The Great Champagne Trek

Silhouette

On a Tuesday morning in April we set out to discover the source of Champagne. Like explorers of old, we started with a strong sense of adventure but, unlike them, we were sure of achieving our goal.

Bottle sizes

An 8.45am crossing of the English Channel by P&O's Pride of Dover in Club Class brought an early result - a quarter-bottle each of champagne. We highly recommend Club Class. Even without the complementary champagne, coffee, tea, snacks and newspapers, the comfort, peace and quiet are well worth the small surcharge.

Mumm bottles
Fin-de-Siècle advert

Less than 1½ hours later, we were heading east across France on the A16 and A26 autoroutes towards Reims, the capital of the Champagne region. Though the tolls are substantial, the autoroutes are uncrowded and well-maintained, with rarely a traffic-cone in sight - quite a change from the UK's over-used and under-funded motorway system. The restaurants in the service areas offer very acceptable fare including some regional specialities, a million miles away from the greasy burgers and fries in Britain's motorway stops.


Bouzy sign

By early afternoon, we had left the highways and were driving through countless miles of precious vines and the villages whose existence depends on the region's world-famous product. One of those villages was the appropriately-named Bouzy, home of the famous Bouzy Rouge. Our base for the next four days was to be l'Auberge St. Vincent in Ambonnay, proprietors - Anne-Marie and Jean-Claude Pelletier.

Ambonnay sign
Auberge St. Vincent

This friendly couple run a comfortable village inn with the emphasis on gastronomic experience. Madame is in charge of the restaurant and Monsieur runs the kitchen. Regional produce and specialities are well in evidence, with Jean-Claude making liberal use of champagne in light, delicate sauces and even in ice-cream. The ante-room to the restaurant is covered in diplomas and trophies, each a tribute to his culinary skills and competition success. Their telephone number is +33 3.26.57.01.98.

Anne-Marie and Jean-Claude

After unpacking, there was only time for a brief stroll around the village before getting ready for a regional gastronomic dinner, accompanied by a flute of champagne (what else?), but back to the village. Ambonnay's sole raison d'être is the production of top-quality champagne. Being a 100% Grand Cru village, Ambonnay makes its champagne only from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, without the addition of the lesser Pinot Menieur grape. It also produces a small amount of red wine under the Côteaux de Champagne appellation.

Champagne cellar

The village consists of a series of courtyards, each with a wine-press and sitting atop a system of cellars, cut into the soft chalk. There are no fewer than 49 grape producers within the village limits and many of them are open to visitors.


Mercier marker Möet marker

A common sight in the region is the concrete markers, set by the side of vines being grown for the large champagne houses. Here are some of those that we saw on our travels.

Mumm marker Perrier-Jouét marker


The next day, we visited Reims. Our first call was at the cathedral, where most of France's kings' coronations took place. This magnificent building suffered severe damage during both World Wars but no cloud is without its silver lining. Reconstruction works uncovered the foundations of previous buildings on the site, giving us a clearer picture of the evolution of the cathedral. The crypt now houses a collection of artefacts discovered on-site, with some of the original masonry removed in the rebuilding.

Reims Cathedral
Tau Palace - fireplace

From the cathedral we walked to the adjacent Palais du Tau, the ancient archiepiscopal and royal palace. There has been a succession of buildings on this site and, around 1670, it acquired its present classical appearance. However, it suffered the same war damage as its neighbour and has been heavily restored. The only remaining part of the medieval building is the fireplace in the Salle du Tau.

Among the treasures on display is the ceremonial regalia from King Charles X's coronation in 1825.


G.H. Mumm et Cie

After a superb lunch (including a flute of champagne), we walked across the city to visit premises of one of the grandes marques de champagne, G.H. Mumm et Cie. After watching a short video presentation, we had a guided tour of the process from the pressing of the grapes to the preparation of the bottles for sale.

Mumm Cordon Rouge advertisement

At the end of the tour we were taken to the hospitality suite to enjoy a glass of the famous Mumm Cordon Rouge. Naturally, there is the opportunity to purchase champagne at preferential prices, also company merchandise.


Verzenay mill

With the highest per capita income in France, the Champagne region has little need for any other agriculture or industry. A remnant from the days when staple crops were grown in the area is this windmill at Verzenay, rubbing shoulders with the vines of Champagne Bovière.

Bovière sign

Paul Déthune bottle

The following day we visited two very different champagne producers. The first was Paul Déthune, on the outskirts of Ambonnay. Fiercely independent and somewhat dismissive of les grandes marques, Mme. Déthune gave us a very personal tour of her family cave, and showed great patience with our halting French. Somewhere in the network of cellars, we met her son, busy with the rémouage (the gentle turning of the inverted bottles to make the sediment fall into the bottle neck). We also met their staff of two, disgorging the frozen plugs of sediment, adding the dosage of sugar and grape-juice and re-corking and wiring the bottles.

Returning to ground level and sunshine, Mme Déthune led us to the small salle de dégustation for a very generous sampling. Champagne Déthune is only available on-site or by mail order, so we took the opportunity to buy a half-case and also a bottle of the local aperitif, ratafia, which we had also sampled.

Paul Déthune cask

Pupitre

After a picnic lunch on a hill overlooking vineyards we explored the woods and lakes of the countryside south of the river Marne. Our second visit was to the village of Oger and Champagne Henri de Vaugency. In addition to the cave, there is a video presentation and a display of articles connected with champagne, including a vast collection of 19th and early 20th century bottles and labels.

There is also the very interesting Museum of the Traditions of Marriage in France, 1820-1920, including brides' and bridegrooms' costumes, pictures and photographs, wedding souvenirs, menus and other paraphernalia, even accounts bearing witness to crippling expenditure by the brides' fathers! The visit ended, inevitably, in the cellar, where we sampled and bought champagne and their version of ratafia, very different from that tasted at Déthune.


Mercier bottles

For our final full day we chose to visit the other major centre of the champagne industry. Epernay is a pleasant-enough provincial French town but without the splendour of Reims. Its chief feature is the Avenue de Champagne, both sides of which are lined with the mansions of the great champagne houses. Among the famous names represented here are Möet et Chandon, Perrier Jouét and Pol Roger. For our final cave visit, we chose Champagne Mercier.

Epernay sign

The foyer of the reception centre houses the great cask built for the 1889 Paris Universal Exhibition. After the almost inevitable video presentation we descended to the cellars in a representation of a balloon, a sport with which the marque has been associated since it was founded in 1858 by Eugène Mercier, and boarded a laser-guided train for a tour of part of the 18 kilometres of cellars where champagne is matured and stored, awaiting sale. Along the route are some very impressive sculptures and bas-reliefs, carved into the chalk walls.

From time to time, banquets are held in these subterranean passages whose temperature remains a constant 10°C (50°F). However, the humidity varies and an increase causes the air to appear colder.

Mercier cask
Dom Pérignon

Our lunch that day was a plat du jour, taken in a restaurant on the circle at the lower end of the Avenue de Champagne. After a short walk to aid our digestion, we left Epernay to seek out the Father of Champagne - quite literally.

Legend has it that champagne as we know it was the invention of Dom Pierre Pérignon, a cellar-master at the abbey of Hautvilliers, whose name is commemorated by a marque of champagne. Dom Pérignon rests in a tomb under the main aisle of the abbey church.

At the time of our visit the church was undergoing considerable restoration and we were only able to take a few worthwhile photographs. Here is one of the good Father's tombstone.

While admiring the view from the hill-top near the abbey, our weather luck ran out and the heavens opened, effectively putting paid to any more sightseeing for the day - and for the trip, for that matter.

Dom Pérignon's tomb

By the following morning, the rain had cleared and we bade farewell to l'Auberge St. Vincent to retrace our steps across France, back to Calais. We made good time on the uneventful journey, leaving sufficient time for lunch and the traditional hypermarket raid at the Calais-Ouest shopping centre before boarding the Pride of Dover for the return Channel crossing.

Once again, Club Class brought us our quarter-bottle each of champagne. Sitting in a club armchair, with glass in one hand and newspaper in the other, we re-crossed the busiest stretch of water in the world and took the road home, having found our grail and having brought some home with us!

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