Champagne is the wine of kings and oligarchs, demand way outstrips production and prices are merciless; but it wasn’t always so. Planted by the Romans like so many other parts of France, the Champagne region produced weedy wines before the seventeenth century as the area was too far north to guarantee ripe grapes. Only in very hot summers would the Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes of the Montagne, Marne and the Côte des Blancs visited on the tour achieve levels of colour and alcohol that would have rendered champagne comparable to the great wines of Burgundy to the south, where the cocktail of grape varieties was largely the same. In those years a still, red Bouzy is a proper wine, but in others it is more likely to land in the blending vats where sparkling wines are made.
Although champagne was the wine of coronations in Reims, where we are based, it was not until the seventeenth century that it found an international vocation. Pierre Pérignon, a Benedictine monk at the Abbey of Hautvillers in the Marne Valley and English merchants doctoring shipments of new wines, struck on a way of giving the wine a fresh twist. Laced with sugar and run into strong bottles before the spring, champagne underwent a second fermentation which not only resulted in more acceptable alcohol levels but it sparkled as well.
Sparkling champagne was an instant success. It was the fizz of Charles II’s court and the louche days of the French Regency following the death of Louis XIV. While still champagne continued to be made the sparkling stuff was always in demand when people were in the mood for fun. It had become the favourite of poets and painters, even before the widows and German book-keepers of the nineteenth century resolved the final technical problems and transformed champagne into one of the world’s greatest wines.
London to Reims. Leave London St Pancras by Eurostar at c. 10.30am for Paris, and continue by coach to Reims. Arriving at c. 4.00pm, there is time to settle into the hotel before an introductory talk, tasting and dinner. All four nights are spent in Reims.
Épernay. Travel by coach through the Montagne de Reims to the small, but important champagne town of Épernay. Morning lecture at the Comité Champagne, the trade association representing independent growers and houses. Afternoon private visit of the cellars at Moët followed by a tasting of Dom Pérignon.
Côte des Blancs, Montagne de Reims. South through an expansive landscape of vineyards to Vertus and the family-owned Fourny & Fils, where expression of the terroir and Chardonnay reigns supreme. After lunch, back north for the afternoon to the impressive cooperative installations in the premier cru village of Mailly. Visit and tasting of four champagnes.
Reims. Morning visit to Charles Heidsieck on the outskirts of the city, followed by time for an independent lunch and free afternoon. A late-afternoon visit to Pommery and the crayères followed by dinner in the champagne house.
Leave Reims at c. 10.30am by coach for Paris and continue by Eurostar to London St Pancras, arriving c. 3.30pm.
The tour is dependent on the kindness of many individuals and organisations, some of whom are reluctant to make arrangements far in advance, so the order of visits outlined above may change and there may be substitutions for some of the wineries mentioned.
Historian, food and wine expert, translator, teacher and journalist. He is author of fifteen books including monographs on Berlin and Prussia, biographies of Frederick the Great and the last Kaiser and a best-seller on post-war Germany, After the Reich. His latest book is On Germany (Hurst), published in July 2018.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,190 or £1,980 without Eurostar. Single occupancy: £2,360 or £2,150 without Eurostar.
Train travel by Eurostar (Standard Premier); coach travel; hotel accommodation; breakfasts, 2 lunches and 2 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Hôtel de la Paix, Reims: a comfortable, modern and central 4-star hotel, originally three separate buildings. Rooms are bright and well-equipped.
There is quite a lot of walking and standing in possibly muddy vineyards and cool, damp cellars (stairs to the crayères can be steep and numerous) as well as tasting an average of 5 champagnes per day. The first and last days involve a long drive but there is little coach travel in between. Average distance by coach per day: 57 miles.
Between 10 to 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.