When it comes to fizz, there's nothing quite like a glass of champagne, writes Christine Austin

What’s the best part of sipping champagne?  Is it the pop of the cork, the whoosh of bubbles or that gorgeous taste of crisp apples, toast, hazelnuts and citrus? All of these factors add to the special nature of champagne, so just imagine how exciting it is to drink champagne in the region it is made.  Not only sipping the wine but seeing the vineyards where the grapes are grown, touching the chalky white soil that, millions of years ago was under an ancient sea then wandering though old cellars where bottles of champagne mature for years, gathering favour and complexity.

The region of Champagne is easy to get to.  Drive there in just a few hours from the ports or even easier, take the Eurostar from St Pancras, change trains in Paris, then enjoy the view of French countryside including the stunning slopes of the Vallée de la Marne as you travel to Epernay or Reims, the two principle centres of Champagne.

Many people call in on their way to the sunshine of Southern France, but this region is worth so much more than an overnight stop.  It deserves a visit all on its own, or at least a couple of nights to explore all that it has to offer.  And while Champagne is the prime place to go to buy your wine, there is a lot more to enjoy than cellars and bottles.

The whole region of Champagne has been awarded UNESCO world heritage status, for its hillsides, cellars and the grand Champagne Houses that are the headquarters of famous champagne brands.  Under this protection the region will keep its unique charm and beauty and now many producers of this exciting wine are working together to attract more tourists.

Reims is a bustling city, with a grand cathedral that has been the place of coronation for 29 Kings of France. Home to many of the big names of champagne this could be the start of your tour.  The family-owned Champagne House of Taittinger is close to the centre and offers tours of its amazing cellars and tastings.

 

The cellars that lie directly under the Taittinger property were dug by the Romans in the 4thcentury.  Once they had extracted the stone, they left behind enormous caverns that have since been adapted for storing champagne.  With miles of galleries stacked high with bottles, these cellars are magnificent to wander around.  My guide explained the process of making champagne, and how it is aged, with some top wines slumbering in this chilly environment for 8 to 10 years.  This is a genuine working cellar, it isn’t just for show.

Naturally, at the end of the tour, there is a tasting and Taittinger champagne is rather special.  Unusually for a major champagne house they own enough vineyards for half of all the champagne they produce.  This gives them control over the way the grapes are grown and their quality shows in the gorgeous flavours of their Brut Reserve, Brut Millésimé and their top cuvée Comtes de Champagne.

Once you have worked your way through some of the other Reims-based champagne producers such as grand Veuve-Clicquot or historic Ruinart, who also have historic chalk cellars, it is a good idea to head south over the forested hill known as the Montagne de Reims to Epernay.  This is a much smaller, quieter and rather elegant town and is home to many important names including Moet et Chandon, Mercier and Pol Roger.  You can walk down the elegant boulevard known as the Avenue de Champagne and admire and even visit some of the many stylish buildings that are the headquarters of so many champagne Houses.  One of my favourite visits is the small house of Boizel, who don’t just show you cellars, although they have plenty of them.  They also let you see the whole process of making champagne, from the tanks to the oak barrels and after you have appreciated how the wine is made, there is a terrace where you can sit and sip their delicious champagne.

Champagne has a long and dynamic history, and you can discover some of it with a visit to Champagne Collet in the pretty village of Aÿ just outside of Epernay.  I normally hate a corporate video but the one shown here is different, telling the story of this, the first champagne co-operative, born out of the riots that swept through the region in the early 20thcentury.  What started out as a local industrial dispute ended by setting structure and standards for the whole Champagne region.  If that sounds dull, the delight of the art deco surroundings as well as the chance to explore the cellars, museum, taste the wine, and even listen to jazz on some summer evenings makes Champagne Collet a great visit.

Soil is always important in any wine region and the chalky limestone of Champagne is especially so. This is the remains of an ancient sea that covered the whole area, and the chalk is made up of tiny sea creatures that created a thick sedimentary layer. But there were bigger shellfish too. Head north west of Epernay to Fleury-la-Rivière,  and it seems that this particular part of the ancient sea was rich in massive sea snails that lived in cone-shaped, twisted shells, around half a metre long.

Whatever happened all those millions of years ago is unknown but they washed up in one place, which is now under the vineyards of Patrice Legrand.  When they came to the surface in his vineyard, his father used to just make a heap of them, but Patrice was fascinated by them.  He started to dig  cellars, and discovered layers of these fabulous shells, and now he has a museum where you can wander through the caves and passages he has dug himself, where those big shells stick out of the wall – exposed for the first time in 45 million years. La Cave aux Coquillages is well worth a visit, and you can even stay on site in their apartments, when you might be allowed to help with the digging.

If you plan to visit the Champagne region email me and I will be happy to help with ideas for visits, where to stay and where to eat.

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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