If you’ve been following my posts and tweets about holiday time, you’ll know that I decided to be green, and to travel from Italy to France by train. From Perugia to Milan via Florence, stay the night in Milan, then take the train the next day to Basel, then to Strasbourg, and then to Reims. Two days, five trains (a route something like this). Basta!
I started on that epic overland trip expecting it to descend first into farce, then chaos and finally bitter recrimination, thereby allowing me to write something amusing and entertaining about the trip. But, in the end, it all went like clockwork. All trains were on time, and everything was clean and efficient. So instead, I will just muse on my time in the Champagne region.
Champagne lies to the east of Paris, around the cities of Reims and Epernay. The pretty landscape is rolling rather than dramatic, covered in hills, small towns, forests and, of course, the famous vineyards. We rented a house in the pretty village of Orbais-l’Abbaye.
Ahead of the trip, my friends and I consciously chose to focus on visiting small producers instead of the big names, and we purchased in heroic quantities. You certainly pay less buying champagne in this way, but price is not the point. Visiting the small producers allows you to try different wines and to taste the various varieties and get to know what you prefer. Not that there is anything wrong with Taittinger or Veuve Clicquot but I can easily get them in London. But a bottle of Jean Gimonnet? That’s a different story.
Two of the biggest factors that affect the flavour of the final champagne are the area where the grapes are grown (so you can compare the same type of champagne from different producers) and the types of grapes used to make the champagne (so the same producer makes a number of different drinks). So yes, you need to visit a few different champagne producers – tough, I know! In terms of grape varieties, champagnes are made with combinations of chardonnay, pinot noir and/or pinot meunier. What can be surprising to a lot of people if that the two pinot varieties are actually black grapes. However, as the colour is only in the grape skin, during the pressing process, the producer just takes care not to crush the skins, so that only the clear juice is extracted. Even so, the fuller bodied juice of the darker varieties will be apparent in the finished drink, producing champagnes with a heavier flavour and slightly darker colour. In contrast, if a higher proportion of green chardonnay grapes are used, then you have a lighter, fresher champagne, which is most obvious in the 100% chardonnay blanc des blancs which is a typical bright, floral aperitif champagne. In comparison, the more pinot meunier and/or pinot noir, the more golden the colour of the champagne, with a stronger aroma and more pronounced flavours, such as caramel or baked bread.
So far, so clear. But what about pink champagne? If you don’t get the colour from the grape skins, where does it come from? Well, there are two ways. Either the producer will actually add a little red grape juice at the end of the process anyway, which tints the champagne pink and adds a subtle flavour from the black skins, or the producer uses a proportion of red grape juice right at the start of the fermentation process anyway. In the latter process, the black grape juice has more of an impact on the final colour and taste, with more pronounced red fruit aromas and flavours coming out.
What this visit has shown me is the importance of knowing what you like and why you like it. I’ve been in bars in London where someone had demanded bottles of “big name” champagne, and proceeded to brashly show off while drinking it. I just wonder what their reaction would be it they were faced with a bottle of a small producer’s award-winning vintage champagne? Hmmm…
In addition to all this champagne, there were many dinners and lunches in our holiday house, a marathon bramble picking session, and apricot and bramble jam made from what we found in the area. All sounds divine, right? Well, not quite. The place we stayed…it was a lovely old château, set in beautiful rambling gardens with views of the local abbey, but it had seen better days. The cleaner had been in the service of the owner for the last 35 years, and let’s just say her eye for detail had slipped. Someone (not me!) had to spend two hours upon arrival scrubbing, bleaching and disinfecting, and fly swatting was elevated to something of an Olympic standard. It was difficult to disguise laughs when the cleaner announced that she comes for three hours, three times a week “whether it is necessary or not”. Well, it was necessary. What really irritated me was not that the place needed a darn good clean, de-cluttering and some strategic yet sympathetic modernisation, but that it had the potential to be a truly stunning house which would really showcase the very best of the French countryside. It just needs a little love and care lavished on it. Let’s hope that things change.
With champagne bought and the holiday at an end, the final leg of the trip involved a train trip to Reims and a few hours wandering around the centre. I popped into the fabulous Cafe Waïda for coffee and a little mid-morning snack, and was in awe of their truly amazing cakes and desserts. A very old style of cafe – inside there were matronly women putting tarts, macarons, petit fours and fancy sweets into elaborate bags, and behind them, a sleek-looking art deco interior. I went for tartlette aux mirabelles, and it was sublime.
Next, into the TGV and off to Paris. We arrived, and the heavens opened, so we ducked somewhere for lunch and waited for the sun to arrive. The remainder of the afternoon was very relaxed, just spent wandering in the Marais district, then up past République and on to the canal (seriously – who knew that Paris had a canal?). Just time for a glass of rosé at the bobo Chez Prune before heading to Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar back to London. And all of this with way too many bottles, jars and little foodie treats stuffed into my groaning luggage.
I love to travel. And I love to get back home. And I love to sit at home, eating and drinking the things I buy on my travels, remembering those good times.
It’s been a great summer!