In France’s eponymous wine region, even babies start life with a little fizz on their lips. Carli Ratcliff ventures into the charming towns and historic cellars, where she finds fine food to pair with her daily bubbles and meets locals as effervescent as the drink itself.
By
Carli Ratcliff

22 Mar 2013 - 1:09 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

Champagne was the first thing I tasted," says Michel Mermillod. A resident of France’s Champagne region since birth, Michel tells the story of his grandfather wetting his lips with Champagne in the maternity ward of the local hospital. 'It is tradition – all the babies born in Epernay are welcomed with bubbles."

Champagne has been at the centre of Michel’s life ever since. He worked for Champagne houses all his life, including a 30-year stint as head of export for Perrier-Jouët. Now retired, he is a guide for the tiny town of Hautvillers, in the heart of France’s most famous winemaking region. 'Champagne is a pure product of this countryside," he says, motioning to the vast rows of vines before us. 'It is a product of the soil, of the climate and of the people of this region."

Michel, now 69, is passionate about France’s most famous wine, and proud of its worldwide reputation. 'We really do live by Madame Lily Bollinger’s credo," he says. Recalling her words from memory, he begins: 'I drink my Champagne 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," he laughs. 'Champagne is a daily drink in these parts," he explains. 'We don’t ask, 'Why are you drinking Champagne?’ we ask, 'Why are you not?’"

As we climb the steep streets, lined with pretty stone townhouses, he recounts the story of Champagne and its alleged discovery by local Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon, cellar master of the Abbey of Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers. Visitors flock to the small town, keen to pay homage to the monk, who is buried in the local church, and who, local legend has it, perfected the means of sealing the sparkle in the bottle. 'Come quickly, I’m tasting stars," Michel says, quoting Pérignon.

Internationally, Pérignon is credited as the first person to have blended grape varietals to create a single Champagne. Previously, all Champagne was made from pinot noir grapes. Moët & Chandon’s premier Champagne (and the monk’s namesake) Dom Pérignon, is made nearby in Epernay, the region’s winemaking centre.

Located on Epernay’s avenue de Champagne, Moët & Chandon’s cellars are open to the public and more than 25 million bottles are housed here. Initially, the Moët’s family business enjoyed success under the stewardship of Jean-Rémy Moët, the grandson of founder Claude Moët. Jean-Rémy (for a time also the mayor of Epernay) bought the famed vineyards of the Abbey of Hautvillers and fostered a friendship with Napoleon Bonaparte, which saw Moët & Chandon become the official Champagne of the royal court, and internationally famous.

North of Epernay lies the picturesque town of Villedommange. Like Michel, local winemaker Pierre Fresne started life with Champagne on his lips. Pierre is a seventh-generation grape grower, and third-generation winemaker. His grandfather and great uncles started the Fresne Ducret label. Ducret is his great-grandmother’s maiden name. A revered local cook, she worked for the family of Chateau de Villedommange as their cook for many years. Today, Pierre is winemaker, having taken over from his father Michel in 2006, and his Canadian-born wife Daniella does the cooking.

Daniella has lived in France for almost nine years. The couple met in Burgundy where Pierre was undertaking a winemaking apprenticeship. Daniella now speaks fluent French and has undertaken pastry and bread classes at Le Cordon Bleu. Having set up a dedicated teaching kitchen at the family’s cellar door, Daniella conducts bespoke cooking classes for tourists. She takes her students through the techniques required to produce archetypal French dishes and pastries, including éclairs, and those particular to the region such as pain d’épices, a soft spiced loaf (made with rye flour), which is sliced and served with foie gras.

Daniella matches each course with a different cuvée or blend of the family’s Champagne, explaining that not all Champagnes are created equal; different blends of grapes and length of maturation result in completely different styles, which match to dishes accordingly.

Today’s class begins with a glass of bubbles as we make choux pastry and pipe éclairs. Later we will fill them with potimarron purée (a local pumpkin) and paint them with a honey caramel glaze. A soup of chestnuts and apples with croûtons de pain d’épices serves as the first course, before the main event – a roasted loin of pork with lardons and sage. The pork will be served with a traditional gratin dauphinois, made using charlotte potatoes, one of several varieties grown by Daniella’s father-in-law. As the eclairs cool and the pork cooks, we walk around the village. Daniella points out the château and we visit the family’s cellars.

On arrival, we are greeted by Pierre and his father Michel who are busy 'disgorging’ Champagne. This is the crucial step in converting still wine to Champagne. The process sees the sedimentary yeast removed from the bottle. Sugar liquor is then added, before the Champagne cork is put in place ready for ageing in the cellars.

The family bought their cellars from the house of Krug in the 1970s. As we descend the staircase into darkness, the temperature drops to 11 degrees, the air is moist and the humidity high.

The Fresne’s small operation produces 50,000 to 60,000 bottles of Champagne each year using 1.2 kilograms of grapes to make each 750ml bottle. Champagne is made from a blend of chardonnay, pinot meunier and pinot noir grapes. The bottles will sit for a minimum of 24 months (non-vintage Champagne) and must rest for at least three years to be considered vintage.

The region’s soil, rich in chalk and sea minerals, is credited with possessing the je ne sais quoi that gives Champagne its unique characteristics. It is this same soil that also gives local wheat and rye its renowned strength and depth of flavour.

Christophe Zunic arrives at his bakery Le Four a Bois at 2am every day. A second-generation baker, Christophe, who was born and raised in Epernay, bought his boulangerie and pâtisserie in the centre of Reims seven years ago. Locals say he has the best bread in town, and they happily line up to secure a baguette or boule of his award-winning biodynamic sourdough. At 5pm the shop is full of customers, as Christophe bakes twice a day, meaning that bread, warm from the oven, is also available on the way home from work.

Using organic, biodynamic flour from the nearby village of Rancourt-sur-Ornain, Christophe adds water and a small amount of whey to make a dough, which he then leaves to ferment for three days. 'There is natural yeast in the air," he says. 'I don’t need to add commercial yeast to the dough; letting it rest in a warm environment is enough," he says. 'Winemakers will tell you the same thing, natural yeast spores float through the air here; they are part of the region’s terroir."

Cheesemonger, Christophe Charlet of La Cave aux Fromages overlooks the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre from his shop on la place du Forum in Reims. The family has owned and run the shop for the past 39 years. Madame Charlet passed the store to her son Christophe who inherited his mother’s passion for local cheeses.

Chaource is the area’s most famous cheese. Made from cow’s milk, in the nearby town of Aube, Chaource is AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée). Made by hand, the cheese stands just six centimetres high and 10 centimetres wide, and appears on most cheese trolleys and menus across Champagne.

Cutting through the pillowy penicillium candidum crust, the cheese is soft on the edges and chalky on the interior but manages to remain creamy on the palate thanks to its 50 per cent fat content.

A plate of local delicacies known as La Champenoise is served at Café du Palais in Reims. The plate arrives with half a Chaource, next to a piece of the washed-rind cow’s-milk cheese Langres, another renowned cheese that is produced locally. There are also slices of 'Reims ham’ – cured ham shoulder, baked and basted with Champagne – accompanied by yet another glass of bubbles.

The cafe has been in the Vogt family since 1930, and it is an institution loved by locals and tourists alike who fill the tables at lunchtime for a long relaxed repast of traditional French and regional specialties. The interior is rich art deco; patrons relax into velvet banquettes, gilt-framed paintings and mirrors line the walls and a giant stained-glass ceiling lets the light in.

La Champenoise is followed by confit au canard (duck confit) and a tarte aux pommes (apple pie). Champagne is offered with every course, to everyone in the restaurant. The cafe has long been the centre of Reims society, a venue for jazz soirées, fashion shows, long lunches and post-show suppers following an evening at the Théâtre du Palais across the street.

Jean-François Vogt is the fourth-generation owner and manager of the cafe. His sister Isabelle is in charge of the kitchen, and his wife, Delphine and brother-in-law Sébastien work the floor with Jean-François, who greets the customers just as his father and great-grandfather (the cafe’s founder) did before him.

Likewise, the oldest biscuit factory in France, Maison Fossier, was established by a local family. Maison Fossier is the home of the biscuit rose de Reims, the region’s most famous sweet. Served with Champagne, the meringue-like biscuit rose is made from egg whites and sugar, flavoured with vanilla and coloured with cochineal (a small insect from which crimson-coloured dye is derived), originally added to disguise the vanilla’s tiny black seeds, while at the same time imparting the rose blush.

The biscuit rose became popular in the 1800s, loved by kings Louis XV, Charles X and Louis XI who served them to guests at his coronation. The biscuits were quickly adopted as a fashionable accompaniment to Champagne by Reims society. Still loved by locals, they are a popular base for desserts, including gâteau Champenois, a cake that is studded with crushed biscuit rose, raisins and candied fruit.

No-one leaves Reims without a tin of biscuit roses or a bottle of Champagne.

THE HIT LIST

DO
Tour Hautvillers
Undertake a morning tour of Hautvillers, the town of Dom Pierre Pérignon. Office de Tourisme D’Hautvillers,+33 3 26 57 06 35, tourisme-hautvillers.com.

Moët & Chandon tour
Tour the immense and historic cellars of this renowned Champagne house. 20 avenue de Champagne, Epernay, +33 3 26 51 20 20, moet.com.

Fresne Ducret cooking classes
Daniella will teach you how to cook local recipes using regional produce. Champagne Fresne Ducret, 10 rue Saint-Vincent, Villedommange,+33 3 26 49 24 60, www.champagne-fresne-ducret.com.

STAY
Grand Hotel Continental
In the heart of Reims, this small hotel is just two minutes’ walk from the TGV station and close to restaurants, food and wine shops and other Reims attractions. 93 place Drouet d’Erlon, Reims, +33 3 26 40 39 35, grandhotelcontinental.com.

Relais & Château
Les Crayères and Hostellerie La Briqueterie are two Relais & Château properties that capture the essence of Champagne’s countryside and also offer exceptional dining experiences.

Les Crayères, 64 boulevard Henry-Vasnier, Reims, +33 3 24 90 00, lescrayeres.com.
Hostellerie La Briqueterie, 4 route de Sézanne, Vinay (via Epernay),+33 3 26 59 99 99, labriqueterie.fr.

EAT
Café du Palais
Extensively bombed in World War I, much of Reims was rebuilt in the 1920s. Art deco influence can be seen in many of the cafes and restaurants on the place d’Erlon. The Vogt family’s cafe is the locals’ favourite. Order the plate of local delicacies, La Champenoise. 14 place Myron Herrick, Reims, +33 3 26 47 52 54, cafedupalais.fr.

Reims Flo, 96
A traditional French brasserie in a grand space, opposite the Grand Hotel Continental. Attentive waitstaff in white jackets balance huge trays above their heads, delivering classic French dishes to hungry patrons. 96 place Drouet d’Erlon, Reims, +33 3 26 91 40 50, floreims.com.

SHOP
Le Four a Bois
Try Christophe Zunic’s biodynamic sourdough. 80 rue de Vesle, Reims, +33 3 26 47 40 20.

Maison Fossier
Home of the famous biscuit rose. 25 cours Jean-Baptiste Langlet, Reims, +33 3 26 47 59 84.

La Vinocave
One-stop shop for local wines and Champagnes. 43 place Drouet d’Erlon, Reims, +33 3 26 40 60 07.

La Cave aux Fromages
Local cheeses including Chaource and Langres. 12 place du Forum, Reims, +33 3 26 47 83 05.

Photography by Helen Cathcart