60 glasses of bubbly in 74 hours, several trips underground and bone chilling weather can make you see bottled luxury in a different light.
Many of us grow up viewing champagne as an occasion beverage, a glass or three of sparkle gulped down at a wedding or birthday. And then you learn how to ‘look, smell and taste,’ to distinguish between cheap plonk and the world’s best bubbly, to savour. So how does one cut the 15 minutes of savouring down to 30 seconds, and still enjoy the experience? Seven years after my first visit to Champagne, I am once again at the centre of it all, Reims and Epernay, this time giving some of the famous vineyards a miss to make time for both international rockstars and smaller cellars.
The beginning is always the same, I realise, with that first glass of bubbles being extra special; in this case, Jacquart Brut Mosaique paired with salmon and greens at a discreet restaurant across the church of Notre Dame. Then comes the Champagne Pommery tour in Reims and the gradual descent – 116 steps or 30 metres underground – into a vast labyrinth of tunnels, originally Roman chalk vaults, where bottles of champagne are stored.
Art for company
Interestingly, an extended art exhibition is underway in the tunnels, upholding founder Madame Pommery’s reputation as a patron of the arts.
It could also be because the owners of the champagne house, Nathalie and her husband Paul-François Vranken, are known internationally for their love for art. Besides the video installations and sculptures in the tunnels, is a giant blending barrel called Le Grand Foudre and Daniel Firman’s elephant art work, Würsa, which defies gravity by balancing on the end of its trunk. On exiting the cellars we rehydrate with a dry and toasty Brut Apanage, a pale Blanc de Blancs and an elegantly robust brut Rose (a hit with most women in the room), and I stock up on Pommery’s celebratory mini Pop bottles. Great for gifting back home and for those who can’t be bothered to crack open a 750 ml. Talking of bottle sizes, Pommery has most of the big ones, from the Jerobaom (4 bottles) to the Salmanazar (12). The perfect size, however, our guide confides, is the Magnum (2 bottles).
France, as everyone knows, is where you stock up on seasonal food and treats. Champagne does not disappoint, with flaky pain au chocolat and madeleines at our country residence, Hostellerie la Briqueterie, to lunch at La Grillade Gourmande in Epernay, where the wine menu is like a Bible and chef and owner Christophe Bernard is welcoming. And at la Petite Friande, chocolate champagne corks rule.
Sizing up the rest
Next up is a speedy tour of Mademoiselle Ville, the century-old château of the Vranken Pommery Monopole estate. It is art deco meets art nouveau, featuring a Baccarat room, a 10 metre-long chandelier and flooring made from port wine barrels.
There are stuffed donkeys in the bath and on the sofa, courtesy English artist Stephen Wilks. We drink up Demoiselle ‘Premium Cuvee’ Brut from elegant crystal glasses and head out in the wintry weather for a late evening degustation a short ride away, with another popular Champagne house, Taittinger. A James Bond favourite (judging by their ‘wall of clients’, several prominent Indian families are also partial to it), this house stocks three million bottles of their famous Comtes de Champagne vintage 12 metres below the ground. There is a lot of history at the Chardonnay house, featuring gothic arches and Nebuchadnezzers – the latter serving 160 glasses, no less. A savvy marketing team takes us through their champagnes, right up to their prestige cuvée Blanc de Blancs. The wines show beautifully, but it is Nocturne, with packaging inspired by a disco ball, that shines. A ‘sec’ champagne (a blend of 30 different crus from several harvests), it is mellow and smooth and perfect for Indian nightclubs.
Art deco break
Owner Jean-Louis Vogt’s grandmother established Cafe du Palais in 1930. The art deco setting is popular with the creative set and the locals, and you will find paintings, sculptures, photographs and more. Look out for watercolours by Luc Simon and David Tremlett, and a 1928 stained glass on the ceiling by the glassworker, Jacques Simon. Stop by for the daily paper, breakfast, a flute of champagne
The night ends with dinner at La Banque, formely a bank branch, where the bathroom used to be a safe deposit and the oak bank counter is now the bar. It’s a fitting end to a chilly day filled with with bubbly and sets the tone for the next 48 hours.
At the experimental and small-scale Champagne Laherte Freres and Champagne Serge Mathieu, for instance, or the internationally successful Champagne Drappier and the ‘anti-barrel’ Champagne Paul Goerg, I learn that you don’t need a time of day or an invitation to sip on champagne. And that Lily Bollinger wasn’t being cheeky when she quipped, “I only drink champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad.Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone.When I have company I consider it obligatory.I trifle with it if I’m not in a hurry and drink it when I am, otherwise I never touch the stuff unless I am thirsty.’’
Need to know
The term champagne is used exclusively for sparkling wines from the Champagne region of France, produced under the rules of the appellation. Modern Champagne is made from three grapes, chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Methode Champenoise is the labor-intensive process where wine undergoes a secondary fermentation inside the bottle, creating bubbles. All Champagne is made this way. The harvest is usually late September and early October, a good time to visit.
No winter trip to France is complete without a night in the city of lights. Switched on by actor-model Laetitia Casta just a day before my visit, there are LED lamps on the 200 trees along Avenue des Champs-Elysées. Meanwhile, department stores Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, on the Boulevard Haussmann, are turned out in the most flamboyant decorations. Plus, there are 80 teddy bears dressed in miniature Prada clothes in Printemps’ windows. It’s no wonder my taxi driver Francky is surreptitiously clicking away with his iPad as we drive into the city. Later on, after a spot of last-minute shopping at Le Bon Marche, I head out on foot to the Champs Elysées Christmas Market. The largest in Paris, it sees happy crowds, couples and young mums with sleeping babes snacking on roasted chestnuts and mulled wine, and more than 140 wooden chalets bursting with sausages, cheese and handcrafted toys. Everything from Marseille soaps to lavender items is showcased. Closer to midnight, there is no sign of the celebrations winding down.
Chef’s pop up
A pleasant surprise at the market, I walk into chef Yves Camdeborde’s pop-up restaurant, Le Comptoir du Marché. It is a 400 sq m chalet with his signature small dishes. Similar to Paris’ hottest reservation, Avant Comptoir, there are foie gras macarons, oysters from Joel Dupuch and lots of great wine.
On your visit, make time for ‘Reims underground.’ These Gallo-Roman chalk mines were used for construction in the fourth century and much later, the chambers were connected to each other to create a network of galleries. The locals used them to take refuge from invaders right up to World War II. These crayeres have served various purposes, from prisons to cellars. Today, both Reims and Epernay sit on a billion bottles of champagne, carefully stored in a 200 km network of cellars.
The writer visited Champagne at the invitation of Comite Champagne (CIVC)
Text & photographs by Rosella Stephen