CHAMPAGNE. The word needs little explanation to any adult and is almost guaranteed to conjure up a memory or two.
Since my early 20s I have opened a bottle of Champagne at most major events in my life (not to mention many minor ones). There was the bottle we passed around outside the Registry Office on my wedding day, the toast to my mother in law at her wake, the picnic beside a lake in Roscommon earlier this summer, and of course the bottle of Bollinger I opened a half-hour after the birth of my son — I even rubbed a little on his lips so that his second taste in this life after mother’s milk would be Champagne.
The Champagne Ardenne region of France is probably the most accessible of the world’s major wine regions given its proximity to Paris (45 minutes by TGV train). Similarly if you arrive in Cherbourg or Calais by early morning ferry you can be in the region in time for a late lunch.
Champagne is the second nearest wine region to Ireland after the Loire Valley yet to my shame I had only visited for a few hours prior to this summer.
There are many reasons to visit the region, but of course my reason was wine. It was particularly poignant to visit this year however as so many of the First World War’s battles were fought among the vineyards. This region also suffered at the start of the Second World War.
The opening battles of the war known as the Battle of the Frontiers were won relatively easily by Germany as they routed the French and Belgian defence forces and marched deep into France, taking Reims on September 3 and severely damaging the cathedral.
Within a few days however the first battle of the Marne began when the French (and British) counter-attacked. Over 10,000 reserve troops proved decisive to the battle and many of these were driven to the Front by Parisian Taxis. This counter-attack pushed the Germans out of Reims but they dug themselves in on higher ground and held those position until the end of the war.
On this date 100 years ago at the end of November 1914 the first battle of Ypres was over, the Allied routes to the sea were secure and both sides were now firmly entrenched — and would largely remain so until 1918. All the villages of the region suffered terribly during the next few years, certainly no wine was made, and Reims was almost destroyed.
The museum at Suippes is a good starting point to learn about the period as is the Fort de la Pompelle Museum at Sillery which was crucial in both Marne battles. Both museums are just a few minutes drive south-east of Reims and have special exhibitions planned over the next four years.
War cemeteries and memorials are all around the region and many forts and significant sites have been preserved.
But back to wine. Reims is the gateway city to the region and a number of Champagne houses have their headquarters there including Louis Roederer (makers of Cristal), Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart (the oldest Champagne house) and Krug (the most exclusive). Reims Cathedral is indeed a wonder of the Gothic period and a UNESCO World Heritage site (one of three in the town). The Champagne Wine Region itself is hoping to be made a World Heritage Site in 2015 to follow Barolo/Barbaresco and Georgia who gained this status in recent months.
Reims may be the biggest town in the region with the best restaurants and shops but Epernay is the Capital of Champagne, and arguably its spiritual heart. The Avenue of Champagne is one street you have to visit before you die if only to peer in the gates at Moet et Chandon’s Orangerie or the grand mansions of Pol Roger and Perrier Jouet.
All the houses conduct tours of their cellars which cover dozens of square kilometres hollowed out beneath the streets and storing tens of millions of bottles of Champagne.
You can’t talk about Champagne without mentioning Moet et Chandon which is by far the biggest producer selling 25 million bottles every year — more than twice that of its nearest competitor, Veuve Clicquot. A tour of Moet’s 28km of cellars costs €16.50 and up to €29.50 if you would like two (full) glasses of Champagne.
The true art of Champagne is in the blending and Moet would use up to 100 different still wines in their basic Brut Imperial blend, mixing recently fermented wines with reserve wines to achieve consistency.
Once the cellar master is happy with the blend, the wine is bottled and a small amount of sugar and yeast is added to create a second fermentation in the bottle and create the bubbles.
Champagne is unusual in that there are 15,000 growers but only around 30% of them produce their own wine and the bulk of the grapes are bought by the big houses.
An argument persists about what is the true expression of Champagne’s vineyards — the blended standardised non-vintage (NV) wines or the more individual wines made from particular plots much like the great wines of Burgundy or Bordeaux — Krug’s Clos du Mesnil is the most famous example but most grower Champagnes fall into this category.
If you arrive in the region by car and would like to bring some wines home then you will find the best value wines from small grower-producers many of whom produce varietal wines made exclusively from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or Pinot Meunier — the three classic grapes of the region.
Pierre Moncuit in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger has some excellent blanc-de-blancs (Chardonnay) for example and Jean Moutardier at Le Breuil makes rich Pinot Meunier dominated wines.
Smaller houses such as de Telmont in the village of Damery are also well worth visiting — de Telmont’s tour includes a tasting of vin clair — still wines that are the basis of Champagne.
Chalk soils may be excellent for growing grapes but are not so useful for other crops so there is less of a gastronomic tradition in the region than elsewhere in France, although do try to pick up some Langres cheese produced in the far south of the region.
Given the wealth of the area there are lots of Michelin starred restaurants including France’s newest 3-Star — Arnaud Lallement’s L’Assiette Champenoise in Tinquex near Reims.
My favourite meal however was in the village of Hautvilliers at Au 36 — three flutes of Champagne from good producers with a tasting plate consisting of local terrine, sausages and cheeses. Au 36 is also a wine shop selling grower Champagnes at cellar-door prices.
Hautvilliers is probably the most picturesque of all the towns in Champagne with most houses sporting a painted wrought iron sign offering a visual representation of the occupation of the owner such as barrel-making or viticulture. The town is most famous for being the final resting place of Dom Pérignon whose grave you can visit in the Nave of the church of the Abbey of Hautvilliers.
Dom Pérignon was in charge of wine production at the Abbey in the late 17th century and is considered important in developing the region’s wines through his mastery of viticulture and wine-making skills. No matter what you may have heard the Dom did not invent sparkling Champagne, (whisper it... that was probably the English who were the only people making bottles strong enough to withstand the bubbles).
If wine and war are not to your taste the region has some excellent walks through the beautifully kept vineyards and the region is perfect for cycle tours. The forests and rocky peaks of the Ardennes are unspoilt and a little wild so are perfect for hiking (just watch out for wild boar). There are over 600km of navigable waterways in the region and even a few golf courses.
Best of all however is that at the end of each day (or the start) a glass of Champagne is available everywhere — even at McDonalds.
Champagne Ardennes is 45 minutes from Paris by TGV high speed train.
There are daily flights to Charles de Gaulle Airport from both Cork and Dublin Airport via Aer Lingus, Air France and others.
Ryanair operate daily flights from Dublin to Beauvais (1.5 hours from Paris by bus).
Epernay Tourist Office, 7 Av. de Champagne, Epernay
Wine and Food
Au 36, 36 Rue Dom Perignon, Hautvilliers – www.au36.net
Champagne is a wealthy region and attracts wealthy tourists so there is some excellent five star accomodation to be found but also plenty of budget accomodation.
If you can afford it the Relais et Chateau Royal Champagne Hotel nestled among vines is very hard to beat.
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