Alan Kingsbury boards a sleek modern train for a mini-break to the heart of France’s Champagne country and discovers there’s a lot more to the magical wine than just bubbles.
There’s nothing like the prospect of multiple Champagne tastings to sharpen the anticipation of a trip abroad.
The train from Saint Pancras flies swiftly through the plains of northern France into the celebrated vineyards that have filled the glasses of emperors and kings.
MoÃƒÂ«t & Chandon
I begin my exploration with a visit to the region’s most popular attraction, the headquarters of MoÃƒÂ«t & Chandon in Epernay where the soaring lightness of the art-deco building contrasts with the 28 kilometers of dark cellars tunnelled into the chalk below.
The slickly professional MoÃƒÂ«t & Chandon cellar tours cost between 23-35 euros and are unmissably entertaining and informative about vineyards, grapes and the historical world of Champagne production.
In the cool, silent, darkness of the cellars, the mind begins to move towards a poetic appreciation of time and taste that sharpens the palate for the actual filling of glasses.
Back upstairs, sommelier Fernand de Brito treats me to a tasting of the famous MoÃƒÂ«t & Chandon Brut Imperial, its sister rosÃƒÂ© version and the luxurious Vintage 2006 Champagnes.
With Fernand’s guidance, I get a feel for the interplay between the three principal grape varieties; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, as well as an understanding of the evolution of flavours that differentiates each glassful.
To learn more about Champagne making from a smaller producer’s perspective, I visit the village of Rilly La Montagne to meet Laurent Champs, winemaker at Champagne Vilmart, a family company since 1890.
Soft spoken and charismatic, Laurent makes Champagne in the old style using a vintage grape press and huge oak barrels called ‘foudres’ for the first fermentation.
The meticulously made wines have a character and structure which contrasts with the more modern style Champagnes made in stainless steel tanks.
I particularly like the Chardonnay-rich Grand Cellier d’Or 2011 with its delicate notes of pineapple and white pepper.
Laurent holds a bottle up to the light and illuminates the yeast deposits of the all-important second fermentation.
The yeast is at very heart of the ‘mÃƒÂ©thode Champenoise’, it often takes many years of ageing before the full complexity of breadcrust and brioche aromas develop.
Both Reims and Epernay have modern Champagne bars that are dedicated to the discovery of smaller, independent producers in the region.
It makes for an exraordianarily pleasant evening to visit these bars before dining at one of the many local restaurants.
C Comme Champagne in Epernay has a stylish basement lounge where wine lovers taste their way from ‘extra-brut’ to ‘demi-sec’ in leisurely fashion, while Club Tresors de Champagne in Reims showcases two hundred wines by glass or bottle under a fabulous, wow-factor ceiling.
Both double as shops where, luggage space permitting, a mouth-watering selection can be made to take home.
To complete my tour, I hop back on the local train to Reims to visit another of the largest Champagne houses.
Champagne Mumm, home of the famous ‘Cordon Rouge’, also offers guided tours of its extensive cellars.
Here there is a particularly interesting museum section displaying curious machines that were used in the Champagne making process in the past.
I meet with Mumm’s brand ambassador, Thomas Lignier who, rather like Champagne itself, has a personality that is both charming and sophisticated.
Over a relaxed tasting of the house range, Thomas furthers my understanding of the neccesity of selecting the finest grapes from the region’s unique terrains and the nuances of wine and yeast which result in such subtle individuality.
Tasting the sensational CuvÃƒÂ©e R.Lalou 2002 proves to be the highlight of my trip.
Initial citrus notes give way to luscious stones fruit with astonishing purity and freshness despite a full ten years of ageing on the lees.
With a case full of trophy bottles on the train back to London, I am definitely feeling better for finding out more about these illustrious wines; there is so much more to Champagne than the bubbles.
The journey is inexpensive and fast and next time I think that I’ll make a stop in Paris on the way to show off my new-found knowledge… over a large platter of oysters perhaps?
Fares from London to Reims start at £86 standard class return per person and from London to Epernay £98.
Online Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Voyages-sncf.com Phone Ã¢â‚¬â€œ 0844 848 5 848. (calls to 0844 numbers cost 7p per minute plus the phone company’s access charge.)
For further information on visiting the Champagne & Ardenne, visit: champagne-ardenne-tourism.co.uk