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Champagne: Fizzical attraction, by Tristan Rutherford

Sunday Times Travel Magazine, September 2017

The overriding memory from last night is barman Frédéric Dricot’s cackle as he poured our sixth and final glass. The €35 Champagne dégustation at Dricot’s C Comme tasting bar in Épernay started with Blanc de Blancs, a superb 100% Chardonnay. Next up was an organic fusion of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the region’s other two principal grape varieties, which sizzled on the palate like San Pellegrino popping candy. We should be done and dusted. But the devil in Dricot tempts us into his cave, or cellar, where bottles from 200 offbeat domaines are arranged by area and age, then sold from €15 apiece. It’s like Cadbury’s Bourneville Chocolate Factory for grown-ups. We’re kids in a sweet shop and we don’t know when to stop.

Such evenings are an occupational hazard. A nightly affair in this vine-lined region where the only product they produce is Champagne. Order a beer in a bar and you’ll be scoffed at. Locals genuinely drink nothing but fizz.

It’s easier to join the party than ever before. High speed trains to Champagne from London, plus bargain flights to Paris CDG from easyJet and Vueling, combine with experiential trips by 2CV and eco-car. A regional tour is now as interactive as any woozily boozy cruise around Burgundy, Chianti or the Rhone. Chambres d’Hotes homestays have opened to cater for bubbly lovers who want to sleep beside the vines, often for under £100. We’ve chosen to start our long weekend stumble in the Champagne capital of Épernay, with a night each in three wine-making towns. We can then ‘test’ the suspension on our rented Polo by filling it with brought-as-source fizz, before decanting ourselves onto the Eurostar home.

Épernay isn’t a place for a hangover. After breakfast we stroll the town’s chichi Avenue de Champagne. Here 15 of the region’s 300 Champagne maisons have their HQ, including Perrier-Jouët and Moët & Chandon. Beneath us over 100km of cellars maintain the global supply of bubbly at over a billion bottles, a necessity as yearly demand hovers around the 300m mark. Indeed the street is so fancy that it contains not a single shop: heaven help if you want to buy a bottle of Evian. Thirsty walkers can nip into a Champagne producer instead, most of which are open to the public like the highly recommended Mercier. This maison whizzes visitors through its ornate cellars, replete with ageing vintages and ceiling friezes, on a Bond-villain-esque electronic sled. Like most tours, Mercier’s entrance fee hovers around £15. The price includes a post-tour tasting, in this case of their newly released Blanc de Noirs, a 100% blend of Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. Water is for wimps.

The following day we’re still standing, so we drive towards regional capital Reims to drink as much Veuve Clicquot as humanly possible. (The city cellars of Taittinger and Mumm also appeal, but my wife has chosen today’s bubbles.) Vines are planted right up to the road that runs next to both river and railway line. As land prices hover around €1.2m per hectare it’s easy to understand why. Unlike Bordeaux where wine domaines surround a fancy mansion, here small growers tend tiny parcels of land for the big boys: signposts marked Lanson or Pommery show the destination of each pre-purchased group of grapes. You can reach out and touch next year’s Krug.

Before entering Veuve Clicquot’s 24km-long subterranean tunnels we zip up jackets for the 10c temperature. During the frosts of winter or the auburn of autumn these cellars remain at a constant chill. Our hour-long Footsteps of Madame Clicquot walking tour (£42) saunters past staff preparing each bottle’s initial two-week fermentation process. We learn that it’s the second round of fermentation that makes the fizz. Back in the 1770s, producer Philippe Clicquot-Muiron would add a secret blend (each house’s varies) of yeast and sugar to each bottle by hand. Until specially thick bottles were introduced, around 20% of produce would detonate during the ageing process, often setting off a chain reaction that would send staff scrambling up the shaft. Cellarmen wore iron masks to protect against shrapnel until a century ago.

Clicquot-Muiron’s son married in 1777 but left his widowed wife (Veuve in French) Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin to grow the business. Veuve Clicquot became the sole Champagne house with a female head, and the first to experiment by blending splashes of red wine to produce a sparkling rosé. Madame Ponsardin’s Veuve Clicquot brand was even sent to invade Russia with Napoleon’s Grand Armée in 1812. The Muscovites glugged when it lay abandoned in the snow. “Let them drink it,” declared Ponsardin, “they will pay later!” As the saying goes: Once you pop, you just can’t stop. Now Russia is a leading importer of Champagne. My wife and I sip the globally exported Brut Yellow Label, a peachy patisserie punch, at the tour’s end. Our highlight is a glass of florally fresh cuvée La Grande Dame, created in honour of Madam Ponsardin, which sells for over £100 a bottle in Britain. If I could afford it, I would drink nothing else.

The next morning’s 30-minute drive south from Reims to Aÿ runs through a Parc Naturel. Here hikes, bikes and children’s treetop trails are popular from spring onwards. Depending on the season, the rising vines tint from lime green to emerald to olive-brown as leaves dark before the autumn harvest. Aÿ is a village completely obsessed by booze. Its population of 4,000 supports 25 harvesting firms and 55 grand houses including Bollinger. The parcel-sized terroir above the River Marne is rated among Champagne’s finest. Our post-tasting stroll follows a waymarked trail above the town. I want to snip a bunch of Deutz’s ripening grapes and make my own bottle of fizz. My wife would rather buy a bottle from Champagne Ayala’s tasting room down the road. Our panorama takes in a vast undulation of vines – worth billions in bubbly terms – that ripple across the mist-shrouded Marne.

We bed down at the new Champagne Sacret guesthouse. The boutique winery was founded in 1920 by Raymond Sacret to produce a fruit-scented rival to the big producers. Sacret’s grandson James and his multi-lingual wife Stéphanie now run the Chambres d’Hotes which features four hip rooms, a red baize billiard table and a nightly complimentary Champagne dégustation for each guest. The four cuvées we sample include the Brut Rosé of mostly Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier that smacks of toasted macarons. Plus a 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs Zéro, a connoisseur cuvée newbie with no added sugar, that glitters like effervescent ozone on the tongue. On completion Stéphanie recommends a local gastronomic restaurant, Le Vieux Puit, which serves crab and hake from the Normandy coast. But my legs have gone wobbly so my wife sends me to bed with a Carrefour sandwich to ensure I’m fit for our final day.

The River Marne oozes west from Aÿ past weeping willows and rippling vines. Before the railway ran parallel to the river in 1849, cases of wine were floated via Épernay to Paris, then sailed north across the Channel towards London. Now river cruises and kayak tours ply the same route, as do walkers making use of the region’s 5,000km of signposted trails that run riverside, along canal towpaths and through the vineyards themselves. For good reason was the valley declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.

It’s under an hour from the most westerly Champagne town of Chateau Thierry to Paris. We’ve time for one final tasting – a liquid Last Supper – before our evening Eurostar ride home. Thanks to ravishing hordes of English, Chateau Thierry constructed a castle in the 12th century using local stone. The quarry from which it was mined forms the perfect cellar for producer Pannier, the top-drawer fizz served on Air France, who moved their operation here in 1937. These labyrinthine cellars now age a dozen cuvées including a Demi-Sec – a sweeter dessert Champagne – named Séduction that hisses lemon zest on the tongue. Bottles of Pannier cost €25 in the house store (compared to around £35 in the UK) so we stock up to the Eurostar limit of six bottles apiece. A little later we ignore the free Piper-Heidsieck served as our St Pancras train enters the Chunnel. To be honest I’m craving a glass of red.

Tristan Rutherford and Kathryn Tomasetti are specialist writers in the Champagne region