ALSACE-LORRAINE 2006 - Week 3

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WEEK 3 NEWS - Reims and Champagne country:

We moved south, seeking solace from the death and desolation of the Somme battlefields, to the Cathedrals and Champagne country around Laon, Reims and Epernay. But the foul weather that had bogged us down in the Somme followed; day after sodden day of relentless rain, and the météo gave little room for optimism. In all our years of travelling, this had been the most depressing passages of inclement weather ever experienced.
                                                   Click on map for details 
With time lost through rain, we were forced to postpone planned
visits to Arras, Cambrai and St Quentin for a later trip, and passing close to the source of the Somme, we moved on to Laon (pronounced Lon) to camp at the town's municipal campsite, La Chenaie. Fully kitted out in waterproofs, we walked up into the medieval Ville Haute, set high on a ridge above the modern town and Picardie plain. The town's highlight is the magnificent Cathedral Notre Dame, a 12th century Gothic masterpiece, incorporating in its day innovative design features emulated in later major Gothic cathedrals at Chartres, Reims and Notre Dame in Paris. Despite the gloomy weather, the nave was light and airy, straightforward lofty lines of Gothic verticality, and the east end glowed from the subtle colours of the medieval stained glass.

In the continuing rain, we drove the 60 kms to Reims, to camp at the delightful town of Epernay, over the vine-covered hills down into the Marne valley. The municipal campsite provided an excellent base for our 6 day stay in Champagne. The staff were a credit to the town: nothing was too much trouble, and at least the météo had improved for our visit to Reims by train from Epernay. The surrounding countryside was so attractive with geometric lines of vines stretching away into the distance, but the bustle of the city when we reached Reims was bewildering. We found the magnificent Gothic cathedral, a vast and complex structure so much more ornately decorated than Laon (Photo 1). In a small chapel off the gloomy nave, a statue of Joan of Arc stood as reminder of her successful campaigns against the English in the 1420s, leading to the Dauphin's coronation in Reims Cathedral as Charles VII.

Our plan now was to visit the prestigious Champagne Grandes Maisons for tastings, and had made an appointment at Veuve-Cliquot-Ponsardin. But here fate intervened: on our arrival, Paul collapsed in pain. An emergency ambulance whisked us to Reims University Hospital where Paul spent the night being investigated and treated for a kidney problem. Sheila meanwhile had to catch the train back to our camp at Epernay. Much improved the following day, and issued with continuing medication, Paul was discharged shaken by the experience; we could continue with the trip. Every situation however negative has its learning potential, and the lessons from this were: carry your E111 card and travel insurance details with you at all times; ours were in the camper 15 kms away at Epernay, and the ambulance journey alone cost €76, to be reclaimed via the bureaucracy of our travel insurance. The hospital bill would have cost over €1000, but as an emergency, was covered by the E111 when produced the following day. The event did wonders also in extending our French vocabulary: we now know words like kidney, pain, drip, x-ray, nurse, ward, blanket, admission and discharge. The clinical staff were superbly helpful, providing us with medical reports for our insurance. The admin staff however were unsmiling harpies, and with characteristic ill-grace acknowledged the validity of our E111. After 24 hours of worry, we were back on the road to continue our trip; and to celebrate the day in a right and proper way, we drank Champagne at the glitzy palace of Moet et Chandon.

We spent an educative 4 days visiting Champagne producers both large and small, tasting their produce, marvelling at their silly prices, and learning much about the production process. The experience also helped to debunk some of the mystique and to discover that quality of wine can vary so much between producers: high price does not necessarily guarantee high quality. September's arrival brought the sun at last, much needed to ripen this year's grapes in the time for the forthcoming harvest (vendange). We toured the vineyards of the Montagne de Reims, amid rows and rows of Pinot Noir vines (1 of 3 cépages permitted by the Champagne AOC along with Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier), which were already ripening and tasting sweet (Photo 2). We spent a happy afternoon enjoying the hospitality of Daniel Dumont, an independent vigneron at Rilly la Montagne; his daughter Marie-Claire showed us around the 90 feet deep cellars cut into the chalk (Photo 3). We finished in their sampling room with generous glasses of their Brut and Vintage Champagne, and were tempted into buying some for the coming winter.  Given the northerly extremes of Champagne for vines, every ray of sunshine is precious to ensure ripening of the berries. Although the AOC allows only hand picking at vendange expected in 3 weeks, machines can be seen at this time of year lightly trimming away unnecessary tendrils along the tops of the neatly pruned rows of vines (Photo 4). Photo 5 shows Moet et Chandon's vines growing on the south facing slopes at Hautvillers. We have seen many curious road signs during our travels, but one unique to vine country is shown left. In Rilly church, wood carvings on the pew-ends show motifs from Champagne production (see right).

We had learnt so much during our time here about vine growing, and the process of Champagne production the legendary 'father' of which was Dom Perignon. This 18th century cellar-master at Hautvillers Abbey is credited with crucial innovations which gave Champagne its characteristics: careful blending of still wines from different cépages and terroirs to give unique character, secondary fermentation in thick bottles to create the sparkle, and long-maturing at constant temperature in chalk cellars. His statue  now stands alongside Moet et Chandon's prestigious building in the Avenue de Champagne at Epernay (Photo 6).

The Champagne grapes are harvested by hand in late September, and immediately subjected to light,  successive pressings to extract clear white juice from the black grapes (Pinot Noir and Meunier) and the white Chardonnay grapes. Primary fermentation of the separate grape musts takes place in stainless steel vats over 2~3 months of winter, and according to the judgement of the cellar-master or vigneron, the resultant still white wines are blended (assemblage) to produce the required character of the future Champagne. The final blend is bottled and primed with sugar and yeast (liqueur de tirage) which starts the secondary fermentation in the bottle to produce the effervescence (prise en mousse). The bottles are then sealed  with a crown-cork and plastic inner cap (bidule), and stood horizontally in the darkness of the cellar on racks (col sur latte) for up to 3 years (longer for Vintage Champagnes) for aging (vieillissement). During this maturing process, the yeast sediment (depôt) collects along the side of the bottle and is said to give the Champagne its characteristic taste. After the required period of aging, the bottles are stood in a wooden rack (pupitre) for hand-turning and progressively inverted so that the deposit gradually settles into the bidule of the inverted bottle (remuage); nowadays, this labour-intensive process is mechanised on computer-controlled turning racks (gyro-palettes). The necks of the inverted bottles are immersed into an ice-bath which forms a frozen bung of wine trapping the deposit; the cap is removed and pressure inside the bottle pops out the frozen plug to leave a clear sparkling wine (dégorgement). This is then topped up with a 'dosage' of wine, sweetened according to whether brut or demi-sec Champagne is required, the wired cork inserted, and bottles labelled and packed for shipping.

During our stay, we visited both larger Champagne Houses and smaller producers. Our experiences drew several important conclusions. The most obvious is that the prestigious name of Champagne makes buying an expensive issue: expect to pay around €15~20 for a basic brut or rosé at smaller producers, and €20~30 upwards at larger Maisons (a Vintage Dom Perignon at Moet et Chandon would set you back some €200 !). By all means visit the Grandes Maisons; it is fascinating being beguiled by glitzy atmosphere and elegant dolly-birds, but quality will not rise proportionately to the inevitability of outrageously higher prices - you are just paying for the name. Our best experience  by far was the House of Mercier at Epernay : an informative presentation in refined surroundings and excellent quality of product - their Cuvée Eugene Mercier (named after their founder) is a beautiful, rounded wine with full-bodied, charactersome nose and taste, at €20.   (www.champagnemercier.fr)

While visiting smaller producers is a satisfying experience, this requires more care: in our experience they are a mixed bunch, either exceptionally good or unspeakably bad. Trust your own taste and judgement and ignore the hype: if it tastes or smells wrong, 'off' or uncertain, it probably is, so just walk away  with a 'thank you but no thank you' After all, they are trying to extract €15 a bottle from you. In one village, Bouzy, we experienced both the bad and the good. We walked out of one producer (not to be named and shamed, but close to the church and mairie in a side street), refusing to pay €15 for a third-rate wine. 200 yards away at Herbert Beaufort, an independent vigneron, we received a delightful welcome to taste and buy their beautiful Brut Réserve, pleasantly fruity and refreshing in nose and taste. So there we have it: not for the faint-hearted in pocket or spirit, but a rewarding if impoverishing experience.

Before moving on, we had to return to Reims to visit the beautiful Gothic Basilica of St Remi where Clovis Kings of the heathen Franks was baptised in 496 AD and Charlemagne's successors were buried (Photo 7). The basilica had been severely damaged by shelling in WW1 when Reims found itself on the front line of fighting (see right); it has now been grandly restored.

We also had to complete our visit to Veuve-Cliquot-Ponsardin, prematurely curtailed by Paul's collapse. The staff there, and particularly Sabine responsible for visitor reception were as welcoming as they had been caring the previous week. We were given a VIP reception and a private tour of the cellars where Paul tried his hand at remuage. We were told about the House's 19th century Grande Dame de Champagne, Barbe Nicole Cliquot-Ponsardin, who despite being widowed at a young age (Veuve= widow, hence the company name) went on to develop the firm into a thriving business. The visit concluded with a private tasting in their elegant salon, a fitting climax to our over-eventful week in Champagne.

Next week, it's back to the gruesome slaughter of WW1 when we move on to Verdun, where in 1916 the Germans had reckoned to 'bleed the French army white' and force France's surrender. They almost succeeded, killing 100s of 1000s of both French and their own young men in the trenches around Verdun. More next week.

Sheila and Paul                                                                                Published: Friday 8 September

Music this week:
Edith Piaf: Non, je ne regrette rien


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