Champagne is, and always will be, one of the world’s great drinks – but a visit to this pretty part of France is even more rewarding than drinking the lovely stuff
There are a lot of urban myths about Dom Perignon – mainly that the French monk “invented” Champagne, one of the world’s great drinks. It’s not true – it was probably first discovered in England in 1662, 10 years before Dom Perignon arrived in Champagne. But what is true is his famous quote – when he discovered that a bottle of wine had gone fizzy through secondary fermentation, he shouted to his colleagues, “Come quickly – I am drinking stars”.
It’s a lovely quote, more so because drinking the stuff does actually make anybody feel like a star – no drink is more glamorous or feels so much like a celebration. Who has ever shouted, “Let’s have iced tea” after passing their exams? And Champagne is the place to discover more about it. Lots of places make good quality sparkling wines now – even England, with its lovely Nyetimber from Sussex – but if it’s not from Champagne, it’s not Champagne.
The fact is that the Champagne region is within easy reach of the UK, and has lots of top places to stay and eat, and some really gorgeous countryside. As it's 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, and you get a four-poster bed – perfect.
Nowadays Champagne is big business, but the charm of actually visiting the region is to discover smaller wineries, which you can visit and tour, and meet the wine-makers themselves. One such place is Chateau Launois, south of Epernay on the Cotes des Blanches, which is Chardonnay country. Champagne is made either of Chardonnay (Blancs des Blancs), Pinot Noir or Meunier (Blancs des Noirs), or a blend of all three. Launois Champagne concentrates on its local stuff, so produces several Blancs des Blancs, a more refreshing, light fizz perfect for a party or aperitif. You can compare it with a 100 per cent Pinot Noir, which for my money has far more power and length, a really gutsy wine. You also learn why 2008 was a good year, whereas 2007 was poor, and 2004 was fantastic – it’s all explained by a delightful guide who speaks good English.
Before you get stuck into the booze, though, you do the tour, in which the whole magical process of Champagne is explained, how it is made, stored, blended, disgorged and also how the phylloxera aphid nearly destroyed all of the world’s wine. A tour and tastings are €7-€15 depending on which fizzes you fancy, and you can, of course, buy some if you find one you like.
If you’re not a driver, or you’re not feeling adventurous enough to tour every small champagne house – and there are hundreds of them – 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 bar 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 keen. 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 Grands Crus stuff. A real discovery.
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 Cliquot, Taittinger, Pommery, Mumm and Lanson. The Hotel de la Paix is perfectly situated, just off the main shopping district and right opposite a Monoprix, where you can buy good-value bread, cheese, chocolate and of course the fizzy stuff. The hotel is modern, Ikea-like, with clean lines, a small indoor pool, a sculpture garden and, of course, a very cool bar selling glasses of fizz or beer. Rooms are contemporary, with chic lighting, wide-screen TVs and large bathrooms with huge shower-heads, white fluffy bathrobes and nice toiletries. It’s a 15-minute walk from the train station, and there is parking.
One of Reims’ most dazzling buildings is the home of Pommery. 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 that depicts the arrival of Champagne in New York. It’s the perfect image to keep in mind as you, too, return home on a ship.
Calais is around three and a half hours' drive from the Champagne-Ardennes region. P&O Ferries has 23 daily return crossings on the Dover – Calais route, with fares from £27 for a day return for a car and up to 9 passengers, and longer-duration fares from £27 each way. Club Lounge is available from £12 per person and you can book Club Plus, with priority boarding each way, for an extra £6.