Bottoms up, again...
PUBLISHED: 15:51 23 December 2009 | UPDATED: 11:19 23 August 2010
THE last time I was fortunate enough to go on a press trip I visited the historic Flemish town of Ypres, where I sampled a bottle of beer widely regarded as the world s finest. On that late September afternoon, as I supped the Westvleteren Abt 12 - the s
THE last time I was fortunate enough to go on a press trip I visited the historic Flemish town of Ypres, where I sampled a bottle of beer widely regarded as the world's finest.
On that late September afternoon, as I supped the Westvleteren Abt 12 - the sumptuous aromatic ale brewed by Trappist monks - I failed to see how drinking could possibly get any better than that.
So, when I was asked if I'd like to visit the French region of Champagne-Ardennes - home of the world's most famous sparkling wine that bears the same name - I felt on the verge of something even more special.
The journey began with a P&O ferry crossing from Dover to Calais and lunch in the ship's Langan's Brasserie restaurant.
A succulent steak served up in a béarnaise sauce with new potatoes was the perfect way to begin four days of fine dining.
From Calais we drove three-and-a-half hours to Etoges in the department of Marne.
While the quaint rural village itself isn't spectacular, the Chateau D'Etoges where we would be spending our first night exceeded all expectations.
The Chateau, a stronghold built in the 12th and 13th centuries by Eustache de Conflans and his successors, oozes regal class - beautifully adorned, high ceiling rooms make you feel as if you're boarding with French aristocracy.
As well as picturesque grounds the Chateau D'Etoges also provides quality food in its L'Orangerie restaurant.
While I certainly enjoyed my goat's cheese tortellini starter and roasted sea bream main courses, there was no denying the raspberry and mascarpone ice cream with meringue dessert was the pick of an excellent meal - which also brought my first glass of champagne as a much welcome apéritif.
The next morning we took a short drive to Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger to the home of Launois Champagne, which sells around 240,000 bottles a year. This might sound a lot, but is actually very modest in comparison to the more well-known brands such as Moet and Chandon, which produces some 26 million a year.
The owner, Bernard Launois, has put together an engaging museum that charts the history and processes involved in making champagne, and for as little as €56 you can have breakfast, lunch and sample six different Launois champagnes.
I was lucky enough to try four myself - the most pleasing on the palette being the
Blanc de Noirs. Made solely from pinot noir grapes, its ripe, sharp and fruity taste was complex and enticing.
From there, it was on to the popular tourist town of Epernay and the equally renowned La Cave A Champagne eatery.
Head chef Bernard Ocio has been delighting travellers weary from their bargain booze hunting for years - and I wasn't disappointed either.
Another champagne apéritif - this time a light blancs de blancs - was followed by a delicious salmon and pink lentils starter and guinea fowl in grape juice main dish.
With our hungers more than satisfied, the group made the short walk along the Rue Gambetta to a notable new bar - C Comme Champagne. The trendy bar wouldn't seem out of place in Soho.
The beauty of this place is that it offers the chance to sample different varieties of champagne from a broad range of local houses across the region.
You can then descend a short staircase to the basement where they are stocked - at very reasonable prices - complete with pictures of the producers, maps showing where they are based and descriptions of the grapes from which they are made.
After soaking up the trendier side of life in the Champagne-Ardennes region, we immersed ourselves in its history by visiting the village of Hautvillers - the resting place and former home of the pioneering Dom Pérignon.
Although the Benedictine monk didn't invent sparkling wine - as commnly misconceived - he did make important contributions to the production of champagne in terms of tackling refermentation and the way grapes are picked and wines stored.
The village of Hautvillers, or the 'high place', is charming enough to make a stop worthwhile.
A particular highlight is the tradition among local residents to place iron signs outside their homes to show off something
significant about the people who live there - such as their job or origin.
A visit to Marne wouldn't be complete without a stay in the city of Reims. It is a place bursting at the seams with culture, good eating and, of course, gallons of champagne.
The cathedral has a rich ceremonial history as the traditional site of the crowning of French kings and is a major draw among visitors.
However, Reims wouldn't be complete without stopping by at least one of the major champagne production houses.
Of 'les grandes marques' labels worth visiting, which includes Piper Heidsieck, Tattinger and Lanson, Pommery will undoubtedly leave a lasting impression.
While it is interesting to gain an insight into the production of the world's most highly regarded alcohol, it is only a side issue on former owner Louise Pommery's estate.
Built on 55 hectares, the domain embraces art, creativity and flair. The cellars are adorned with four huge bas-reliefs carved into the walls and temporary modern art exhibits are dotted around the caves and tunnels.
Before descending the mammoth 116-step staircase which leads down into the Pommery vault on my visit, we were welcomed by a room of electric guitars hooked up to distorted amplifiers, all being set off by canaries landing on the strings.
The champagne house is well-known in Britain for its Pop range - a 25ml bottle designed with younger bar drinkers and nightclub revelers as its target audience.
Clearly, the brand - which was founded in 1836 and taken on solely by Madame Pommery 18 years later - remains in touch with its light-hearted side.
There are some 25 million bottles of champagne in the cellars, including Pommery's oldest and rarest cuvees, which are now priceless - yet undrinkable.
Naturally, the tour included a spot of champagne tasting and, with my haziness adequately restored, we went on to dinner at the excellent Brasserie Flo on the Place Drouet d'Erlon.
If, like me, you come close to consuming a Nebuchadnezzar's worth of the lovely bubbly on your visit, it might be time to take the fizz out of your trip.
A three-hour drive to Sedan might not seem the shortest drive, yet an overnight stay in the magnificent Chateau Fort is well worth it.
It is the largest chateau of its kind in Europe and was constructed in 1424. There is a museum and walk which gives you a chance to explore the history of the fort.
It's a three-star hotel, though the stunning surroundings make you feel like a king and the chefs at its restaurant ensure you eat like royalty.
While the town of Sedan itself may not be much of a draw, there is a decent food market that includes many of the usual French favourites, as well as a particularly fine selection of seafood.
All in all, Champagne-Ardenne is more than just the home of the world's most lauded drink, it is a region with enough history, culture and fine dining to leave a lasting taste.
Calais is around 3.5 hours drive from the Champagne-Ardennes region. P&O Ferries has 23 daily return crossings on the Dover - Calais route with fares from £27 for a day return for a car and up to nine passengers with longer durations from £27 each way. Club Lounge is available from £12 per person and you can book Club Plus with priority boarding each way for an extra £6. Call P&O Ferries direct on 08716 646464 or online at www.POferries.com or call your local travel agent.
For more information on the four regions of Champagne-Ardenne see www.tourisme-champagne-ardenne.com.
websites: www.english.chateau-etoges.com, www.la-cav-a-champagne.com, http://www.c-comme.fr.
Champagne Escapes specialise in wine-tasting breaks which run every weekend from April to October. Prices for their Prestige Weekend start from £299 and include return Dover to Calais ferry crossing for a car and two people, two nights hotel accommodation in Reims, a full day luxury private coach tour including visits to three different Champagne houses with tastings, four course gourmet lunch at a top local restaurant with accompanying Champagnes and wines; an English-speaking guide throughout the tour, providing information on the region and the wines. See www.champagneescapes.com or call 08456 430 860.