Visiting Champagne feels as if you’re getting away with something. It’s like New Year’s Eve without silly hats. A wedding minus the hideous bridesmaids’ dresses. A raise without having to endure an excruciating performance evaluation. You are imbibing champagne for no justifiable reason whatsoever. Cheers!
But beware: A trip to this French region two hours east of Paris might spoil you. It’s a rolling celebration that makes plain old wine tasting seem flat. At least that’s what my husband, Paul, and I decide after downing millions of tiny bubbles with our pals Vittorio and Ann, who drove up from Switzerland to join us.
As the ringleader of this adventure, I suppose I should have done more planning. I had booked us into a chic little B&B that I’d carefully calculated to be an easy drive from most of the area’s highlights, but I hadn’t made the least effort to sort out which of the 100 major champagne houses or thousands of smaller producers we might want to visit.
Fortunately, our innkeepers are happy to help. In addition to hosting lodgers, Bruno and Isabelle Mailliard are champagne makers themselves. For now, they suggest a lunch spot (so we can “lay down a base,” as Paul calls it). And they refer us to Doyard-Mahé, another, larger family operation nearby with a tasting room and “très sympathique” (nice, welcoming) owners. Among the big houses, they recommend Pommery, in Reims, and phone to make reservations for an English-language tour the following day. Perfect. I’m off the hook. Cheers!
We plot over lunch, which includes pizza topped with foie gras and, of course, a bottle of champagne. Grand cru? Why not! Our waiter pries the little branded metal button that sits atop the cork from its cage and places it on the table. “Collect ‘em all!” his gesture implies. Next to us, four grannies out for Saturday lunch have just polished off a bottle of their own. “This is how I want to grow old,” I think.
Down the road at Doyard-Mahé, we’re introduced to another grandmother: lovely, blond, svelte Martine Doyard-Mahé. In the stylish tasting room, filled with wooden tables (no crowding around a tasting bar here), Madame Doyard-Mahé plies us with tastes of four house champagnes, ranging from delicate blanc de blancs (literally, “white from whites”) made from chardonnay grapes, to a blanc de noirs (“white from blacks”) made from pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes crushed so delicately that their skin color doesn’t bleed into the juice.
As she demonstrates proper uncorking procedure (twist the bottle — not the cork — then ease the cork sideways for a gentle “psssshht,” rather than an undignified “pop”), Doyard-Mahé explains that the family has been making champagne for four generations — and her granddaughter will be the fifth. When we express disbelief that she’s a grandmother, Madame smiles and says, “It’s the champagne.” Ann and I drain our glasses, trusting we will soon become thinner and blonder.
“We’re going back to Switzerland across an unguarded border!” Vittorio jokes, pondering how much champagne he can stash in his car. Paul and I buy a single bottle, sitting across from Doyard-Mahé at her elegant desk. As she tallies our purchase, their shaggy little dog, Spirou, scampers over to the table where we’d been tasting, leaps on a chair and makes off with a champagne cork. Yes, even the dogs here are connoisseurs.
Back at our B&B, we gather around the big stone fireplace with other guests as the Mailliards share some of their bubbly. We’ve arranged for the table d’hote, a family-style meal cooked by Isabelle. Would we like champagne with that? Mais oui! Bruno keeps our flutes full.
By all rights, we should have rotten hangovers the next morning. But, sipping coffee for a change, we feel quite perky. That’s a good thing, because after motoring up to Reims we discover there are 116 steps down to the Pommery cellars. Our tour takes us nearly 100 feet below ground to visit some of the 120 ancient Gallo-Roman chalk pits — now linked by 11 miles of tunnels — that house 20 million bottles of aging champagne.
The brand achieved renown thanks to Louise Pommery, who took over in 1858 after her husband’s death. This “Champagne widow” was responsible for Pommery’s formidable Victorian-style above-ground architecture and masterminded the cellar system as well. She even had signs tacked up in the caves naming sections after various international cities as a sales ploy when Pommery entered a new market. It’s as if we’ve died and gone to a dim, dusty underworld of narrow tunnels opening onto looming, beehive-shaped rooms. It’s hell, but with champagne. Cheers!
“You must climb the stairs to get your reward!” the guide tells us, so up we trudge to receive our choice of two glasses from among four champagnes, including a 1998 grand cru. While we sip, we ogle a humongous blending barrel — 100,000 bottles’ worth — which was designed with elaborate art nouveau carvings by Emile Gallé for the 1904 World’s Fair.
We could simply careen from one marquee champagne house to another — Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, Mumm and more are right in Reims — but instead decide to atone for our imbibing and head for Reims cathedral. The towering Gothic edifice is where the kings of France were crowned and, despite a World War I bomb, has stunning rose windows as well as some modern ones designed by Marc Chagall.
But wait. What are the guys in that stained-glass window doing? They’re making champagne. Even in the cathedral, we can’t escape the stuff. I suppose the sacramental wine has bubbles, too.
Vittorio wanders over to the tourist office and comes back with a list of three organic champagne producers. Not being fans of fertilizers or pesticides, we’re curious to taste bubbly biologique (French for “organic”). We head for the nearest, in Hautvillers, which just happens to be the home and final resting spot of Dom Perignon. We’re soon winding our way though vineyards and up to a tiny, ancient home squeezed into a narrow village lane.
“I have never used ‘chemical artillery!’ ” 68-year-old Monsieur Bliard tells us as we’re arrayed around a little wooden table in his foyer. A fire thaws out the chills we’ve developed after going an hour or so sans champagne. Vittorio, the human Rosetta Stone (Italian, English, French, German), is translating.
“There’s a big difference between my champagne and others that aren’t organic,” Bliard claims. “One hour later, you won’t have a stomachache with mine!” He tells us his 12 acres of vineyards have been certified organic for 35 years and, until the 1970s, they were farmed with a horse — “the last in town.”
Madame Bliard arrives from Sunday shopping and takes our visit in stride, admonishing her husband for not giving us any wine as she doles out glasses of 1997 demi-brut. It’s sublime, a mesmerizing fount of minuscule bubbles in my flute.
Bliard walks us across the street to his cellars, where 62,000 bottles “sleep tranquilly,” as he puts it. He grabs a bottle to show us how champagne makers used to disgorge sediment before the current method of freezing the bottleneck was developed. “Blam!” He has expertly tipped the bottle so a bubble gathered below the sediment, then opened it, blowing the sediment and cap into a barrel.
Turns out, he has popped a 1990 bottle. “At my age, there’s no point in conserving the old wines,” he says. “It’s necessary to drink them!” He pours us flutes, adding, “It’s my preferred medication. I have never been sick — I don’t even have a doctor!”
“To your health!” we reply, dutifully downing Monsieur’s prescription. “Cheers!”