When we arrived to live in France a visit to Champagne was near the top of our must-do list. I wanted to see the home of French Champagne; the land, the towns and villages, the famous Champagne houses and walk along the Avenue de Champagne, dubbed “the world’s most drinkable address” by Winston Churchill. As it turned out, we stayed two nights at Magna Quies, a family run Bed and Breakfast at number 49 Avenue de Champagne, Epernay. We were not disappointed; every aspect of our stay was as good as its perfect location.
Along with the other guests on Saturday evening we enjoyed a convivial apero time sampling champagnes made by the family of our most charming host Francois. They undertake every step in the process themselves from growing the grapes on their land just to the south of Epernay to harvesting the grapes and making the wine to offer their guests for tasting and sale.
A short stroll along Avenue de Champagne towards the town centre took us past names from the list of who’s who in the world of Champagne; Perrier Jouet, Pol Roger, Moet et Chandon just a few of them. There are tours to be had, samples to be sipped and souvenirs to be purchased if you wish. We rationed our time to two tours, one at de Castellane in Epernay and the other at Pommery in Reims; both were thoroughly enjoyable, informative and of course involved tasting some of the effervescent stuff.
Having escaped Paris the easiest way on the fast train to Reims, we hired a car from there to make our way to Epernay and allow us the pleasure of exploring the countryside at our leisure over the long Easter weekend. Epernay proved to be a good choice; we ate delicious food with extremely pleasant service at both La Grillade Gourmande and La Banque.
In the countryside it was too early in the season for there to be any green on the vines; their bare branches stretched out like tentative beachgoers exposing undressed limbs to the first rays of really warm sunshine. Even if the vines were bare the countryside was still beautiful with perceptible green buds emerging here and there, and golden forsythia heralding the end of winter hibernation. We followed the well signposted Champagne tourist route tootling through tranquil villages stacked with small champagne producers that are the only interruption to hectare upon hectare of grape vines covering the rolling hillsides between Reims and Epernay and along the Marne Valley. At Hautvillers the cluster of village buildings that includes the Abbey where the cellar master Brother Pierre Perignon – Dom Perignon – perfected his technique for making sparkling wine was picture-postcard perfect. From a lookout point just beyond the village the river Marne sparkled below in the sunshine and the lateral flow of the Marne Canal followed its straight and narrow path.
It seemed an incongruous mix that this area, famed for its alcoholic beverage that is the ultimate symbol of celebration, fun and fizz, was so close to the setting for one of the most important battles of the first World War; the Battle of the Marne between 5 and 12 September 1914. We learned on our tasting tours that the production of Champagne continued, albeit with difficulty, during the war years. Any celebration deserved Champagne, and there was nothing better to boost morale than bubbles.
The Battle of the Marne memorial at Dormans was well worth the stop on our Champagne route itinerary.
Reims is the main city in the region, even though it’s not the administrative capital of Champagne. The trickiest thing about Reims is to pronounce the name! Say “Rance” with your best nasal twang and you’ve got it. Reims Cathedral is where the kings of France were crowned. It was damaged by fire in 1210 and rebuilt, severely damaged again during WW1 and repaired once more. The restoration of the spectacular cathedral is an ongoing project, as is the evolution of the equally spelndid interior. For its 800th anniversary modern stained glass windows by German artist, Monsieur Knoebel, were installed in the apse.
Here’s to Champagne, it’s something special: cheers.