We pop the cork on a festive season favourite. Check out the cellar doors, sample the food and discover the true Champagne lifestyle.
Wine regions have a habit of popping up in beautiful settings. Take Champagne, for instance. Picture hills rolling gently through soft, filtered light and colourful vine-covered slopes interspersed with flashes of pure white chalk.
The beauty of Champagne has long been a tourist drawcard, with the Roman outpost of Reims dating back almost two millennia. However, as Christian Pol-Roger once quipped, “Unfortunately, many of the tourists arrived with guns.” Indeed, Reims is midway between Paris and the German border, and the Napoleonic Wars and two World Wars raged across Champagne’s vinous fields. Entwined with this turbulent history are the myths and mysteries surrounding the evolution of champagne as a sparkling wine. The struggle to define and confine the region was only settled with the declaration of the Champagne appellation in 1935.
Eighty years later, UNESCO granted the Champagne region World Heritage status for its “hillsides, houses and cellars”, also mentioning two of its special attractions: the historic vineyards of Hautvillers and the grand avenue de Champagne in Épernay. A visit to both is a must.
In the village of Hautvillers is the Abbaye Saint-Pierre, where the legendary Dom Pérignon (1638-1715) prayed and made wine. The monk reputedly “invented” champagne but this is plainly a myth, as there were many steps in the evolution from a sour, still wine to the sparkling gems we drink today. But he had the vision and skill to blend a mosaic of both red and white grapes for the clear, still-base wine that’s the key to great champagne. Today, more than two-thirds of Champagne’s grapes are red – meunier and pinot noir – and the balance is chardonnay.
On the avenue de Champagne, the magnificent bastions of Moët & Chandon, Pol Roger and Perrier-Jouët rub shoulders with lesser lights such as Boizel, de Venoge and Mercier. The fact that nearly 1.5 billion bottles of maturing champagne are lying up to 30 metres below the avenue is a startling demonstration of just how big the industry has become. Champagne’s 34,000 hectares of vines produced 268 million bottles in 2016 – and that was a weather-affected vintage.
This celebratory drink knows no peer and exploring this bucolic region is one of life’s joys. While you can’t miss the grandes marques, don’t overlook the tiny farmhouse producer with a rustic “Vente et dégustation” sign on the gate – there are ample sparkling bargains to be had.
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Veuve Clicquot Vintage Brut, Reims – 2008, $170
Champagne’s most famous widow, Madame Clicquot, would be proud of this elegant wine from the stellar 2008 vintage. It marks a return to fermentation in oak, giving depth and structure to the lifted aromatics of stone fruit and lemon curd. Its power and persistency go well with salmon blinis.
Larmandier-Bernier Latitude Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, Vertus – $98
Sophie and Pierre Larmandier lead the “grower champagne” movement, following biodynamic farming and traditional winemaking practices to craft this gem. Aromas of grapefruit and honeyed toast have sufficient cut and thrust to accompany a lobster salad.
Brut Rosé, Mareuil-sur-Ay – $155
This is a benchmark rosé from a top-class house – even the shapely bottle is sensual. Its pretty pale-pink colour belies a wine of character and complexity with perfumes of crushed strawberry and fresh pear, a soft yet enticing palate and an extraordinarily finely honed finale. Tuna sashimi, please.
Brut Reserve, Reims – $113
The core of this brilliant example of artful winemaking is from the awesome 2008 vintage, backed by 40 per cent reserve wines. Rich and concentrated with a toffee apple and earthy mushroom bouquet, it’s vital with a burst of bubbly energy propelling the finish. Enjoy it with parmesan wafers.
Pol Roger Cuvée
Sir Winston Churchill, Épernay – 2004, $368
Sir Winston Churchill was a formidable man and the champagne named in his honour is equally commanding. Pinot noir leads the way with an intense red-fruit bouquet backed by warm brioche and marzipan, while razor-sharp acidity extends the finish. Perfect with roast quail.