The two policemen were already laughing when they saw our license plate bearing down upon their roadblock. Only two Belgians could be attempting to drive onto Reims’ Place de la Republique on the eve of Bastille Day. “Impossible ca”, chuckled one as we explained that we were staying in a hotel that now lurked in the shadow of a gigantic stage with two speakers on either side of it that could quite easily be sitting proudly in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest ever of their kind.
An auspicious start to our visit to Champagne.
Champagne is an entire industry developed just to relieve Belgians of their disposable income. Almost every car we saw parked outside a champagne house had the unmistakable red license plate, three numbers, three letters.
At least they show you a good time while liberating your wallet of its contents. Leaving our hotel in Reims at 11am the following morning, we were at the celebrated headquarters of Piper Heidseck by 11.10, imbibing our first glass of bubbly of the day by 11.30. It seemed the appropriate way to start the Bastille Day celebrations. A little better than Marie Antoinette’s suggestion of cake.
The majority of the most famous champagne producers have their main cellars in Reims. Ruinart, Pommery, Piper-Heidseck, Taitinger, to name but a few, all have premises a short stroll from each other. Others such as Moet et Chandon, the world’s largest producer have their HQ’s in Epernay. It was to here we headed from Reims.
The area between Reims and Epernay is dominated by the Parc Naturel Regional de la Montagne de Reims. It is probably the most touristy of the Routes de Champagne but no less charming for it. The antique villages, each cluttered with tempting signs for the local brew, come thick and fast. There is one called Bouzy. We didn’t visit it but it amply describes our jaunt through both the petite and grande montagne.
Our first stop for, ahem, refreshments came at Champagne Louis Casters in Damery. If the outsized sign at the corner of the building hadn’t made us wise to Mr Casters’ potion, the six Belgian cars surrounding the entrance probably would have. Casters, who it turned out is Belgian himself, quickly made us feel at home, treating us to healthy pourings of his Brut Sélection, Grande Reserve, Cuvée Supérieure and his Brut Rosé. We liked them all, particularly for the average price of €13.
It turns out that ink for home printers – in Britain a typical replacement cartridge costs about £1.70 per millilitre compared to 23p per millilitre for a bottle of 1985 Dom Perignon - is now seven times more expensive than vintage champagne. We bought several bottles of everything Casters served us.
A few miles up the road, in Mareuil-sur-Ay we pulled in at Champagne Guy Charbaut. Again we were greeted by a Belgian, again we departed with less room in the boot of our car than we arrived. Guy Charbaut has chambres d’hotes should you not feel like reaching for your car keys at this point. Assured that the police had better things to do on 14 July, we pressed on south to Troyes.
Troyes, the German influence of whose architecture is reminiscent of some of the towns in Alsace, contains a spectacular cathedral and a very worthwhile museum of modern art. However, by far its biggest attraction for me was a Coupe de Champagne costing a mere €4.80. I ordered five.
The great thing about Champagne is that, like Guinness, it is good for you. The many benefits of a few glasses of sparkling are outlined in a very informative and comforting book called The Healing Powers of Champagne. Obesity and Cellulite, Appetite Loss, Arterial Stenosis – apparently the narrowing or blockage of the artery that supplies blood to the kidney -, Migraine, Insomnia and Lazy Bowel, to name but a few, have all met their match in a bottle of bubbly.
Unfortunately champagne does not appear to have any effect on heatstroke and with temperatures well north of 30 degrees my northern pigmentation was beginning to prove a drawback. Thankfully, only a few miles outside of Troyes, Francois Bradier welcomes you to his convivial Domaine des Lacs. With only five rooms and one self catering college crowded is not a word that is often used to describe the loungers by the swimming pool. Francois also kindly provides a fridge for you to chill your Premier Cru.
Now that’s what I call a champagne lifestyle.