A breezy jaunt that's merely 45 minute off a central Parisian station, contains the uber joys of exploring vinous history in the form of epic wine cellars and vineyards and above all, the sparkling privilege of popping champagne, literally in Champagne. Bhisham Mansukhani reminisces his indulgent experience savouring the sparkling across Champagne.
Celebrated literary legend Mark Twain once merrily announced: "Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right." Several decades including the turn of a century later, his ilk of nodders continues to swell. And there hasn't been a gentle if diffident question as to whether he was in fact referring to our orb's most widely consumed sparkling wine or the northerly French region where it is famously produced. Either way, it is just right.
To savour champagne in Champagne, on the other hand, cranks up the ante several notches. It is a trip befitting royalty, to languor unashamedly in the luxurious accompaniment of intoxicating bubbles after alighting the train that sped out of the romantically cramped Paris just 45 minutes before. To be clear, the region of Champagne produces sparkling wine from a blend of, predominantly, chardonnay and pinot noir. Champagne took its place amongst fine French wines in the late 17th century, when the region discovered the miracle of sparkling wine production, which by happy coincidence it made way better than the neighbouring regions.
Champagne has long since been a part of France's permanent and impervious clique of vinous treasures, which include Bordeaux and Burgundy. And to this date, it is a tourist draw in its own right, never mind the 300 million annual bottles it produces. Champagne's large concentration of gentry left a concrete legacy of assorted monuments, including churches, castles, as well as the odd decrepit tavern. Though many of the Champenoise châteaux maybe off-bound for click-happy tourists, they make for a grand drive-by nevertheless. The twin cities of Épernay and Reims are the most visible tourist magnets and also the base from where many a champagne tryst have been conspired and launched. Reims is steeped in the region's history: its imposing 13th century cathedral bears the scars of the first World War and yet defiantly retains most of its ornate and staggeringly detailed carvings that were fused into its structure. There's also the gorgeous and intricate works on stained glass by the masterly French artist Marc Chagall. The marvellous stained work by another iconic creator, Jacques Simon, of how champagne is in fact produced, was commissioned in 1954 by the CIVC (Comité interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne) and meant as a homage to the workers of the sparkling miracle. The adjoining Palais du Tau was where French kings cooled their heels on the night before the coronation. Many of Reims' other treasures are to be found in its several shops that bring forth delicacies like chocolates with a rush of fresh champagne at the core or ideal accompaniments to the drink like foie gras and caviar. But a must-visit are the medieval-styled basement caves that move champagne for as high as €1,000 or as little as €12.
To get back to the picturesque region, Épernay, which comes before Reims in general direction, is compelling, not just because of its quaint vibe, but because of its equivalent of the Hollywood walk of fame – the eye-catching catalogue of champagne superstars housed parallel to a non-descript cobalt-hued slope. Baptised as the Avenue de Champagne, this strip is the address for the likes of Moët et Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger and Ruinart. Do note however that not all these estates have tours. For those that do, apart from distinct differential highlights, the tour experience essentially entails being guided through accessible parts of the traditional area and then down to the dank, historic cellars where barrels and bottles (quite a lot of them) quietly store and better the wine. The guide relates the history of the champenoise along the way and the group leaves the dark underground recesses for the illuminated and embellished space that is the tasting room where an animated expert moderates a champagne tasting. The length and variety of champagne styles presented during the tasting are determined by different ticket categories.
While Moët et Chandon with its huge byzantine cellar is a widely known and visited, other stellar names away from the Avenue de Champagne warrant a pilgrimage. Vranken Pommery, based in Reims, has a set tour with a museum-esque element – sculptures, paintings and artefacts keep the resting magnums company. Its neighbouring, Villa Demoiselle, a richly designed mansion, blends the Art Nouveau and Art Deco genres; here privileged guests are given a teasing glimpse of the indulgent routine of the French gentry. Taittinger is known to brim with stories of intrigue and passion and several large moss-sheathed bottles of the prestige cuvée Comtes de Champagne that come for about €300 a pop.
A more intimate experience can be had further away in Champagne's hinterland in Côte des Blancs, south of Épernay, a region replete with chalky soils where Pierre and Sophie Larmandier produce delicious chardonnay-based champagne under the label Larmandier-Bernier. Almost nothing can be better than a wholesome and leisurely lunch paired with champagnes from the producer's own collection. Boutique George Vesselle based in the village of Bouzy in classic pinot noir country between Reims and Épernay is open, reservedly to such a gourmand's delight, trotting out their fine Cuvée Juline, Brut Zero and a rarely produced still red wine called Bouzy Rouge. Some lucky souls have even toasted with the hearty champenoise in the flesh. Such surprises and fine sparkling ferment teem in Champagne, where dull and sober moments are neither found nor welcomed, but the sound of the popping cork always is!
Bhisham Mansukhani is a freelance wine, spirits and hospitality journalist and consultant who has been writing on wine and spirits for ten years, having worked with The Indian Express, The Times Group, Paprika Media & Snap Media.