Drink your fill of fizz and explore pretty, flower-filled villages on a tour round France's famous Champagne region
When asked why he drank champagne for breakfast, Noel Coward replied, 'Doesn't everyone?'
Well, most of us probably don't drink champagne for breakfast but that doesn't mean we wouldn't like to. Whatever the occasion it rarely falls flat as long as the corks are popping and the bubbles rising.
But apart from le champagne - the wine - there is la Champagne, the countryside. This is the smallest and most northerly wine-growing region in France with over 80,000 acres of graceful vineyards, rolling hills, and flower-filled wine villages - some with appropriate names such as Dizy and Bouzy (the significance of which the locals only understood when American and British troops were there during the First and Second World Wars).
Although not exceptionally beautiful, the region is pretty and has a very definite sense of style. In the villages every second house seems to produce its own champagne and there are signs inviting you in for a tasting - which is always a little ceremony. Not for the Champenois the opening of a dusty bottle on a bare table, such as you get in other wine regions (although this too can have a certain charm). Champagne must be opened slowly and poured into elegant glasses. The cork removal must never be accompanied by a loud POP! (Anyone who pops champagne corks is considered a peasant or English!)
The enjoyment of le champagne is why many people visit this region and the best way to do it is by car. The great champagne 'houses' are known as les Grandes Marques and are mostly situated in or around Reims and Epernay, but there are more than l0,000 small producers in the area and it can happen that you come across an absolutely wonderful wine in some small village - often these wines are never exported and are only for French consumption.
The Route Touristique du Champagne is well signposted. It's fun to stop whenever you feel like it, explore, and try a local tasting. But you will need a base, and Epernay makes an excellent centre for a wine tour of the region. This is the heart of the Champagne region and is home to world-famous champagne houses. The place to find these is the aptly named Avenue de Champagne, which is lined with elegant l9th-century mansions, mostly belonging to the champagne barons.
You can take your pick of which famous champagne house you wish to visit. Mercier is the biggest seller in France and is probably the most visitor-conscious. It was founded in 1858 by Eugene Mercier and now forms part of the Moet-Hennessy Group. On display in the foyer is the largest champagne cask in the world, constructed in 1889 with a capacity of 215,000 bottles. A laser-guided train takes visitors around the vast cellars where, apart from 11 miles of bottle-filled galleries, there are some unusual carvings in the chalk, especially in the Cave of Bacchus.
Be sure to visit some of the smaller champagne houses. They are often family-run businesses and it's interesting to compare them with the Grand Marques. You will not, however, be spending all your time tasting champagne and although Reims is home to some of the great champagne houses, it also has a lot of other things to offer.
The superb cathedral dates from the l2th century and is where all the kings of France were crowned from 1180 to 1825. Even here the influence of champagne is evident, with grand stained glass windows devoted to people picking grapes, pruning, digging, and stamping barefoot in vats. There is also a window designed by Marc Chagall. Amongst the many coronations which took place in the cathedral, that of Charles VII stands out, when Joan of Arc brought him to Reims in 1429 after fighting her way through the English battle lines.
Don't miss the famous crayers, great cavernous chalk pits quarried by the Romans to build Reims and used today as champagne cellars. The cellars at Champagne Ruinart are unique; they are the only ones in Champagne to be classified as an Historical Monument and are 200 feet tall. Ruinart, founded in 1729, is the oldest of the existing champagne firms and was one of the first to export champagne to the United States in the early l9th century. Visits are by appointment only but it is well worth the effort of booking ahead. English is spoken and you will be offered a glass of champagne.
Another place you must visit before you leave Champagne is Hautvillers, home of Dom Perignon, the l7th-century Benedictine abbot who is credited with the complicated double fermentation method, which encouraged the local wine's natural sparkle. The end result was a clear wine with constant effervescence. At the time he is said to have cried out, 'Brothers, come quickly; I am drinking stars.'
The village is very pretty. Take a walk around its winding streets and notice that almost every house has some kind of sign attached to it, which advertises the delights of champagne. The place practically floats on bubbly!
Hardly anyone confesses to not liking champagne. People who normally never drink will sip quite happily. Even crusty old George Bernard Shaw said, 'I'm only a beer teetotaller, not a Champagne teetotaller'.