There is no substitute for the real thing.
Climate, tradition, chalky soil, caves deep in the earth.
Elegant bottles, tulip-shaped glasses.
Not just a drink, but an entire region in France.
Not just for celebrations, but for every day.
I am talking bubbles here, lots of them; millions, in fact.
I’m talking about my last vice, not just sparkling wine, but the real thing.
Leave the hustle and bustle of Paris and drive 90 minutes northeast to Champagne. The road turns hilly and green, and soon you pass signs that list cities most of us see only on champagne bottles: Epernay, Reims, Ay, etc.
Even if you do not know the difference between a grand cru and a cru, tour operators in Paris can put together a tour, or you adventurous types who speak a little French can wander the region and knock on the doors of the champagne houses and ask for a taste.
Reims, the sister city to Arlington, is a good base for a visit to this region of the Champagne-Ardennes province. Lots of reasonable hotels and restaurants dot this charming city.
This is champagne country, and the culture of it is everywhere. From the stained-glass windows in Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral to vagrants drinking champagne in an alley, everyone in Reims seems obsessed with champagne.
Reims was mostly destroyed during World War I; the German front was next door, and the area was a thoroughfare for foreign invaders. Thanks to people such as John D. Rockefeller, plenty of money came in to rebuild the cathedral and the hospital. Streets are named after some of the benefactors.
Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie earlier built Reims’ main library, one of thousands he financed. Most of the older buildings in Reims represent architecture from the 1920s. Place d’Erlon is filled with cafes and is the Champs-Elysees of Reims.
The city was not damaged during World War II, but the champagne houses were ransacked by German troops.
Actually, so many armies have wreaked havoc on the area over the years that the Champagne region has towns of walls. People would build two and sometimes three layers of walls to protect their champagne and themselves. Toward the end of World War II, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower made Reims his headquarters, and there, the Nazis signed their unconditional surrender in his presence on May 7, 1945.
In the champagne region, about 15,000 growers — known as “gardeners of the vine” — own 90 percent of the land. On average, each owns about 1.5 hectares, or 3.7 acres, and produces about 10,000 bottles of champagne per hectare. A grower can make champagne only from his grapes; 58 percent of champagne goes to the domestic market, and 42 percent is exported.
Phillippe Wibrotte of the Comite Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, (CIVC) in Epernay says, “You can make a decent living if you don’t need two Ferraris in your garage.”
The CIVC was started in 1941 to organize the champagne houses and stop the ransacking of sellers during World War II by the Germans.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill has been quoted as saying during the war, “We are not fighting for France, we’re fighting for Champagne.” Churchill usually had champagne with lunch and dinner at his home, Chartwell. His favorite brand was Pol Roger, which bottles a Cuvee Winston Churchill.
Sixty-six years later, the CIVC is still fighting for champagne, insisting that champagne is not a generic term but an appellation for real French bubbly, controlled by the origin of the wine. Kind of like “Maine lobster” or “Napa Valley wine,” it is not champagne if it does not come from Champagne.
Some countries do not recognize this, so the CIVC is constantly fighting misuses of the champagne name, from “champagne cigarettes” to soda, perfume, beer, even sandpaper. A large seller of sparkling wine in California calls its wine “California Champagne.” Mr. Wibrotte says the CIVC will “shoot anything that moves.”
A few miles south of Epernay, in the little town of Villers-aux-bois is Champagne Launois Pere et Fils, a house started in 1872. During harvest time, the highlight of a trip to this small champagne house is the chance to get out into the vines, pick grapes and then enjoy a beautiful lunch at Chateau de Villers.
Bernard Launois is the lively owner and cruise director for our grape-picking adventure. One morning, I shared space with a busload of tourists from Normandy, France. The morning was chilly when we sat down to a country breakfast of pate, cheeses, baguettes, fruit juice and, of course, champagne in a large building next to the cellars.
Mr. Launois was in a buoyant mood as he loaded his charges onto an old yellow school bus for the ride to the vines. Driving up and down the winding hills of Villers-aux-bois, he entertained his guests with a mix of ‘80s hits from his sound system.
The vineyards were beautiful under the warming morning sun and crisp blue skies. The travelers from Normandy appeared to be in their 50s and 60s, although a handful of older ladies needed a little help through the rows of grapes. Any apparent frailties didn’t stop anyone from enthusiastically picking buckets of chardonnay grapes for two hours.
The group was rewarded with a tour of the Launois champagne cellar in an unremarkable building. Mr. Launois made light of the small size of his cellars by having his guests board a tram for a comically short trip around the resting bottles.
The Normandy group was singing by the time the bus pulled up to Chateau de Villers for lunch. Lunch was just as lovely as the champagne in the beautiful mansion.
Champagne Launois offers a variety of tours, including visits to its impressive Museum of the Vine and the Wine.
During the harvest season, which runs from about Sept. 5 to Oct. 10, about 100,000 pickers come from all over France, including students from area colleges and universities, to pick grapes by hand. The juice from those grapes ends up in beautiful bottles nestled in chalk caves for a long, cool sleep.
The Romans started digging those caves, which can be visited during a stop by the grand champagne house of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. The “veuve” (widow) of this champagne house was Nicole-Barbe Ponsardin, who was married to Francois Clicquot for seven years until his death in 1805, after which, at age 27, she took over the business and became part of champagne history. At that time, it was unheard of for young widows to undertake such an enterprise.
It is a brisk 52 degrees down in the Veuve Clicquot cellar, reached by a walk down a very steep flight of stairs. Those who work there for 40 years receive a plaque with their name on it, which is hung in the caves. One man is remembered for working there for 60 years.
The Widow Clicquot’s desk and pictures of her are on display in the history center; her portrait also is on the metal disc that protects the top of the cork wired onto the neck of bottles of Veuve Clicquot.
This historic champagne house is a master of marketing. It even has copyrighted the distinctive orange-yellow color of its labels and used it everywhere: on bottles, curtains, walls, even the chic navy suit with orange piping worn by the receptionist.
Veuve Clicquot is constantly fighting copyright infringements and has a wall of shame showing some of the fraudulent products, including golf balls, bubble bath, different brands of fake champagne bottles and even water for dogs sold by a well-known London emporium. It has been serious about protecting its name for many years: in 1835, a convicted counterfeiter was branded with an “F” on his neck for “fraudulent.”
Frederic Panaiotis of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin drove his aubergine-colored Peugeot to the modern glass-and-stone headquarters in Reims to conduct a tasting of the house’s La Grande Dame champagnes.
With five tulip-shaped glasses in front of us, we started with a 1998 La Grande Dame. Swirling the wine in the tulip glass releases the aromas and allows them to express themselves. A 1996 La Grand Dame smelled like cheese, a creamy Camembert with hints of wild strawberries. The champagne house ought to make a perfume out of that one.
We went on to a 1990 bottle, which Mr. Panaiotis said “will become like a caress.” Finally, a white-gloved waiter poured a 1990 La Grand Dame rose. The pink version is chardonnay blended with 15 percent pinot noir and is very fresh on the palate. Mr. Panaiotis said the rose is like “liquid candy,” and it was. We were quickly lost in a swirl of tiny pink bubbles.
One of the joys of being in Champagne is visiting the famous houses and then also tasting the champagne of the lesser-known ones.
Mailly Grand Cru in the town of Mailly, is well-known in France and is served to first-class passengers on Air France, but it is seldom heard of in the United States. With a hearty “bonjour,” Patrig Morvezen, Mailly’s commercial director, greeted a busload of visitors.
One of 17 grand-cru vineyards in Champagne, Mailly Grand Cru, founded in 1929, sells only what it produces. In the bright glassed-in tasting rooms overlooking pickers harvesting pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, champagne bottles are displayed in glass cases like works of art.
In three acres of chalk caves 62 feet below ground, a young man in a T-shirt was oblivious to the cool air as he hacked off the cork of two label-less bottles of champagne.
Mr. Morvezen poured glasses under the light of a candelabra in the cave. When asked what his favorite bottle was, he replied, “Every bottle is a child for me; there are good children and bad children, but each one is no better.”
Upstairs, the grape pickers were sitting down to a harvest lunch of carrot salad, potato and sausage salad and stewed turkey in a sublime sauce, all washed down with — what else? — champagne.
Dessert was a cheese course, including a traditional cheese brought by workers who mine in the season when they are not picking grapes, and a luscious apple tart. As the champagne kept flowing, one thing became certain: Champagne is a libation that can be enjoyed on any day of the year and with just about any food. So, cheers — and pour the bubbly.