Champagne. It's top of the pops for a tour
Demand for bubbly still outstrips supply. Andy Lynes visits Reims to discover the secrets of the world's favourite fizz
Sunday 14 September 2008
If Channel 4 ever made "The 100 Greatest Gothic Cathedrals", then Notre-Dame in Reims in the north-east of France might well pip its Parisian namesake to the number one spot. Every available inch of buttress, porch and gable is decorated with sculptured angels, saints and depictions of biblical stories. The axial chapel's stained-glass window by Marc Chagall is just one notable feature of a truly breathtaking vaulted interior.
Yet all this architectural magnificence is a mere distraction. A clue to the real reason for a pilgrimage to the city lies in the window displays of the unassuming shops dotted around the cathedral's perimeter. The ornate wooden cases on show don't contain holy relics. To true believers, the contents are far more precious: vintage champagne from every big name producer you've heard of and lots of smaller ones you haven't.
Forty-five minutes from Paris by high-speed TGV, Reims is an ideal location for an oenological weekend. Within walking distance of our city centre hotel, there were seven champagne houses, including elite grandes marques such as Pommery and Taittinger, offering tours and tastings, with their vineyards just a few miles away.
Established in 1729, Ruinart is the oldest, if not the best-known champagne house. Although the invention of champagne is attributed to the Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon in the early part of the 18th century, the wine named after him wasn't produced until 1936 by Moët et Chandon, which was founded in 1743.
Ruinart's relative obscurity appears to suit them just fine. They were apparently delighted when it was reported that Posh Spice had demanded that a bottle of Ruinart left for her in a London hotel room be replaced with Cristal. Despite this apparent wilful elitism, Ruinart throws open the doors of its beautiful 18th-century chateau to the public for tours by prior arrangement every day of the year.
Almost 120ft below the surface, the atmosphere in Ruinart's crayères (chalk caves) is as dry, crisp and cool as a glass of bubbly. It seems incredible that it was sheer dumb luck that led the Gallo-Romans to excavate the chalk they needed to build fortifications through 6ft-wide holes, thereby creating a series of pyramid-shaped cellars that are ideal for ageing wine and are unique to Reims.
Driving a few miles south-east of the city to Ruinart's vineyards in Sillery in the national park of Montagne de Reims, the winding roads are dotted with récoltants-manipulants – small champagne houses that grow all their own grapes (unlike the grandes marques that buy in the majority) and make between 10,000 to 20,000 bottles of their own high-quality wine a year.
Yet, despite the efforts of the big names and the one-man bands who between them produce 330 million bottles a year, demand for champagne continues to outstrip supply. Earlier this year, the French appellation control body l'Institut National de l'Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) approved the extension of the Champagne region with the addition of a further 40 communes to the existing 327 wine-producing villages.
Whether Champagne's efforts to keep the world with a sparkle in its glass ultimately negates its value as an exclusive brand won't be known for sometime (the new vineyards probably won't be planted for a decade), but for now at least there's still a kind of magic to the moment when the cork goes pop, especially when you're in a restaurant. Reims currently lays claim to four Michelin-starred restaurants including the opulent Les Crayères. We chose the more modest but no less enjoyable setting of La Vigneraie for our last lunch in the city.
Over plates of delicious sautéed foie gras and braised veal sweetbreads with ceps and rosti potato, we attempted to prove conclusively that champagne is the perfect wine for any type of food. Sadly, we couldn't arrive at a verdict and decided that much more field research would be required. It might turn out to be a lifetime's work.
How to get there
Andy Lynes travelled as a guest of Harrods (020-7730 1234; harrods.com), retailers of Ruinart champagne. A return rail journey from London St Pancras to Reims on Eurostar and TGV costs from £79 with Rail Europe (08448 484 064; raileurope .co.uk). A superior room at the Grand Hotel des Templiers (00 33 3 26 88 55 08) costs from €190 (£152) per night.
Reims Tourism Office (00 33 3 26 77 45 00; reims-tourisme.com).
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