In my early years of drinking alcohol, my preferences tended toward bubbles. Passion Pop was a great bargain at $5 a bottle. Then I stepped up to some nicer, and slightly more expensive Australian sparkling wines: Yellowglen, Yellowglen Bella for special occasions, and Domaine Chandon for even more special occasions. At my first promotion at work, I even bought a bottle of Moët to celebrate – and vowed for every promotion I ever received, I would mark the occasion with champagne.
So you see, I like bubbles. When I go out to dinner, I am the one on the table asking for sparkling water. It’s much more exciting than still.
You can imagine, then, that there is a place in Europe that has a special place in my heart … and my taste buds (though possibly less special in my liver): Champagne, France.
A group of us first went down there in 2012: ten Australians flying and driving in from Amsterdam, Zurich and London. We’d found a fabulous chateau online, Chateau de Mairy, and we visited a couple of big champagne houses – Moët and Mumm. With their dramatic, cinema-like presentations of their stories, and visits to spectacularly large caves, these were impressive.
But we soon learned the real charm of Champagne lies in visiting the smaller houses. Now, these are literally homes of families. They grow grapes, most of which they sell to the big houses. That’s their primary form of income. But in addition, they make some champagne of their own, which they sell … if you’re there at the right time.
Haven’t made a reservation? Well you can’t just turn up! Especially at lunchtime… “Sorry,” they’ll tell you, “we’re eating lunch. Come back in a couple of hours.” And that’s even if you’re a big, thirsty looking group, begging to buy magnums of champagne from them.
Speaking of reservations, don’t count on making one on the weekend. A lot of them aren’t open then. Remember – selling their champagne is not their primary form of income, so they pick and choose guests and visiting times.
Oh, and with a few exceptions, expect to speak French.
The first small house we visited was the delightful Eric Phelizon. Along with two of my friends, Sarah and Bec, I’d arrived earlier at the chateau than the rest of the group. We headed off just the three of us on our first adventure, after the kind chateau owners called and made a reservation for us.
When we arrived, a gentleman – who turned out to be Eric Phelizon himself – was watering his large garden. We explained we’d been sent by the chateau in faltering French. He fired back at us in much smoother, faster French, which we didn’t really understand, and beckoned us to follow him toward a little outhouse-type building.
“I think he thinks we want accommodation! He’s showing us a room!” Bec hissed, hanging back.
But Eric just opened the door, and inside was a cute little room with a few different sized bottles of champagne as decoration, and a large table in the centre. Eric encouraged us to sit at the table, while he opened up a bottle of champagne for us to taste. It was delicious.
Now the glorious thing about tasting champagne from these little houses is that they tend to take the attitude, once it’s open, better to drink it all. So we sat around the table, the three of us plus Eric drinking up this bottle. His English was non-existent, so Sarah and I relied on our school girl French. And it turned out we brought two different, but equally valuable, skill sets: Sarah is great at listening comprehension, and I am great at speaking. But Sarah struggles with speaking, while somehow I struggle with understanding. So a hilarious conversation ensued, with Eric posing questions in French, Sarah translating into English, me then responding in French, and Bec looking between the three of us like we were crazy!
I’ve since been back to Champagne five times, each very special: with my parents when they visited Europe (with Sarah and Bec accompanying for a re-visit to Eric!), with Dutchie for a romantic/cycling weekend away, this year to see Le Tour de France as it passed through the region, and twice more with a big group of friends – most recently playing a murder mystery party in the old chateau, which was great fun.
I’ve visited in summer, spring and autumn now, and each season casts a new light of beauty on the land. (I am sure winter does also, but I’m not much one for enjoying winter holidays…)
And I’ve eaten one of the most enjoyable meals of my life here too – and not at one of the two finest French restaurants which we’ve discovered in the region. During one of the visits with a big group of friends, we crammed a lot of champagne house visits on a Saturday morning. So many, in fact, that it was early afternoon before we had time for lunch – and everyone was absolutely starving. Picture us: three cars in a caravan driving in search of a restaurant. Each one we found was fully booked. Eventually, we came to the idea of stopping at the giant Carrefour supermarket and buying what we’d need for a picnic lunch, which we could take to a nearby park. All 12 of us wandered around the supermarket, picking up random ingredients – including baguettes, cheese, and a hot roast chicken. We met at the checkout and agreed in unison: we were all too hungry to find a park for a real picnic. We would eat here. So we piled back out to the parking lot, found an empty parking space next to one of our cars, gathered in it, and laid everything out on the ground. There we were, squatting to fill baguettes with cheese and cold meats and eating roast chicken with our hands, in the middle of a Carrefour parking lot. Our hunger drove us to enjoy that meal – but so did the atmosphere – with many French people stopping as they drove past to wind down their windows and call out, “Bon appetit!”
If you enjoy champagne, make a visit here at least once in your life. But remember to brush up on your French, book the little champagne houses in advance, and bon appetit to you – even if you’re eating in a parking lot!