The ultimate booze cruise

Stephen Bayley wanted to live like a tycoon. So he borrowed a Bentley Continental and took the slow road through Champagne country

I remember asking Terence Conran for a raise. Hugely skilled, voracious even, in the consuming arts of pleasure, Conran has been to me, variously, hero, friend, patron - lately antagonist and universal chump - but at the time, he was my employer. He said: "My dear Stephen, you already live like a millionaire. What do you need more money for?"

I remember asking Terence Conran for a raise. Hugely skilled, voracious even, in the consuming arts of pleasure, Conran has been to me, variously, hero, friend, patron - lately antagonist and universal chump - but at the time, he was my employer. He said: "My dear Stephen, you already live like a millionaire. What do you need more money for?"

Conran's theory, from which he claimed the privilege of author's exception, was that there was no need to own tiresome, expensive things if you had the use of them anyway. It's a good theory and one that I have applied often. So, for my wife's birthday I spoke to two friends. One of them looks after promotions for Bentley, another one owns a champagne house. What better birthday treat than to connect one with the other? Drive a Bentley Continental, one of the world's most indulgent and luxurious cars, to Champagne, source of one of the world's most indulgent and luxurious agricultural products. A fine way for a replica millionaire to spend a couple of days (and a little of someone else's fortune).

Bentley's reputation was made in France after an astonishing series of successes at the Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans endurance race in the late 1920s. Here, the massive, rugged, British Racing Green cars were in dramatic contrast to the lean and elegant French racers of Ettore Arco Isidoro Bugatti. Bugatti said that Bentley made "the fastest lorries on earth". One of these entered folklore. A group of wealthy socialites, jump-jockeys and journalists who lived around Grosvenor Square became known as The Bentley Boys. One was Woolf Barnato, the son of Barney Barnato, who had made his fortune with Cecil Rhodes at the Kimberley diamond mines. In 1930, Barnato had the playboy, années folles conceit of racing his special-bodied Speed Six Bentley against the famous Train Bleu from Cannes to Calais. This Barnato did on two-lane roads. And he won.

My own adventure in the descendant of those fast lorries was to be a little less daunting, using the M20 and A26. With more power, better brakes, xenon lights, air conditioning, satellite navigation, television, surround sound playing the new Hôtel Costes CD and - I like to think - similar amounts of style, we snuck into the traffic on the South Circular Road. An American racer once said that he wanted a car that was perfect neither for lugging the kids around nor for winning races, but one that was somewhere in the middle. He had in mind the classic 1952 "R" Type Bentley Continental, the most luxurious fast car of its day. Elegant, masculine, British, possessed of enormous tact, poise and manners, but with prodigious power and authoritative presence, exactly the same can be said of its successor, our Bentley Continental GT. Unfortunately, these qualities stand out in Brixton. But cars such as these confer a benevolent case-hardened karma on the driver, so we feigned boredom and headed for the Channel Tunnel.

British roads are a pain, but the Bentley is a powerful anaesthetic. Its interior retains the intense romance associated with tradition, but adds modern proportions, ergonomics and services. Oh, yes, there is ample power, too. Ask yourself whether you mind getting out of your car at the end of a journey. If you find that an odd question, you probably have not driven a Bentley. And the great advantage of Le Shuttle is that you don't have to get out of the car. Tobias Smollett's Travels through France and Italy had him hitting the French coast "benumbed with cold, and the women excessively sick". When Shelley landed in Calais in July 1814, he had to go for a walk on the beach because the lumpy crossing had made him "exhausted with sickness and fatigue". More fortunate, we read the papers on leather chairs, underwater, with the aforementioned Hôtel Costes CD playing.

The itinerary was easy. Apart from the submarine adventure, it is a single, straight road from Greenwich to the centre of Champagne. Calais, Ardres (where, in the grand old Hôtel Clément, they still have the menu from one of the racing driver André Simon's wine and food society dinners), St- Omer, Béthune, Arras, Cambrai, St-Quentin, Laon (romantic, but absolutely nowhere to eat safely), Reims. There are, indeed, few concessions to gastronomic curiosity anywhere en route, but the roads are empty, the Bentley voluptuously powerful. It's a frankly grim journey: the memory of so much death and destruction can never be wholly eradicated. In the Argonne region alone, 150,000 were violently obliterated. Ghosts remain of the First World War. You swoosh past Vimy ridge and think of Edmund Blunden's haunting observation about bombardment that "the tired air groans", or Siegfried Sassoon's appalling, bitter-sweet: "I'd like to see a Tank come down the stall/ Lurching to rag-time tunes of 'Home, Sweet Home'."

The bleak chalk hills of Champagne have produced many great writers, including Racine, La Fontaine, Alexandre Dumas père and Paul Claudel. The last, a native of Villeneuve-sur-Fère, near Château-Thierry in the valley of the Marne, remarked at a crucial moment in the First World War: "Gentlemen, in the short moment allowed us between the crisis and catastrophe ... we may as well enjoy a glass of champagne." That magnificent French inclination to luxury; that clever distinction between the possibilities of now and the inevitabilities of later. It may be dismal, but it's encouraging. Two and a bit hours, and we are there.

Reims is the capital of Champagne, but it was closed on Sunday afternoon. Some optimistic Rémois claim that the name derives from Romulus's feral brother Remus. Maybe, but we want a drink and dinner, not fanciful ancient history, so we drive straight over the Montagne de Reims, a 12-by-six-mile mass of oak, pine and beech that defines the southern views from the city. Our destination is Epernay, which Victor Hugo described as " La ville du vin de champagne, rien de plus, rien de moins". Epernay is where you find Moët & Chandon, Perrier Jouët, and many of the other great houses whose primary product adds dignity to duty frees everywhere. It is also where you find the Hôtel Les Berceaux, our destination.

No matter how hungry, it is a moral and practical requirement to walk around any new town immediately you have dumped your bags. But first, the Hôtel Les Berceaux, one of the very few passable hotels in Epernay. A nearly pretty, rambling brick-and-tile structure, evidence of apathy can be found in fragments of Christmas trees attached to balconies, and to a prominent notice celebrating the establishment's anniversary... in 1989. Half-hearted renovations have left rooms in that challenging shade of orange found only in the French provinces. Budgets did not extend to new carpet in the stairwell, although there is an ambitious installation of champagne bottles beneath a glass panel in the lobby. I think this aspired to be art. I know it failed. Beds are small and uncomfortable - invitations to insomnia more than intimacy.

Epernay itself is cruelly dull, a mixture of neglect and that misplaced optimism of the French that finds expression in styles of modern architecture undiscovered by anyone else. There are all those other markers of depression: a shop called "Chic Discount"; another called "Sonia", whose artlessly mannequined vitrines demonstrate how styles that didn't catch on in London are racily dans le vent here.

Back for dinner, Les Berceaux offers alternative dining somewhat like a Georges Feydeau farce, with the same waiter adopting different poses and offering different menus depending on whether you want Le Bistrot 7, on the left of the lobby, with its roaring gas fire and challenging whiff of curry, or the proprietor Patrick Michelon's gastronomic restaurant to the right. To signify its status, this has a vast stone cheminée and a real wood fire. Of such fine distinctions is la gloire composed.

We ate well: specialities are galette de pied de porc en croûte and bouquet de homard, langoustines et poissons de roche en salade tiède. The chef was fat, which is always a good sign. An alternative is Hostellerie La Briqueterie, six clicks south, where we ate the following night. Again, fat is a specific against the harsh climate: we had duck foie gras with figs and ratafia, de-boned pigeon with more foie gras and truffles, snails, roe deer. A restaurant whose ambition blurs into pretension, its decoration is described by Michelin with that deadly word " élégant". It looked like the aftermath of an explosion in Joan Collins' knicker drawer.

But the business in Champagne is to understand and taste champagne. Absolutely nothing exhilarates like a glass of the stuff. I love Truman Capote's description of the taste as "a pale blaze ... burned ... to one damp sweet ash". In his 1948 movie Letter from an Unknown Woman, Max Ophüls has a character say: "Champagne tastes much better after midnight, don't you agree?" The truth is, champagne tastes wonderful at any time of day. Thomas Jefferson quite rightly insisted that "wine is a necessity". Champagne even more so. Local heroine Madame Bollinger said: "I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry, and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty." My sort of girl.

Champagne is a branded product. It has always depended on packaging and identity. Like perfume, champagne is fugitive and volatile: shapeless and elusive, unless captured in glass. It needs great packaging to make sense. Accordingly, the great houses have acquired a lot of self-consciousness. They mythologise. Take Perrier Jouët as an example. PJ, as the wine trade always calls the marque, was the first dry champagne exported to Britain (in 1848). It became Victoria's favourite fizz. The great 1930s wine writer Maurice Healy called PJ a "brisk and cheerful wine". Indeed, there is no such thing as a solemn glass of champagne. It is always vivacious, but PJ is especially playful: the actress Sarah Bernhardt used PJ as bubblebath. Oenophiles speak of sensations on the tongue. Bernhardt enjoyed PJ's biscuit and fruit elsewhere, too.

Taste apart, this self-consciousness about imagery defines the big champagne houses. Perrier Jouët's original concept for the garland of anemones on its bottles was by the great glass designer Emile Gallé (1846-1904). He insisted on the enamel flowers being fired directly on to the glass, an effective but ruinously expensive process. Or take Moët & Chandon. It is the world's great commodity champagne. Its Epernay house is in a magnificently bluff Empire style, its elaborate metalwork railings and effects suggesting the stimulating effervescence that is carbonic gas's gift to grape juice on the latter's journey from sour and tart fruit debris to luxury product. In 1930, Moët produced a perfect 20cl bottle to slip in your handbag or your breast pocket or, indeed, as would be my preference, into the glovebox of your car. Sold originally as " le quart", this was the sensuous frivolity of the Gatsby years in a bottle. Still, as Jay McInerney, bad-boy Manhattan novelist turned America's most winning wine writer, explained, champagne is "not made for economists".

The grandes marques are international luxury staples, their distribution, marketing and packaging as closely monitored, scientifically promoted and distributed as Coca-Cola. So a visit to a small champagne house is as refreshing as a flute of vintage itself. We pull into the gravel drive, crunching with gravitas. Champagne Jacquesson is in the nondescript village of Dizy, on the north side of Epernay. Actually, to remove the romantic gloss, Dizy is just off a roundabout, around the back of the ring road, with its traditional French mixture of industrial hotels, scary furniture warehouses and bleak exhaust shops. To visit is to be reminded that the production of champagne is, more than other wine, a strange mixture of agronomy, soil science, gardening, perseverance and reputation-making.

With production limited to about 350,000 bottles, Jacquesson has no advertising: instead, it sells by reputation. Again, its small size and independent management allow some pleasingly idiosyncratic products and processes. To keep the quality of the fruit up, for instance, Jacquesson regularly disposes of the first batch of any cuvée. To maximise the quality of the fruit on the vine, in July there is a vendange verte - perfectly good grapes are secateured into the bin to encourage others.

Founded in 1798, this small house (still small, still independent) became a favourite of Napoleon, who served it at his wedding to Marie-Louise of Austria. It was Adolphe Jacquesson, son of the founder, who invented the muselet, the wire trap that contains the cork. It was Jacquesson, too, who lowered the sugar density in the fermenting wine, thus achieving great benefits for 19th-century working conditions: accounts of life in champagne cellars include harrowing descriptions of eruptions and explosions. Violence as well as delight has been champagne's companion in history. To describe the activities in the fermentation, the locals used to say the wine was " en furie".

To visit a small producer such as Jacquesson and to see every part of the process of making champagne is to experience man's extraordinary imagination and perseverance in the face of unbending nature. The Jacquesson house is in fact the old gatehouse of a larger chateau. The first vines you see are in the garden (with ugly French bungalows behind to emphasise the suburban queerness of it all), although they would prefer it to be known as a clos. In a wintry March, 0.8 hectares of gnarled, grey vines do not make a promising sight. Still, as the genial Michael Mackenzie, my friend and the fortunate propriétaire of Jacquesson, explained: "We are very proud that our vineyards look very scruffy. They are not made for Japanese tourists."

Besides this garden, Jacquesson owns 26 hectares of other vineyards in the villages of Ay (pronounced, I was grateful to have explained, "Aye-ee" and, incidentally, the home of Madame Bollinger), Avize, Hautvilliers (the home of Dom Pérignon, whose happily fumbled experiments in vinification brought us that original taste of stars) and Mareuil, but also buys in grapes from other growers. This makes Jacquesson a négociant rather than a récoltant.

We drove back through Reims to have lunch. Gérard Boyer's magnificent hotel-restaurant Les Crayères (the name of the local chalk pits that were champagne's first cellars) is a national institution; it is as stellar as Dom Pérignon's first glass of bubbly, and to eat there is to be part of a humming, smooth and lubricated French gastro-commercial process that is unique in its combination of skill, sensuality and lack of personality. So we decided to slum it. Reims is not a great place to eat. In fact, to be honest, Reims, if you forget the cathedral, is not a great place at all. It is slow, dull and provincial. There is a preserved café, Au Palais, in the town centre, but, alarmingly, we found Max Clifford at lunch. Off we went instead to the Brasserie du Boulingrin, a superb 1925 establishment beside the old market, with classic zinc bar and nets, and a menu of similarly antique style.

Returning to Calais, you recross the Franco-British Basin of Chalk, as the geologists describe the landmass shared by Sussex and the valley of the Marne. English influence on and enthusiasm for champagne is profound. Wonderful that an elegant man such as Michael Mackenzie, with some help from Jean-Hervé and Laurent Chiquet, makes champagne. Champagne is an English specialisation: Frenchmen tend not to write about it. That is left to the English. In the 18th century, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's ballad The Lover, for example, you find the fine line: "And we meet, with champagne and a chicken, at last."

Well, that was our idea, too. Again, we did it underwater and mused on the qualities of champagne. A crystal-clear mystery; evidence both of man's ingenuity and his need for pleasure. A sparkling white wine made from predominantly red grapes. A luxury product made in an economically depressed area. So many oddities, so much confusing sex. And then the ultimate paradox - the bleak region is " la" Champagne, and the gorgeous bubbly wine is masculine. Well, tant pis. At least the car, la voiture, is feminine.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Reach Calais on Eurotunnel (08705 35 35 35; www.eurotunnel.com) from Folkestone, or by sea from Dover on Hoverspeed (08705 240 241; www.hoverspeed.co.uk), P&O Ferries (08705 20 20 20; www.poferries.com) or SeaFrance (08705 711 711; www.seafrance.com).

STAYING AND EATING THERE

Hotel les Berceaux, Epernay (00 33 3 26 55 28 84; www.lesberceaux.com). Doubles from €66 (£47). Hostellerie La Briqueterie Vinay (00 33 3 26 59 99 99; www.labriqueterie.com) Vinay. Doubles from €190 (£136). Brasserie du Boulingrin (00 33 3 26 40 96 22), 48 rue de Mars, Reims.

VISITING THERE

Champagne Jacquesson (00 33 3 26 55 68 11; www.champagnejacquesson.com), 68 rue du Colonel Fabien, Dizy.

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