- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 2004

I had my train tickets, but the herb-infused valleys of Provence and the cool blue sea of France’s fabled Cote d’Azur were the furthest things from my mind. Other travelers could hit those tourists spots. I had another venue in mind.

As soon as I broke bread with an old expatriate friend from New York City who lives a couple hours south of Paris, I was heading for the Champagne region. That’s where the country’s divine sparkling wine is made, and that’s exactly what I wanted.

The Champagne region is about 90 miles northeast of Paris, where legend says the drink was born more than 300 years ago, when a cellar master and monk named Dom Perignon laid away wine for the winter.

The following spring, the bottles warmed and produced carbon dioxide, giving rise to a delicate wine with pinpoint bubbles that teased the palate and tickled the nose. As the story goes, the good monk grabbed one of the bottles, looked at the bubbles, took a sip, searched the sky and exclaimed, “I’m drinking stars.”

I know the feeling. Champagne can drive me to hyperbolic ranting. The muted thump when the cork is pulled from the bottle, the wisp of vapor and the delicate sip of this gift from heaven — and in minutes I am talking out of my head.

Nevertheless, nobody seems to get more carried away by champagne than the French. They drink more than half of the nearly 300 million bottles produced annually in their country, enjoying the bubbly wine as an aperitif or cocktail throughout dinner, no matter what is on the table.

The French think nothing of popping open a bottle of champagne to salute a new friend or paramour, as a companion to a fine meal or to mark a job well done.

“We don’t wait for holiday celebrations to drink champagne,” I remember an official at the Champagne Bureau in France saying to me years ago. “No special reason is needed to drink champagne. Any occasion is acceptable.”

I also am aware of this French passion from experience. My friend Beth Bagot is a native New Yorker and former dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater who about 20 years ago said adieu to the Big Apple and relocated to Paris. She and her husband, Jean-Pierre, an actor, live in the idyllic countryside on the eastern edge of the Loire Valley.

Beth was setting the dining table on the patio when I thought of the Champagne Bureau official’s remark. Jean-Pierre, the family’s head chef, was fussing over a late Saturday afternoon luncheon. Gabriel, their teenage son, was gearing up for soccer practice later in the day. My son, Roy, a pre-med student in New York, was snapping photos. Roy and I had just arrived by train for a weekend visit.

The food was on the table in minutes: a delectable quiche made with leeks, a garden-fresh salad, assorted cheeses, crusty bread and a bottle of Lanson Black Label Brut Champagne, crisp but round and mellow and delicious. I took a deep sip, giddily.

“Welcome home,” Beth said, hoisting a fine crystal flute that I thought looked a little fancy for a casual late Saturday afternoon luncheon. That’s French style, I decided.

For Sunday dinner the next day, Jean-Pierre made roast chicken with cepes mushrooms; oven-roasted potatoes; and ratatouille, an herb-laced dish of eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers and tomatoes. And, ah, we had champagne again.

By then, fired up, I could hardly wait to get to the chalky soil and deep wine caves of the Champagne region. A few days later, I took the train up to the city of Epernay, the center of the region. Less than two hours after I left Paris, I was in a taxi touring the rolling countryside, passing through quaint villages sporting row after row of neat grapevines.

It was late August. A slight chill was already in the air. As I rode along, I noticed scores of billboards announcing the names of champagne houses. I was surprised at just how many producers’ names I didn’t recognize. The taxi driver was talkative and friendly, like most people who live in the region.

“Some of the champagnes are excellent,” he said, knowledgeable like taxi drivers the world over. “They don’t make enough champagne to export. We drink it all here.” I sighed, vowing silently to visit a couple of smaller firms on my next visit so I could really enjoy champagne the way the French do. We moved on.

This time, I had chosen two firms to visit: the well-known Moet & Chandon, whose champagnes are popular in the United States, and Lanson, a smaller firm that also makes excellent champagne.

Lanson is located in Reims, north of Epernay. Most significantly, these two firms make champagnes with contrasting styles. Moet & Chandon champagnes tend to be full, soft and fruity; Lanson champagnes are crisp but round and mellow, exuding apple and fresh citrus notes.

Like a good music conductor, every champagne house has its own style or signature. Think of the divine but contrasting music of, say, Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein.

In the same vein, champagne styles are diverse. Some are heavy and powerful; others are soft and gentle. Some are light , lively and elegant; others are austere and toasty. Some are rich and fruity; others are smooth and creamy. Some are crisp and light and very dry. Does that about cover it? I learned all of this from the producers.

Most firms welcome visitors. During guided tours, I also learned about fermentation, blending, aging and capturing bubbles in the wine — all the seemingly simple steps taken to produce the world’s most labor-intensive wine.

I did this while venturing deep into chilly, picturesque caves where the chalky walls are somber but inviting, especially when bottles of Champagne are opened for tasting. Some firms charge a nominal fee for a tour and tasting, ranging from about $7 for one glass of champagne to about $20 for three glasses.

BUBBLY APERITIFS

These champagne cocktails are perfect for the glorious holiday season. Make sure the champagne is well-chilled, and for an elegant touch, chill the champagne flutes as well.

Berry champagne cocktail

2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries or blackberries

cup sugar

1/3 cup B&B; liqueur

1 bottle (750-ml) brut champagne, well chilled

Fresh mint or basil leaves for garnish, optional

If using fresh berries, rinse and discard stems. Combine berries in a heavy medium saucepan with sugar, 1/3 cup water and liqueur. Bring to a gentle boil. Reduce heat immediately to medium-low.

Cook berries for about 25 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the mixture is thick and syrupy and reduced by about half.

Pour into a fine sieve over a glass bowl, pushing the berries very lightly to extract remaining syrup. Let stand about 5 minutes, allowing the juice to drip into the bowl. Discard the pulp. Cover the syrup and chill.

To serve, spoon a teaspoon (or more if desired) of syrup into each champagne flute and fill the glass with champagne. Insert a sprig of mint or basil leaf for garnish, if desired. (Leftover syrup can be poured into a jar and kept in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. Makes about 2/3 cup syrup.) Serves 4 people.

B&B; champagne cocktail

About 2 teaspoons superfine sugar

About 4 tablespoons B&B; liqueur

1 bottle brut champagne, well chilled

Lemon peel strips

Place teaspoon or so of sugar in each glass. Add a scant tablespoon of liqueur to each glass and mix gently. Fill the glasses with champagne, swirl gently and drop a strip of lemon peel into each. Serve immediately. Serves 4 people.

Kir royale

This cocktail is a variation on the famous kir, which is made with white wine and a dash of creme de cassis, or black currant liqueur. Substituting champagne for the still wine makes the cocktail regal.

About 4 teaspoons black currant or raspberry liqueur

1 bottle (750-ml) brut champagne, well chilled

Add a teaspoon of liqueur, or more if desired, to each champagne flute. Top with champagne, swirl gently and serve immediately. Makes 4 or more servings.

Cranberry champagne cocktail

cup cranberry juice cocktail

1/4 cup orange-flavored liqueur, such as Grand Marnier, Cointreau or Triple Sec

1 bottle (750-ml) brut champagne, well chilled

Combine cranberry juice cocktail and liqueur in a large pitcher and mix well. Pour in the champagne. Stir softly or swirl to mix. Serve immediately in flutes. Serves 4 people.

Holiday champagne punch

cup sugar, or to taste

cup brandy

1 cup ruby port

1 bottle (750 ml) brut or demi-sec champagne, well chilled

Orange or lemon slices, cut thinly

Ice cubes

In a small saucepan, stir together cup water and sugar. Place over high heat, bring to quick boil and cook, stirring, for 1 minute or just until sugar dissolves. Immediately remove pan from heat and stir in the brandy and port.

Pour sugar mixture into a large punch bowl, cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Just before serving, add champagne and stir gently. Add orange or lemon slices, and serve the punch in stemmed wine glasses over ice. Serves 4 to 5 people.

Mimosa

1/4 shot Chambord liqueur

1 shot fresh-squeezed orange juice

Champagne

Pour Chambord and orange juice into a flute. Top with champagne. Makes 1 serving.

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