulle.fr
Reims, regional capital of Champagne: www.reims-tourisme.com.Events: Reims Beaux Arts museum stages a major exhibition on the influence of Champagne on the arts from 17th Century to modern times (until 26 May 2013), www.expo-champagne.reims.fr
Greeters (free walks with locals): www.greeters-en-champagne.com
Champagne-Ardenne: further information on www.tourisme-champagne-ardenne.com.