A whole lot of bottle
You've been around. You know a bit about champagne. After all, Britain imported 35 million bottles from France last year, so one or two of you must have tried it. You know, for instance, that la Veuve, "the widow", is La Veuve Clicquot, one of the great brands. But there's another sparkling widow making champagne today - in the garage at the back of her house in the village of Verzenay.
Madame Christiane Hatte was a little late - she'd been waylaid on the way home from her pensioners' group by people who wanted to buy her champagne.
She gave a big welcome to our small coach party, on a tasting weekend organised by Arblaster and Clarke, a specialist in wine tours for more than 15 years.
We set off on a tour of her cellars, some of which had been dug by her late husband, who set up the business in 1952. They run deep into the chalk that underlies the Champagne region and ensures the distinctive taste of the grapes that grow here. Winemakers can break a lump off the wall to mark their barrels. Mme sang the praises of her new pound;70,000 press, of which she is fiercely proud - even searching out its technical specification to show us - our wine guide Isabelle Legeron translated.
Some of our group had been on many wine tours, and the knowledgeable were keen to find out about the mix of grape varieties (40 per cent pinot noir, 20 per cent chardonnay and 40 per cent pinot meunier) that Mme Hatte uses from her eight-and-a-half hectares of vines to make her 60,000 bottles a year, and the oak vats in which she keeps the reserve wine that gives her champagne its special character.
As well as Mme Hatte, our itinerary for the weekend included Camille Saves, Vilmart and, the next day, Jacquesson (where the vines came almost up to the beautiful mansion) and Petit-LeBrun: all small enterprises making champagne of a sophistication and quality far above the stuff on our supermarket shelves, yet, because we were buying it at source, of comparable price.
With a cry of "je reviens", Mme Hatte clanged the steel shutter of the lift closed and we ground down a level to chilly cellars arranged in a liquid geometry of stacked bottles, with others en pupitre awaiting their next remouage, or riddling - the process by which the bottles are rotated a quarter or an eighth of a turn every few days during the second fermentation so the yeasts react fully with the wine, producing the bubbles.
The tour complete, and delivered to the surface, where Mme Hatte's son Christophe showed us with a flick of his wrist the original method for disposing of the sediment that gathers in the neck of the bottle, we set about the serious business of tasting - and buying.
We'd already practised the night before, shortly after arriving at our hotel in Reims. With five champagnes to taste, and Isabelle explaining about the colour, size of bubbles and how to sniff, sip and chew, we were all soon fearlessly talking toasty or raspberry notes and discussing the best glasses to use. "The champagne introduction to tasting will hold true whatever wine you taste," she said.
Cheery and down-to-earth, 31-year-old Isabelle is passionate about encouraging people to appreciate wine. She grew up on her family's vineyard in Cognac, but has lived in London for the past six years, running a wine school and taking wine tours. Although she could tell us all about malolactic fermentation, she found a question about laying down champagne too serious. "If I was talking to a French crowd, we'd never be talking about ageing. They say, 'We make more champagne every year. Let's just drink it'."
Our final visit, for a tasting and a delicious lunch, which proved that the right champagne can go with any course, was to Petit-LeBrun, where Daniel Petit showed us the 250-year-old cellars that lie beneath his grand house.
M Petit expounded his philosophy of how "les anciens" knew a thing or two about making champagne, and how he is developing his business so it will benefit his grandchildren. "Champagne is the only thing you can drink 24 hours out of 24," he said over lunch and many unfiltered Gitanes. "You come back at three in the morning with your fiancee and put a bottle on the beside table - it works every time."
As a way of spending a wet weekend before Christmas, our visit to the areas of Dizy and Bouzy was a success. I especially liked having our coach with helpful, French-speaking driver Keith Herring, to transport the bottles back to London. But there was one failure. For all the proficiency everyone acquired in glass appreciation, bouquet-inhaling and mouth-swirling, no one I saw seemed to have learned to spit out the sparkly stuff. I can see that another visit is needed.
Arblaster and Clarke are running several champagne weekends in 2004, the first on March 20-24. On all champagne weekends there are two places for sole travellers in a single room without supplement allocated on a first-booked basis. Details of this and the company's other wine tours (including February half-term tours to South Africa and Lisbon), tel: 01730 893344; www.winetours.co.uk. Champagne: www.tourisme-champagne-ardenne.com; www.ville-reims.fr