I was in the Aube region of Champagne, a simple 90 minute ferry crossing and a 3 hour drive along the A26 from Calais.
I started my trip at Troyes — Champagne’s capital — a fabulously romantic city full of half-timbered houses and narrow cobbled streets reminiscent of medieval times. It has history — it was here that Henry V came, during the Hundred Years War, to agree his succession to the French throne (a scheme scuppered by Joan of Arc) — interesting Gothic churches, museums ranging from modern art to culture and the piece de resistance for some — shopping.
Serendipity must have had a hand in shaping Troyes into a Champagne cork and its history as a former big player in the textile industry must have had some influence in making Troyes into the factory shopping capital of the region. There are two main complexes McArthur Glen ‘Boutiques de Fabricants’ in the Pont Sainte Marie industrial-zone — a modern sprawl of all the big designer shops and nearby is Marques Avenue at St Julien Les Villas, which has 11 separate buildings with 24 shops.
Next, I headed some 70 miles north along the E17 to Reims.
Reims — Pommery Champagne
It was a balmy and sunny day in the cathedral city of Reims, famed as the Coronation City, in the Marne region of Champagne Ardenne. Yet inside it was a cool 10 degrees with 85% humidity, the lights were dim, Je t’aime was playing (the song Radio 1 banned for being too sexy, remember?). Above me were bas reliefs of frolicking naked cherubs and waiting at the bottom of the stairs was a French man called Silus, to take me into a room full of guitar playing finches.
By any standards, this was a surreal moment and one that I enjoyed as I descended into the subterranean chalk caves of Pommery Champagne House. Silus led me through a temporary art installation where these tiny birds inadvertently set off music whenever they happened to land on guitar strings.
In the caves beyond were an astonishing 25 million bottles of champagne stacked to the rafters in 30 metres of tunnels.
“Do you know how many bubbles there are in a bottle of champagne,” Silus asked while we were passing a huge airplane propeller — another artwork.
“There are 50 million of them, and they are all created in the bottle during the second fermentation,” he said as we walked by an inflatable military tank.
Sauntering through a tunnel called Manchester, I paused to ogle at the 40 thousand Jeroboams (bottles that hold 3 litres of the fizz — that’s equivalent to 4 ordinary bottles) stacked against the chalk walls. Noticing my raised eyebrow Silus offered: “There’s a huge demand for this size of bottle — weddings and celebrations, and motor racing events”.
Pommery is a super slick operation. So are their neighbours Veuve Cliquot and Piper-Heidsieck who, like Pommery, also offer highly entertaining visits to their spectacular caves set in old former Roman chalk mines (crayeres). At Piper’s you don’t even have to walk as you take the tour in an electric car passing disco style lights. Expect to pay between 6 to 10 euros for a tour, which usually ends with a tasting.
As a city, Reims, (pronounced ‘rance’) is a must-visit for its bustle, café culture, elegant architecture, Art Deco facades, superb cathedral and pedestrianised streets. For short breaks, staying centrally is a wise move to be close to all this and the Best Western Hotel de la Paix has an ideal location just minutes away from the Cathedral and shopping.
But there are no vineyards in Reims and the houses here import their Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier grapes from vineyards elsewhere in region.
There are other, smaller houses you can visit, around 12,300 of them, that are dotted over the green, hilly landscapes. Most you will never have heard of and many are tongue-ticklingly delicious. But you’ll never get through them all in just one weekend. However, you can be in the same room as at least 100 of the best lesser-known champagnes at C. Comme Champagne in Rue Gambetta at the next town of Epernay.
26 euros buys the opportunity to taste four different bubblies and browsing the wines is easy as they are clearly labelled with the vineyard name, the style, grape varieties and the price.
One of the champagnes they sell is from the family-owned Launois Champagne House located in Mesnil sur Oger on the Côtes des Blancs, a few miles south of Epernay. It has been in the Launois hands for six generations.
The eccentric Monsieur Bernard Launois, a portly man and a collector of everything, is the current owner and his is a house worth visiting just to see the museum. You get to see 17th century presses, medieval armoury and tools, and a totally bizarre collection of antiques such as confessional boxes, meat rotisseries, pianos and old-fashioned money tills. Loath to waste anything, Monsieur Launois even commissioned an artisan carver, to carve artworks out of old vines and there is an entire room dedicated to this.
If you want to stay a while, 54 euros buys a tour the museum, a gastronomic lunch, and a sampling of 6 different champagnes. Or get there on harvest day and you get to pick the grapes too and three years later a bottle of fizz will land on your doormat from that harvest.
There would have been something missing if I had not squeezed in a visit to the home town of the region’s most famous son: Dom Perignon. It was only a few minutes drive to the next town of Haut Villiers, (which mans high place and an apt description of this quaint hilly town) where the near blind Benedictine monk lived and died. Spot the countless street names and plaques that revere him and if the mood takes swing by the Abbey where he is buried.
On the way back I checked in to Chateau d’Etoges, for a final burst of the Champagne lifestyle. This elegant Chateau, at the end of a long drive-away, nestles amid a clutch of vineyards in the tiny village Etoges.
Their Orangerie offers gourmet food and wines, but I took a moment to toast Dom himself with his own very words “Come quickly brothers! I’m tasting the stars!” before sleeping off the fizzy intoxication in a regal four poster bed.