Lush green vines dot the entire region making it not only picturesque but also the land of the bubbly! The Champagne region is the most well defined appellation among the wine growing areas of the world. The exact area, number of vineyards with numerous other stringent regulations is meticulously stipulated for the area.
Last summer, while holidaying in Paris, the piece de resistance of our visit was a gourmet meal at haute cuisine restaurant called Santé – Cheers! Raise a toast to the city of romance! It was while savouring the evening that a suggestion about driving to the Champagne region came up. Already high on the bubbly, the proposal could only be met with more vigorous cheers.
And so, we hit the road to the vineyards of Champagne region, about 140 km north of Paris, meandering through one of the most picturesque countrysides. Rambling through the rolling French plains – the land of Renaissance gardens and Baroque palaces — it was a real feel of the beautiful land, dotted with quaint villages, fields, clumps of Poplar trees and picture-postcard farmhouses. Occasionally the tranquil, pastoral landscape was interspersed with a small rivulet, a stream or a railway bridge.
Finally, after about one and a half hour of driving, we saw vineyards in the distance. It felt so exciting to be right amidst the endless rows of grape vines, growing out of the legendary terroir of Champagne land itself! We got out of the vehicle and bent down to feel the vines in our hands and smell them to check if they had any heady bouquet or aroma! Alas, while they looked lush and green, the fruit was just forming, and one has to wait till September to see grape harvesting or crushing!
The Champagne region is the most well defined appellation among the wine growing areas of the world. The exact area, number of vineyards with numerous other stringent regulations is meticulously stipulated for the area. The predominant grapes of the region are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Although Pinot Noir is a black grape, its quick pressing ensures that the colour of the skin does not affect the juice, and subsequently the colour of Champagne.
The Marne Valley that constitutes the Champagne region primarily comprises the two towns of Epernay and Reims. The chalky and gentle slopes, ideal for drainage and other attributes, make this a special terroir for producing Champagne. Epernay town, located below the leafy hills, is at the heart of the world's most prestigious vineyards with nearly 20,000 hectares of area with a subterranean world of 200 million bottles ageing in kilometres of cellars below. Epernay is a wealthy looking town, with expensive townhouses and mansions constructed mostly in the 19th century, raised on the wealth from champagne.
The road winds through narrow streets, lined with traditional, cosy cottages of wine growers and those working on the vineyards. Quaint roadside cafes, gable-roofed cottages with arabesque and very ornamental railings, lamp posts and cute shop signs dot the townscape. With hardly any traffic on the cobble-stoned streets, a lone cyclist might surprise you! However, as soon as you reach the Avenue de Champagne, legendary Champagne producers of the world are lined up alongside. We pass by the famous Moet et Chandon, Mercier and other cellars. From the ornate and gilded gates of the Moet ET Chandon, one can see the statue of the famous monk Dom Perignon, who evolved the process of double fermentation, for producing bubbly wines. Some wine houses during harvest time give demonstrations of the riddling (remuage) and disgorgement (degorgement) processes that are the unique features of the methode champenoise developed by the monk.
A famous landmark of Epernay is De Castellene cellars. Its 1905 wooden tower dominates the town and you get good views across the structure, which is akin to a mini ‘Eiffel Tower' of Epernay. Inside the courtyard of the wine house, are displayed a fine collection of antique riddling machines and hand presses, bringing back the bygone era of Oak casks and mechanised pressings.
Just across the road is the famous house of Mercier, the best-selling Champagne of France, where we have a rendezvous for a guided tour.
From outside, the building is strikingly modern, with brick walls, glass facades and sweeping concrete cantilevers — an architectural contrast to the other historic structures of the town. The new visitor centre is built around the world's biggest barrel made in 1889 by Mons Mercier, the founder of the Champagne house for the Paris expo; and is now its main showpiece.
As we're admiring the other memorabilia on display, more visitors collect and it's time for the tour to start. Our guide, an immaculately attired expert, welcomes us, and we‘re taken to a mini-auditorium for a presentation on the history of the Mercier house.
And then very dramatically you descend in a lift 30m below, and board a laser-guided train for a tour of the 18km- long cellars, which were once Roman mines for chalk. Along the dank, dark and dinghy cellars are lined crates of inverted wine bottles, to let the contents mature. It's both fascinating as well as a little eerie to be inside the cellars. But for the workers and the wine making experts, it's just another day in the office! You wonder about the timeless secrets hidden in these cellars, which lie behind the famous sparkles that pop out of every Mercier a bottle!
Once you have experienced the mysteries of Champagne-making, it's good to be out in the light, taken for tastings and to go to the Souvenir shop. At the bar there is an array of bottles and we're offered small helpings by sommeliers to taste the various Mercier brands, including their Pink Champagne! As glasses clink, the hall resounds with happy cheers! It is said that drinking Champagne in Epernay is like listening to Mozart in Salzburg…! And truly so.
You are not obliged to buy any Champagne, especially if you have paid for entrance, but it's rather nice to get a bottle or two having watched the manufacturing process. Also, the souvenir shop has all kinds of Champagne paraphernalia from ash trays to scarves to champagne buckets and bottle-stoppers. But they are frighteningly expensive, so I make do with buying a wine thermometer, making sure that I have my bubbly at the right temperature.
But before we say goodbye to the Capital of Champagne, we take a walk in the adjoining Mercier vineyard, to once again lovingly feel the tiny grapes peeping out of the leafy masses, smell them and taste them. I can almost see the tiny bubbles pouring into slender ‘flutes' —playing out their celebrated magic as the corks pop up!