Trip to France

The Grapes of Froth

By Anita Draycott

If ever a nation has mastered the art of living well, it’s the French. If, like me, you can resist a glass of bubbly, keep in mind that the Champagne regions is a fast train ride from Paris. Cheers.

“Come quickly! I am drinking the stars!” The legend goes that Dom Pérignon, a Benedictine monk and cellar master of the Abbey Hautvillers near Epernay, uttered these words after his first sip of his accidental creation of effervescent wine in the 1600s. The star-struck monk may not have “invented” champagne but he is credited with perfecting the bottling and fermentation process that harnesses those bubbles to produce a wine that sustains its sparkle.

The Champagne region, about 145 km northeast of Paris, is the most northerly of French wine areas. Reims, dominated by a 13th century gothic cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to several prestigious producers. At Domaine Pommery they display modern art in the cellars so you get a champagne and art tour rolled into one. Nearby, book a table at Château les Crayères, a posh hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Fifteen minutes south, tiny Epernay, is home to more fabled champagne houses, easily visited on foot. Moët et Chandon produces the legendary Dom Pérignon, and offers terrific tours of its vast chalk cellars where the bottles are aged.

The Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), the industry’s governing body, stringently enforces its regulations. The grapes, the costliest in France, must be handpicked. Adding to the expense is the minimum one-year aging time and the labour-intensive second fermentation whereby every day for several months an expert remueur turns and tilts each bottle until it’s upside down with the sediment deposited against the cork. The cork and sediment are then disgorged and a sugar mixture is added.

Like many masterpieces, this collaboration between man and nature does not come cheap. But then one doesn’t launch ships or celebrate momentous occasions with anything but the best.

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