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My Visit to the Champagne Country

Champagne Country

Champagne Country

Sitting in an enchanted European castle (this one complete with a moat and turrets) on top of a hill, going through a champagne lunch, minding the fish fork from the fowl, etiquette that a French meal necessitates, is the culmination of one morning’s hard labour. We’ve been at the vineyards since breakfast time picking grapes. And I’ve managed to gather almost 50 kg of fruit, enough for about 10 bottles of the bubbly, I am told. If I was to be paid my honest wages, it would have been a satisfactory, even lavish, amount no doubt — unlike, I would imagine, what those boisterous Americans also in our group would earn for being so much more touristy, more chatty and for pointing out last night’s dinner in the chalky soil: Escargots, of course!

Champagne Launois is a largish maison, “the House of Launois, father and son”, right in the heart of Cote des Blancs, Chardonnay kingdom in Champagne country. They own a grand cru vineyard and the castle where we find ourselves — where all tourists to the house usually end up, for a meal after “experiencing” the picking and the bottling, the cellars and other such things.  The best time to plan a visit is during the harvest season and we are lucky that we are right in its midst — two weeks in September when “gypsies” and locals and even youth from the neighbourhood countries turn up to work on 30,000 hectares of land that makes up the Champagne country. It is a busy, joyous, even boisterous time for everyone around and monsieur Launois sure gets right into the spirit of things. Having downed yet another round of champagne (this time from hollows in the bases of bottles), it is time to be driven to lunch and father Launois, a ruddy cheeked man of the soil, shepherds us into his ancient bus that he will drive uphill himself—  well, to the sound of Rock ‘n’ Roll. The Americans are awestruck, a couple of Belgian oldies break into dance, the bus swerves wildly, and we, well, we just enjoy the liberty of not having to mind our drinks or manners or worry about having to drive back home.

France has recently tightened its rules on drinking and driving and some of the champenois that I meet during my week’s stay in the region attribute the falling market for the bubbly in their own country to this. The biggest consumers of Champagne, traditionally, are the British. But Japan is big and, of course, China and India are growing in importance thanks to the (at least the perceived) shift in the market for all luxury. So at this point in time in the region it helps to be an Indian — even if you may possibly be the first from Bharat Desh to arrive at a chateau. “We had no idea that yours was such a great country,” says monsieur Bruno Paillard, owner of the third biggest house in Champagne. As a first generation champenois in a country where everyone is busy tracing roots to medieval times, almost to when the bubbly was first invented ostensibly in the monasterys, Paillard is an unusual man. Having started only in the 1980s, when he had difficulty buying up traditional, underground cellars, he decided to build his own over the ground and technologically advanced. His facility in Reims, all glass and steel and usually inaccessible to tourists is, in fact, quite the exception in the dark, dank, subterranean world. His bubbly, of course, is special not just because he ages it longer than required by law but because (and like Bollinger, the James Bond Champagne) he uses only the first press or cuvee of grape juice— also referring to this clearly on his label as “premier cuvee”. Unfortunately, this is a drink that you will not just find in India.

As we sit by the fireplace in Paillard’s home, listening to the bubbles (very fine, because of extra ageing) in our Rose exactly how we’ve been taught to, Paillard is keen to question us about India. It is a market that he is watching very carefully “because I will have to come there eventually”. His wife has personally cooked a simple dinner for us, served up in exquisite Rosenthal plates, and as the cheese course arrives (before dessert in France), Paillard is curious about India again. “Do you have cheese in your country?” he hesitates. We explain; all the while thinking of the Jaguar that stands outside and the man who started off with 15,000 Euros at 27 years of age, raising the sum having ironically sold off an old, family-owned Jaguar.

Despite the fact that such few Indians have attempted it, a Champagne trail is not difficult to organise at all. From Paris, it could be a day trip with a visit to a Champagne house cellars and tasting built in. Or, it could be more elaborate taking up the weekend; more places, better wines. In any case, the ancient town of Reims is probably where you will be based. Having got its name from Bishop Remi, the town is known for its Notre Dame cathedral where the first of the French kings were coronated. The town was destroyed during World War I and now its inhabitants say that they are prepared for any eventual nuclear war too —thanks to the cellars. Dig up the streets of Reims and you are likely to blunder into a cellar, very deep.

Cattier, situated in the village of Chigny-les-Roses, is the maker of Armand de Brignac or the Ace of Spades as it is called in America having been taken up by the rapper and “bling” community as replacement for Cristal. Two years ago, after an ill-advised statement from Frederic Rouzaud, managing director of Louis Roederer, the 230-year-old Champagne house that makes Cristal, the high wattage bubbly was “banned” ffrom America’s clubland. Ace of Spades promptly stepped in, in all its glittery packaging that some have described as pure marketing. Monsieur Cattier, the patriarch, proudly shows off the new line and we can’t take our eyes off the gold and silver, even pink bottles. There is also the house’s top-of-the-line Clos de Moulin but what is remarkable here are the Cattier cellars. The deepest in Champagne (30 m), they are dug up tp three levels, each with its own distinct “architecture”: Gothic, Roman and Rennaisance. The oldest parts date back 200 years and it is possible to find inscriptions on the walls from then.

At Veuve Cliquot, the cellars are almost as daunting but this time they remind me of the Star Wars world with their futuristic runway lights. As far as tours go, this one is the best orchestrated. Perfect with our English-speaking Polish guide who took a little less than two years to soak up just about everything about Champagne, the company and its lore. The company, of course, belongs to the LVMH group and is sister to the better-known but less- revered-these days Moet et Chandon. Our tour kicks off with a visit to the museum showing the brand’s history from its days under “widow” (vueve is French for that) Cliquot who made it a bestseller in Tsarist Russia. Interestingly, the term “widow” on the label (of a drink meant to celebrate) was a mark of quality since, at that time, it wasn’t uncommon to find champagne businesses headed by hardy young widows. But history apart, the most interesting part of the museum is the collection of counterfeit Yellow Labels from all over the world. The tour concludes with a tasting and you can also buy their wines, including the decadent Grand Dame rose, at the boutique. For us though, it is yet to end.

There’s another lunch, this time at a private house owned by the company, with an ancient and impossibly-shaped Cedar in the garden that looks right out of Enid Blyton. “No amount of money can buy you a stay here,” our guide hushes, “Only guests and friends of Cliquot are invited.” The house overlook a vineyard with vines planted by Cliquot’s “Women of the Year” guests from around the world. Winners apparently “water” the vines with Champagne – because no irrigation is permitted.

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2 Responses to “My Visit to the Champagne Country”

  1. Adam says:

    You paint a beautiful rich picture and I will certainly add the Champagne Country to my “list of places I must visit”!

  2. Anoothi says:

    Hi Adam
    Glad you liked the post. Wl put out another one on the “Indian Napa Valley” too– if u r interested in India, check that out too!