Bubbles at the double
You can learn all you need to about the Champagne region in a weekend.
A lazy riverbank scene in the heart of the Champagne-Ardenne region
It was a warm, sunlit day in the cathedral city of Reims, France's Coronation City, in the Marne region of Champagne Ardenne. But inside it was a cool 10 degrees with 85 per cent humidity, the lights were dim, Je t'aime - the song Radio 1 banned for being too sexy, remember? - was playing. Above me were a bas relief of frolicking naked cherubs, and at the bottom of the stairs was Silus, a Frenchman, waiting to take me into a room full of guitar-playing finches.
By any standards, this was a surreal moment. As I descended into the subterranean chalk caves of the Pommery Champagne house, Silus led me through a temporary art installation where these tiny birds set off music when they landed on guitar strings. In the caves beyond were an astonishing 25 million bottles of champagne stacked to the rafters in 30 metres of tunnels.
"Do you know how many bubbles there are in a bottle of champagne", Silus asked as we passed a huge airplane propeller - another artwork.
"There are 50 million, and they are all created in the bottle during the second fermentation," he said as we passed an inflatable military tank.
Passing through a tunnel called Manchester, I paused to ogle at the 40,000 Jeroboams (each holds three litres of Champagne, or four regular bottles) stacked against the chalk walls. Apparently there's huge demand for them at weddings, celebrations and motor-racing events.
P&O Ferries (www.poferries.com) has Dover-to-Calais crossings from £30 each way. Chateau Etoges, (http://english.chateau-etoges.com) has doubles from 120¤(£104); Hotel de la Paix (www.bestwestern-lapaix-reims.com)has doubles from 155¤ (£135). Further info: www.champagne-ardenne-tourism.co.uk or www.channelhoppers.net
Pommery is a super slick operation. As are their neighbours, Veuve Cliquot and Piper-Heidsieck who, like Pommery, also offer highly entertaining visits to their spectacular caves set in crayeres, or former Roman chalk mines. At Piper-Heidsieck, you don't even have to walk; the tour is in an electric car through caves illuminated by disco lights. Most tours cost from six to 10 euros, and usually end with a tasting.
Even without its famous "fizz", Reims, is a must-visit city for its bustle, café culture, elegant architecture, Art Deco facades, superb cathedral and pedestrianised streets full of good shops. If you're there for a short break, a centrally located hotel like the de La Paix - close to the Cathedral and shops - is a good base.
There are no vineyards in Reims; the city's Champagne houses import their pinot noir, chardonnay and meunier grapes from elsewhere in the region, so, if it is vines and vineyards you want, you need to go further afield. There are around 12,300 smaller houses dotted over the green, undulating landscapes, many of which may be visited.
Most you will never have heard of, and many are tongue-ticklingly delicious, and you'll never get through a even quarter of them in one weekend. But you can be in the same room as at least 100 of the best, lesser-known champagnes at C Comme Champagne in Rue Gambetta in the neighbouring town of Epernay.
Seventeen euros (£14.70) buys the opportunity to taste five bubblies and browsing is easy as each wine is clearly labelled with the vineyard, style, grape varieties and price.
One of the champagnes they sell is from the family-owned Launois Champagne House located in Mesnil sur Oger on the Côtes des Blancs, a few miles south of Epernay.
The eccentric Monsieur Bernard Launois, a portly man and an eclectic collector, is the current owner (it has been in the family for six generations) and his is a house worth visiting just for the museum. There are 17th-century presses, medieval armoury and tools, and a bizarre collection of antiques such as confessional boxes, rotisseries, pianos and old-fashioned tills as well as a room full of carved old vines and there is an entire room of them. If you want to linger, 54 euros (£47) buys a tour of the museum, a gastronomic lunch and a sampling of six champagne varieties. Or go on harvest day to pick the grapes and three years later a bottle of fizz will land on your doormat from the harvest.
My tour would not have been complete if I had not squeezed in a visit to the home town of the region's most famous son, Dom Perignon, the Benedictine monk, who lived in Haut Villiers, and gave his name to one of the world's best known Champagnes. The quaint, hilltop town has countless streets named after him, and plaques commemorating him.
That night, I checked in to the nearby Chateaux d'Etoges, for a final burst of the Champagne lifestyle. This elegant chateau, at the end of a long driveway, nestles amid vineyards in the tiny village of Etoges.
Rooms have four-poster beds, and its Orangerie Restaurant offers delicious food and superb wines. About to sip one, I remembered Dom's words on first tasting his new wine: "Come quickly brothers, I'm tasting the stars."