To me the word evoked little beyond locker room celebrations and wedding toasts, so when I concocted a goal to walk all the wine regions of France, Champagne was a long shot for the inaugural trek.
The Philadelphia wine school, proximity to Paris, and a book changed that.
Christmas 2019, during the final throes of our time in Philadelphia , I discovered a wine school not far from our Airbnb. The only available class that fit my schedule was champagne. It was not my first choice, yet I enrolled.
In that class I learned about the region, the grapes, and the AOC rules. Champagne is unique, and not only because it’s bubbly (although it’s steady stream of bubbles is unique). Unlike most French wine, champagne is generally created from grapes across multiple vintages and from a geographic cross section of the region. Although there are more than 350 wine AOCs in France—Bordeaux alone has 50, Burgundy 84—there is only one for champagne.
I tasted blanc de blancs (white from white-skinned grapes) and blanc de noirs (white from dark-skinned grapes) across the three major permitted grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier and began to grasp their nuances. Two hours was enough to advance from total ignorance to middling novice and to foster a nascent interest.
Shortly after the class, Pat and I left for Paris. He played pétanque . I walked. And together one weekend, we went to Reims—the largest city of the Champagne region and less than 90 minutes from Paris by train.
Reims is a historically significant city: the baptism site of Clovis (the first Catholic king of France); the coronation site, since the 11th century, of most of the kings of France; a perch atop the centuries-old, UNESCO designated caves of Veuve Cliquot, Ruinart, Taittinger, and miles more, which slither beneath.
We arrived with three goals: eat well, drink champagne, and visit one cave. I chose Taittinger .
I had read the book Wine and War which told of the role the vintners of France played in protecting the wine industry during the Second World War. One of the key families in hiding the best bottles of champagne and saving that legacy was the family Taittinger.
One of my favorite stories from the book, and one that piqued my interest in the region, was how the allies learned to anticipate the location of the next German invasion by tracking the shipments of cases of nazi-confiscated champagne. Apparently, more than Super Bowl victories are celebrated with a good dose of bubbly.
Our time in Reims was perfect.
Then Monday morning, Pat left for Paris, and I boarded the train to the first village outside of the city, Rilly la Montagne. Here, I would start the ten-mile walk to my first night in Aÿ.
I elected to hike the trail through the nature preserve rather than follow the roads, which proved a mistake. At first, the trails were dry, but soon they became waterlogged, and eventually completely impassable. Even though it was a perfect day, I had ignored months of record rainfall across France. I walked in large loops looking for a dry path. Men pointed me this way. A few miles later, the same men pointed me that way. In the middle of the forest, there were no landmarks to chart my course. After a six-mile slog, I turned back. Twelve miles later, and after a fanny slide down a drenched hill, I arrived at the train station at Rilly la Montagne.
I cursed the circle of life.
I bought a train ticket to Aÿ on my phone and ordered an espresso at a tabac near the station that I had passed some hours previously. In the bathroom, I cleaned up as best as I could and berated myself until—and well beyond—my arrival in Aÿ.
Aÿ, it turns out, is an important champagne village built at the base of incredibly steep vineyards. It’s that slope that makes the grapes premium and gives the village of Aÿ the designation of grand cru. For me, I had selected the town merely as a well-placed stop on a three-day journey.
Luckily, it was a good choice. Quaint. Quiet. I walked every street in the village, peeked in shop windows, and found the sole open boulangerie. Monday in mid-February is not, as it happens, peak season which was fine by me. I love roaming alone.
I ate a sandwich and then moved to a tabac, awaiting 5PM when I could check into my B&B. I ordered a glass of red wine but the bartender told me they sold no red wine, only champagne.
I still find this funny.
For the next hour, in this classic tabac—purveyor of cigarettes, alcohol, and lottery tickets—I sipped champagne seated at a fold-up table next to a pinball machine and read a lightweight book (title since forgotten) that I had tucked into my backpack. After a long day, it was my oasis.
The personal berating continued, yet in hindsight I have no idea why. The day had turned out less than perfect, but it was still perfectly good.
Categories: Exploring France