A different kind of travelogue. As an avid young traveller I often wondered what would it would be like when I got older, gathered commitments, created children and accrued debt. This is what it's like.
French Culture is great. French food is great. French wine is great. The greatest french wine might be Champagne.
Champagne is weird. (Entirely appropriately.) Its a funny drink from a funny region with a funny history. To pay any sort of attention to almost any region of France means food and wine. I live in a wine growing area in the “New World” so when I buy wine it’s wine made from a specific grape; Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and so on. In the “Old World” its different.
In France grape growing and wine making is steeped in history. The wines are often named after the regions in which they are produced. There are none more vehement in the defense of their Appellation than Champagne.
We drove into Champagne on a cloudy day keeping our destination secret from Mrs LessBaggage. (It was a surprise.) As is our way we talked our way there. We talked history. We talked world war one. We talked Battle of the Somme. We talked about suffering. We talked about death. We talked about the war to end wars. Using your surroundings to provide the subjects of a freeform “Road-Schooling” plan has its disadvantages. Europe had big wars and when the wars were not raging in Europe they were usually raging somewhere else.
We whizzed past Disneyland Paris but we didn’t want to be talking about that. We were headed to Hautvillers for an AirBnB stop in the grounds of one of the thousands of lesser known Champagne makers; Blanchard Publier. The winemaker Elodie greeted us and there were three bottles of her own bubbly in the fridge. A woman in charge. Which is not that odd in this area; Veuve Cliquot means the Widow Cliquot. If you keep having wars on your turf you end up losing a lot of people, a lot of men. The stories of powerful women in the region are numerous and sometimes inspirational.
Hautvillers is famous for being the place where Dom Perignon “invented” Champagne. But he didn’t actually invent it.
Champagne is complicated and a little impenetrable. When you find yourself in the great wine growing areas of Australia, New Zealand and California the place, like the wine, is more accessible. The Restaurant/Vineyards are well signed tourist destinations that are looking for you and your money. Not so Hautvillers and Epernay. I didn’t venture to the greatest mass producing Champagne Houses. I suspect they are more attuned to reinforcing their brand. There are over 300 million bottles of Champagne produced each year.
The first thing that strikes you about the area is that not one square metre of potential grape production is wasted. The vines run right to the edges of the roads. There are few hedges, there are grapes everywhere. The secret to the success of the region is the incredibly aggressive nature of the Comité Interprofessionel du vin de Champagne (CICV). They have created a set of rules about who can make what kind of champagne, what can be called champagne, how much Champagne can be released, even how the vines are pruned. Essentially if a piece of land is inside the arbritrary boundary line that denotes Premier Cru or Grand Cru you don’t waste this valuable and definitely finite resource. Its a license to print euros!
The small manufacturers appeared to be working hard to survive. They are farmers and wine stained vintners. There was minimal “front of house” presence. I like to think they were tending to vines and vats and bottles. Maybe they were down the Cote d’Azur. We wanted to seek out some smaller producers. But we had only a few days. If ever there was an area that rewards thorough research this is it. When I lived in London I knew many people that visited Champagne repeatedly, visited specific Champagne Houses and gathered excellent if obscure wines.
It is possible to visit smaller producers but you have to arrange it in advance. You cannot just roll up and expect someone to be there. We tried this 4 times and were successful only once. No guide book. So I tried searching the net. I found an article in The Guardian that looked promising; Champagne Wine Route: Top 10 guide.
It was a funny kind of tourist experience but it was a success. My favorite recommendation was Bistrot Madelon. An old fashioned bistrot full of men and women who worked in the vineyards. Here the 15 euro menu came with a glass of local bubbly. If the seasonal workers were liking it chances are its good value and probably good. They had a ‘special’ on from local Champagne House Domi Moreau et Fils which was the finest Champagne we tasted.
So we went looking for them. No one home. I suppose its a good thing. Otherwise I would have spent more money and a little voice was telling me that we had done enough Champagne already.
So we went on a little boat trip on “La Marne” River. Right at the end of the navigation. If theres something I like more than Champagne it’s a little bit of river travel. Kids loved it too.
Note; I’m taking my cue this week from the erudite pair; Stephen Corbert and John Oliver. They popped up with two eloquent pieces talking up French Culture.