Not just any bubbly is Champagne. That’s what everyone you meet in the Champagne region tells you every time and everywhere, even at the doorstep of a lingerie store selling underwear called Darjeeling. The irony is quite lost on the French. “It is a very popular lingerie brand in France,” you are told. “But why do you have underwear named after an Indian tea?” you ask the shop girl with heavily-kohled eyes. “We don’t know about tea. The English drink tea, we drink wine,” she smirks.
The English also drink Champagne, you tell her. Loads of it, in fact, with the UK being one of France’s biggest export markets for Champagne. Mention the bubbly and the kohl-eyedgirl blinks to indicate she is willing to give English tastebuds a benefit of doubt and promises to have a cup of Darjeeling.
My driver Momo — aka Mohammad from Tunisia — is far better informed. “Oui, Oui, you people in India need to learn from us how to protect Darjeeling and Assam as geographical indications (GIs) for the tea grown there,” informs Momo, who seems to know everything that goes on in the region and the world.
A GI indicates that a product has a specific geographical origin and possesses a reputation due to that place of origin. GIs are not limited to wine, but also include other agricultural products, such as Tuscan olive oil or Roquefort cheese, as well as manufactured products, such as Murano glass or Delft ceramic pottery. Standing outside the lingerie store, the thought of India still struggling to get GIs for Darjeeling and Basmati depressed me a little, but not for long.
For here I was, in the company of friends, driving through the Champagne region on a sunny afternoon to discover the region and have as much as possible of the sparkling wine that made it famous.Heritage world
We struck base in the sleepy little town of Reims near the Belgian and German borders. Reims is an odd mix of history and modernity, and I soon discovered the reason why. Always in the way of armies invading France, the town has been flattened and rebuilt several times, almost getting bombed out of existence during the World War I.
It is home to two UNESCO World Hertitage Sites — the Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral and the Palais du Tau (Palace of Tau) — and the Saint Remi Basilica and the Abbey Museum. The Notre-Dame de Reims is among Frances’ oldest Gothic cathedrals, complete with chubby angels and gawking gargoyles. This cathedral was the church where 26 kings of France were coronated, among them was Charles VII, whose coronation was done in the presence of the Joan of Arc in 1429. The last coronation ceremony held here was that of Charles X of France in 1825.Interestingly, one of the shattered stained-glass window has been replaced by a stained glass window done in a modernist style by Marc Chagall, the Russain painter who made France his home.
We didn’t bother with the Bascilica, choosing to go by UNESCO’s assurance about its place in world heritage. We were in Champagne for the great outdoors and just driving around through the rolling vineyards turned out to be a great way to spend the day. You appreciate the bubbly even more after you are told that the farmers in the region grew only wheat and cabbage before the monks discovered champagne and the English developed a taste for it.
If it is just Champagne you are after, do take time off to tour some of the champagne houses.
Do not disturb
Most big champagne houses —such as Laurent-Perrier, Louis Roederer, Canard-Duchene, Taittinger, Pommery and Moët & Chandon — offer tours that include vineyard visits, a walkthrough the champagne-making process, a trawl through the cellars, and a final tasting. Unlike in Napa Valley or Sonoma in California, the French don’t encourage tourists to knock at their doors asking for a vineyard walkthrough or a visit through the miles of century-old chalk cellars, some of which became bomb-shelters during World War I and still bear the battle scars of the war. You have to book in advance and give your language preference. The good news is that you get by very comfortably with English — everyone speaks the language, some fluently and some not so, but everyone has enough English to understand and be understood.
Perhaps the reason for this is the truly global participation in the grape harvest. The best time to be in Champagne, I was told, is in time for the two-week harvest in September.
In rain or shine, 30,000 hectare of vineyards are full of people from all over the world picking the grapes — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are the three varieties used to make Champagne — by hand. The picking is punctuated by potent meals in the vendangeoir, which is the part of the cellar where the grapes are received and weighed.
Almost always cooked by a local who specialises in traditional cuisine, meals usually include potée champenoise (meat and vegetable stew), assorted vegetables with charcuterie (carrots, potatoes, beans) and braised pork. All, of course, accompanied by gallons of local wine ad champagne. Students are usually enthusiastic participants in the harvest, turning up in droves for what often turns out to be a paid holiday if the weather holds. What’s best about travelling through the region is that you can stock up on the best of bubbly, with good labels ranging from upwards of Euros 20 to Louis Roederer’s Cristal — which was created in 1876 for czar of Russia Alexander II and became available to commoners like us in 1945 — priced at a few hundred Euros.