I'm fortunate really, during the Coronavirus pandemic that's been such a horror for many I've been able to work from home and have been keeping well. I'm thankful for that but as a travel obsessed adventurer it's also been a nightmare. With cancelled trips and no possibility of 2020 travel in sight I felt as though my bubble had well and truly burst.
Gradually virus cases reduced and talks of air-bridges emerged, there was hope at last and cautious planning began for the green light to go… True to myself on the first day permitted I was already at dawn on the road… destination? Dover Ferry Port and my gateway to the biggest stockist of much needed bubbles…France, more specifically the Champagne-Ardennes region responsible for the most famous of all the fizz, Champagne.
Legend has it in 1688 Monk and Cellar Master Dom Perignon discovered the presence of bubbles in wine by accident. Having experimented blending different grapes for improved flavour he noticed a continuing fermentation in the bottles causing bubbles. Perceived as a failure the Monks despaired, but Dom did not give up. On tasting this bubbly’ creation he cried out “come quickly, brothers! I am tasting the stars!” A light effervescent wine was created but there was a problem…exploding bottles everywhere. Dom set about solving the problems, first a stronger heavier bottle and second cork stoppers to avoid blow outs. The changes worked and Champagne was born.
A century later, Veuve Nicole Clicquot (Veuve meaning widow) inherited her husband’s champagne business. An advanced woman for her years she began perfecting processes to improve the wine. She reduced bubble build up by riddling’ where semi inverted bottles are turned by hand over time. Nicole also perfected the disgorgement’ process where sediment stored in the tip of the fermenting bottle is quickly released then instantly re-corked to retain the liquid. Still used today these processes are followed by the most prestigious champagne houses that still turn their bottles by hand.
A 2.5 hour journey from Dunkirk we arrived in Reims the unofficial city of Champagne and our first stop Taittinger. Owning 288 hectares of vineyards it’s one of the world’s most famous champagne brands. Our expert guide was Annelise and our tour starts with a short film of Taittinger past and present. Next we descend gradually into the ancient chalk caves some 18 meters underground. Still perfectly intact we see here stocks of ageing bottles and learn about the process the Taittinger way’, fascinating. Walking the caves we notice numerous etchings scratched into the cave walls, a stark and humbling reminder of the soldiers that hid, rested and recuperated here during both world wars.
Now for the much anticipated tasting, we headed to the elegantly furnished tasting room. Gracefully we savoured each divine taster noting the subtle differences guided by Annelise, just like wine champagne can be paired with culinary flavours or simply enjoyed on its own. Before leaving we visited the small gift shop where a selection of tasteful branded products and of course bottles can be purchased, a fantastic day. Group tours from 25 per person, for booking www.taittinger.com/en/visit.
That evening we ventured into the city for a bite to eat, our destination Place Drouet-d’Erlon was a street almost entirely filled with food offerings. Tired out we devoured Thai food at Pitaya Street Food www.pitayaresto.fr but given more time I’d visit the highly rated La Vigneraie www.vigneraie.com which offers gourmet cuisine of the region. After dinner we wandered the short distance to the magnificent Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, sitting in the warm air we watched the changing lights of the building as the sun set.
Most people will have heard of Moet, Taittinger, Dom Perignon etc but few know there are over 300 producers of Champagne in this region from large producers to independent and boutique. Driving through the gorgeous vineyard clad countryside my next stop would be medium size producer Maison Gardet in the tiny picture perfect village of Chigny-les-Roses.
Maison Gardet combines 21st century technology with the tradition to produce champagne of the highest quality. Each bottle is aged a minimum of three years producing an elegant champagne with fine bubbles. The Gardet House features a beautiful ornate sun room, furnished patio and tasting lounge for visitors. Tours available in advance www.champagne-gardet.com Having now moved our base from Reims to rural Hermonville a small village in the heart of the Champagne region we spent the next few days touring the countryside, walking by the magnificent Champagne Houses of Epernay on the elite Avenue de Champagne and enjoying the parks and architecture of the small official capital city, Chalons en Champagne.
Hermonville is on the route touristique du champagne’ a driving route that will take you past many small producers of champagne with the opportunity at some to call in, taste and buy. Our accommodation in Hermonville was no basic affair, in this part of France it had to be a Chateau. Independently owned Chateau d’Hermonville was our choice an elegantly refurbished private B&B with superb hosts www.chambredhotesreims.com
Walking distance from our B&B was Champagne Miniere run by two brothers, an emerging grower in the region. Passionate about quality and environmental sustainability we tasted their champagne Influence’ creamy and round with hints of yellow fruits and citrus. That was another bottle crammed into our already full car…
As we rounded up our trip I reflected on how hospitable and friendly were the people and businesses we’d met, so ready to show their passion for the vines. Despite the face mask etiquette which was remarkably well organised we felt fully revitalised, perhaps something to do with those magical bubbles. Could this year be a vintage year? With so much yet to see surely this warrants a return visit…