Above: Les Crayeres, a grand 20-room hotel outside Reims.
There are pleasures aplenty on a drive through Champagne, the famed French wine region that never loses its sparkle
By Carli Ratcliff
Photographs by Helen Cathcart
“Champagne?” says Jérôme Poret, the concierge at my hotel in Paris. “As Madame Bollinger used to say, ‘I never touch it—unless I’m thirsty.’ ” Smiling at this bit of Gallic wit, he then hands us the keys to the car he has arranged for our trip east into the countryside of Champagne-Ardenne, where I plan to spend the weekend sipping the world’s most famous sparkling wines at the source—and dining well along the way.
From Paris’s grand old Gare de L’Est train station, it takes only 45 minutes to reach Reims, Champagne’s regional capital, by high-speed TGV. But we’ve elected for a more leisurely passage along the A4 motorway, an efficient stretch of road that runs all the way to Strasbourg. There’s not much to see beyond the southeastern suburbs of Paris, but at the 90-minute mark, past Château-Theirry, the landscape opens up to romantic wine-country vistas, with grapevines and old stone farmhouses bathed in the slanting light of late afternoon.
Soon we’re in Reims. The city is a de rigueur stop on the region’s route touristique, and notable as well for its 800-year-old cathedral, a great Gothic masterpiece where kings of France were once crowned and toasted with bubbly. Nearby is the grande maison of G.H. Mumm, producers of the most popular Champagne in France. Chef de cave Didier Mariotti greets us, and leads us underground into cellars where nearly 25 million bottles lie aging. “I love the peace of the cellar,” he says. “No phones, no one working, just complexity quietly happening.”
In his subterranean sanctum, Mariotti discourses on grape blends—Champagne is classically made of two-thirds Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and one-third Chardonnay —and techniques, such as riddling, or remuage (slowly rotating bottles to a neck-down position, allowing the lees to settle at the cap), and dégorgement, a process that disgorges the sediment before the final corking. The tour ends with a tasting of Mumm’s signature Brut Cordon Rouge, which I’ll leave to more refined palates than mine to describe. Suffice it to say, it’s easy to understand why this deep-flavored champagne is the country’s top seller.