Champagne Beyond the Bubbles
Supposedly James Bond would only drink Bollinger. My mission is to discover whether the French Champagne bubble has burst. In recessionary times, shouldn’t secret agents sip Prosecco, like the rest of us? What about backing Britain with English sparkling wines? As for La Champagne, the region, is it more than a stepping stone to the sunny south of France? With my brain bubbling over with questions, I set off for `Champagne central,’ the celebrated wine-growing area around Reims.
“Keep Calm and Drink Champagne” is the wise advice of my new drinking buddy in this famous French wine region. Well, it’s the advice written on the cushion clutched by the estate owner, Sabine Godmé. I’m getting the inside story at Champagne Godmé, a family-run wine estate just outside Reims. Sabine’s husband Jean-Marie smiles reassuringly: “In Champagne we sell pleasure – wine is a people business so we need you to like us, too.” And I do. I like him almost as much as his well-priced Champagnes, retailing at under 25 euro. Their Brut Blancs de Blancs, tasted with a savory tart and white pudding, erases memories of supermarket Prosecco.
The owners’ friendliness is infectious: “We could make more money selling grapes rather than producing them but we’re wine-makers, wine is in our blood.” The family can’t compete with the big boys and are all the more endearing for that. As for Champagne snobbery, the couple are not above using their children as slave labour, hacking out their chalk cellars with pickaxes. Forget charmed lives on a family-run Champagne estate.
Royal route to Reims
My Champagne-fuelled tour continues in Veuve Clicquot, a venerable Champagne house in Reims. Drinking with the big boys takes me back to the realms of Bollinger and Bond. These cellars are like a Bond Baddie’s lair, riddled by 24 kilometres of cavernous galleries. The tunnels have provided refuge to smugglers, soldiers and resistance fighters but now store 100 million bottles of Champagne a year.
As the second-biggest Champagne house, Veuve Clicquot is a major player with a mythical reputation. Champagne fans claim to detect aromas of candied limes, zesty mandarins, dried nuts, salty butter and bitter marmalade in some of the best bubbles. Quite frankly, I only taste pleasure fit for royalty.
Royal Reims has witnessed the crowning of French kings. In the Cathedral, some statues lost their heads in French Revolution, much like the citizens themselves. In a moment of madness, I too, lose my head, signing up for Champagne cookery school when cheese on toast is more within my ability range.
In the shadow of Reims cathedral, Au Piano des Chefs offers creative cuisine experiences, including the chance to whip up your own Champagne supper. After nibbling on charcuterie and Chaource cheese, we are supposedly ready to concoct sophisticated dishes such as red mullet in a saffron sauce. Perhaps Chef Eric Geoffroy senses our fear of failure, which soon evaporates along with copious glasses of Champagne. Being in charge of a blowtorch when tipsy is surprisingly liberating and a dead red mullet is no match for my fiery powers.
Tipsiness is also par for the course in Champagne – intoxication is always on the menu. My trip features further visits to Champagne estates as well as to a whisky-style distillery close to the drunken hamlet of Bouzy. In Distillerie Guillon I down a peaty Spirit of Malt that is also served at the Elysée Palace in Paris. I presume that national pride means that French Presidents must serve French whisky, just as British Prime Ministers must serve English sparkling wine instead of Champagne.
Year of Renoir in Champagne
Still tipsy, I head to half-timbered Troyes, a more soulful city than Reims, with plenty of chic Champagne bars to while away a long weekend. It’s the Year of Renoir, that most joyful of Impressionists, and Troyes is celebrating the artist in a major summer exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Renoir liked to come down from Paris and play at peasant life – with a few servants and muse-mistresses in tow.
For a foretaste of the festivities, I take the winding road just south to Essoyes, the artists’ village that was Renoir’s summer retreat after the painter’s marriage to local girl, Aline Charigot. This rosy-cheeked country maid was Renoir’s muse, as was her cousin Gabrielle.
Renoir’s family home opens this June 2017 but you can already visit his studio and gardens before taking the Renoir riverside trail of views that inspired him. The artist’s spirit is clear in his colourful gardens and the flower-bedecked balconies overhanging the River Ource. Sophie Renoir, the artist’s great grand-daughter, is delighted to see the family home restored: “There was a sense of gentleness to be found in these slopes, along with that particular light Renoir was looking for.”
In true French style, the village is currently celebrating the matching of top Champagnes with Renoir masterpieces. One of my favourite Champagne houses, Drappier, is paired with Dance in the Country, a playful painting of Aline dancing. Every Sunday between May and September, a costumed guide accompanies art-lovers on a Renoir trail that concludes in a Champagne-tasting in the artist’s studio.
By the river I lap up the sun-dappled views before returning to Renoir’s women in the museum. The artist’s vision is an antidote to wintry gloom. It’s as if the clock stopped during a 19th century picnic, leaving us with a nostalgic vision of apple-cheeked country girls and jolly winemakers. Renoir’s works are as joyful and bubbly as Champagne itself, sumptuously capturing his brazen muses and buxom washerwomen. Bathed in saturated colour, these are snapshots of a life that is always sunlit.
This Champagne adventure has been about art as well as bubbles but I’m too tipsy to tell the difference. Not that the French care: Champagne is too bound up in the culture to bother with bursting the bubble. Coco Chanel put it best: “I only drink Champagne on two occasions. When I am in love, and when I am not.”
Lisa Gerard-Sharp is an award-winning travel-writer blogging at www.lisagerardsharp.com
Champagne-Ardenne tourism: further information on www.tourisme-champagne-ardenne.com.
Year of Renoir: Troyes exhibition 16 June -17 Sept 2017: www.renoir-essoyes.fr
Eurostar: Take the fast train to Champagne, only an hour from Paris with a short walk between the Eurostar terminal and the Gare de l’Est (tickets from uk.voyages-sncf.com)
Image header credit: CRTCA