Champagne days: It's the real thing: a few bottles of the finest from a family firm

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The Independent Online
Drive 40 minutes east of Disneyland and you come to the most famous vineyards on the planet. In winter, they look like vast and dreary cemeteries, like any other vineyards. But these are not any old vineyards. This is Champagne, purveyor of expensive hangovers to the world.

In the village of Chouilly, in the heart of the Cote des Blancs, home of the finest Grands Crus, Philippe Gue was waiting for us. He had been recommended by a friend of a friend. After the sullen skies and faces of Paris, Mr Gue is a burst of sunshine. "Come and see the cellars. Have a little taste." But what about the children? "Oh they must come too."

We go to a corner of the office floor which, at the pull of a lever, drops 10 feet into the darkness. Released abruptly from the car, the children bounce around the rows of Mr Gue's precious bottles, like a pair of clumsily removed champagne corks. Mr Gue thinks this is hilarious. Enfants will be enfants; they can do no harm.

Mr Gue is a tall man in his forties who seems to stand permanently at an angle, perhaps from lifting crates of wine. He opens a bottle of unlabelled champagne and pours us a glass. This, he explains, is champagne in its natural, pre-commercial state - the way the Champenois like to drink it. Before he sells it - like every other maker of champagne - he will add a strictly prescribed quantity of cane sugar and liqueur made from vintage champagne. It is the extent of this added ingredient which decides the sweetness of the wine: brut, sec, demi-sec.

Mr Gue and his father are among the smallest producers in the champagne region. They own just two and a half hectares - less than seven acres - of appellation controlee Champagne vineyards. They are members of a disappearing breed - the small growers who also make, bottle and market all their own wine. Many small producers, Mr Gue explains, have chosen to throw in their lot with village co-operatives. Others find it more profitable to sell their grapes to the giant champagne houses such as Moet or Mumm or Veuve Cliquot, whose factory-mansions line the road into Epernay, three miles away.

Why do he and his father insist stubbornly on making their own? Mr Gue simultaneously shrugs his shoulders and laughs. Because it is more interesting, of course; there is no satisfaction in glueing labels on bottles full of communal champagne.

You will never find a bottle of Rene Gue wine in a shop; you will never see one on a restaurant wine list. Philippe and his father sell all their bottles to personal callers: people who drive from all over France to the prosperous, suburban-looking, pink-rendered house in Chouilly to stock up once or twice a year. The two busy periods, he explains, are just before Christmas and in May, the wedding season.

At one level - the Moet level, not the Gue level - champagne is a big business which typifies the kind of luxury goods that have allowed French exports and trade surpluses to boom despite the fit of national pessimism, the high franc and the lingering recession in Europe. About one-third of all champagne produced goes abroad (with Britain by far the biggest customer).

But France, despite its morose political and economic mood, remains its own best customer for champagne. On average, each man, woman, child and baby in France drinks 26 glasses a year: an impressive figure when you consider that nearly half of all French adults - contrary to the received wisdom - never drink wine of any kind. The big champagne houses have nothing like the same domination of this domestic market. Almost half the champagne sold in France comes from the smaller grower- producers and co-operatives.

Mr Gue is more interested in champagne than champagne politics but he complains that, in the drive to boost production and, therefore, exports, too many new vineyards on the periphery of the region have been given appellation controllee status. Champagne production has nearly tripled in the last 25 years, leading to doubts about quality of some of the wine produced. The expansion has been halted now, which is all to the good, Mr Gue says.

Here endeth the lesson: champagne is a little microcosm of France as it moves uncertainly into the 21st century: partly a modern and very successful trading state; partly a country which clings stubbornly to its own ways of doing things but wonders how long it can do so.

How do we like his raw champagne? It is a little "rude", is it not? Rude meaning not cheeky but rough. Well, yes, actually, it is a little rude: but we are assured by Mr Gue that the final product is more like what the non-local palate is used to and very fine indeed.

We wish to buy a modest amount for a party to say farewell to a colleague. You must not feel you have to buy, says Mr Gue. British callers have a reputation in small vineyards in France for always calling in the middle of lunch and buying only one bottle. We buy a few more than that. The price is Fr65 (pounds 7) a bottle - less than half the price of a good champagne in London, but also half the price of a good bottle in Paris 70 miles away.