Champagne, Champagne!

photo: montagne de reims, windmill museum

On the Montagne de Reims, there is a museum in a windmill.

If It's Good Enough To Drink, It's
Good Enough To Visit

by Allan Pangborn

Paris:- Monday, 14. February 2000:- One of the benefits of travelling is the people you meet. As they also like to travel you immediately have a common subject to discuss. The Café Metropole Club brings travellers together to share their adventures.

At a recent club meeting I met Lewis and Diana from Texas who expressed an interest in Champagne - a major topic in my study of sparkling wine.

I know only two people who live in Texas - a family I met in Vienna when I worked in Austria in 1972. I mentioned their names to Lewis and he said they livephoto: diana & lewis two streets away from them.

Texans say they live in a big state but it seems pretty small to me. With this as an introduction, we decided on a day's expedition to Champagne.

Diana and Lewis are nearly as wind-blown as the signs.

We departed on Saturday morning from Gare de l'Est for the one-hour trip to Epernay. The round-trip second-class fare is 214 francs, or 32.60 euros.

We stopped first at the Tourist Information office in Epernay for local maps and the opening times of the local Champagne houses. This office is across the Avenue de Champagne from Moët et Chandon - the largest of the Champagne producers.

There are two auto rental outfits I know of in Epernay; Avis and Europcar. At Europcar wasphoto: traditional riddling racks, mercier picked up an 'C'-size Fiat that I had ordered by phone. Their office is located in the Rue de Dr. Rousseau which is behind the church, which is just to the right as you leave the train station. The car cost 700 francs for the day.

Leaving Epernay, we drove 27 kms north on the N51 road to Reims to take a look at its cathedral and the two Champagne houses that are open on Saturday. These are Mumm's and Laurent Perrier.

The bottles in these traditional riddling racks have to be turned by hand at Mercier.

Unfortunately they were closed from 11:00 to 14:00, so we used the time to have lunch at l'Apostrophe, on the Place Drout d'Erlon, instead.

This restaurant has excellent fish and North African dishes as well as traditional French fare. I recommended Champagne with everything on the menu.

As the 'designated driver' I could do no more than recommend. After lunch we headed south and followed the D26 road around the Montagne de Reims.

There is a posted 'Route de Champagne' and this D26 is part of it. It connects little villages, and a sign outside each village lists the several or dozen Champagne producers in them. In all, there about 10,000, so you will never see most of the labels they represent.

The area of Champagne vineyards is fixed at about 68,000 acres, sophoto: auto riddling racks, mercier the real thing is limited to production from this area. The smaller houses make a few thousand bottles a year and that's it.

These are the automatic riddling racks at Mercier.

As an acre of vineyard in Champagne is worth about $400,000 these smaller outfits are slowly being absorbed by the big Champagne corporations. The high inheritance taxes can force the sale of a vineyard when its owner dies.

Since the corporations never die and have cash, the disappearance of the small family vineyards continues.

We drove through Ay - hometown of one of my favorites, Bollinger - and back across the Marne to Epernay, to take the afternoon tour at Mercier on the Avenue de Champagne. The Moët and Chandon 'house' was closed.

Mercier had a new multimedia presentation to explain Champagne production. A tour through their cellars on a driverless electric train was followed by a taste of their fine product.

This tour costs 30 francs. If you want to taste three wines, then it is 90 francs.

The grapevines are dormant now so thephoto: allan pangborn vines are being pruned and trained for the coming growing season. Smoky fires dot the hillsides where the twigs and leaves are burned. There are 3000 vines per acre, which means a lot of cane, as it is called, is being burned.

At the Café Metropole Club, Allan Pangborn.

We dropped off the car and got back on the train for the quick ride to Paris, to be on time for dinner. The train follows the Marne valley, passing towns like Château-Thierry.

Names like this remind us of the sobering history associated with the area that is the Champagne center of the world.

Photos: Allan Pangborn©2000
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