A Winelover’s Tour de France (13)

Bede took a room at the Hôtel de la Poste and immediately set about
checking on Michelle’s whereabouts. He soon caught up with her over
an espresso in the small café attached to the hotel.Michelle had business
commitments for the next two days and they would not catch up
again.

The morning dawned fine and clear. There was the pleasant early morning
feeling of a hot day to come. Bede set about wandering
through the pedestrian streets of the city to discover churches
constructed between medieval times and the present day, town houses
dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, and medieval halftimbered
houses. He discovered that Dijon is also a city rich in fine
works of art and boasts some seven museums, art galleries and
exhibition halls. He particularly enjoyed the Musée des Beaux Arts,
which is said to be second only to the Louvre in Paris.
7
It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey
that matters in the end. (Ursula K. Le Guin)
Bede left Dijon late Friday afternoon by train, bound for Reims in the
Champagne region. He had arranged to transport his bicycle by truck
so as to be sure of having it available to him for the weekend in
Reims. He had lost faith in the railway goods services to deliver on
their assurances, given his previous experiences. The three-hour train
journey was through an open rural countryside – in places rolling
pasture, in others closely cultivated fields of crops. Bede took a room
at the Logis de France Hôtel-Restaurant au Tambour for the next four
days.
Reims is a light and lively city, full of bustling sidewalk cafés and
smart shops, including Marks and Spencer. The cathedral of Notre-
Dame is the heart of the city and is justly renowned for its 13thcentury
stained-glass windows and its superbly sculpted façade. On
the southern edge of the city stands the Basilica of St Remi, built in
the 11th and 12th centuries atop the saint’s tomb.
The city of Reims is the centre of the Champagne industry, although
Épernay closely rivals it, and the nearby town of Ay is also important.
Most of the major Champagne houses have their headquarters in one
of these three centres. The Champagne houses are built around vast
caverns and extensive underground tunnels, many dating back to
Roman times, carved out of the chalky hills.
Côtes de Blancs, Montagne de Reims and Vallée de la Marne are the
three areas permitted to produce Champagne, each geographic area
having its own characteristics. Following their own traditions,
sometimes more than a century old, each Champagne house selects
the grapes it requires to make its own wine from these different
vineyard areas.
Every spring the wines of the previous harvest are tasted and analysed
to ascertain their individual characteristics. This enables the head of
the particular Champagne house, aided by oenologists, to decide on
the proportion of each wine required to assemble the preferred blend.
To this is added, in the instance of a non-vintage blend, some ‘vins de
réserve’ produced in previous years. This delicate work, known as the
‘assemblage’, results in the final ‘cuvée’, the constant style and
quality of which gives to each Grande Marque Champagne its own
distinct character.
There are three sections in the Champagne Route des Vignobles: the
Montagne de Reims, which lies between Reims and Épernay; the
Vallée de la Maine; and the Côte des Blancs, the most southerly
vineyards of the region. Bede chose the Montagne de Reims section
through to Épernay. He took the Château-Thierry road from Reims
and soon found himself climbing the gentle but persistent slope of the
Montagne towards the wine village of Jouy-lès-Reims. There
followed the small wine village of Ville-Dommange, with its lovely
12th century church; the village of Sacy, which has a fine
Romanesque church; and Sermiers, on the main road between
Épernay and Reims. Following the D.26, he then encountered a
succession of small villages close to the top of the Montagne: Rillyla-
Montagne, from where there are superb views of the plain below
and distant Reims; Ludes, a tiny village; Mailly-Champagne, a grand
cru commune famous for its rosé; and Verzenay, with its grand cru
vineyards watched over by a distinctive windmill. His next stop was
the village of Verzy, and then around the side of the Montagne to give
vast panoramas to the east, with fields stretching away into the
distance.
As the wine route rolls on through the village of Trépail towards
Ambonnay and Bouzy, it begins to descend from the Montagne. In the
town of Ay there are a number of important Champagne houses,
including Deutz, Ayala and Bollinger; it is one of the grand cru
communes. From Ay, the wine road joins the main N.51 on the
outskirts of Épernay. As a centre for trips to the Marne valley,
Épernay is more laid-back than Reims. It is an airy, green place,
suggestive of lazy summer afternoons, especially if you stroll from
the centrally located Place de la République east along the Avenue de
Champagne, which is lined with large 19th century houses in a
comfortable mix of Renaissance and Classical styles. It was here that
Bede visited the Champagne House of Pol Roger at 44 Avenue de
Champagne, which Sir Winston Churchill is said to have christened
“the world’s most drinkable address”. The history of the House is a
story of generations of a family devoted to the production of the finest
Champagnes, and also to remaining a family-owned business.
His return journey took him through the Vallée de la Marne, with the
river Marne to guide him as far as the village of Mareuil-le-Port, and
then back to the Château Thierry road into Reims. It was a long day of
120 kilometres cycling, mostly over hill roads.
The morning dawned a beautiful summer’s day in this sparkling city
of Champagne. Bede had an appointment with the Champagne House
of Taittinger. The Taittinger cellars at the Place St Nicaise are well
worth visiting for their historical significance, dating back to the 4th
century. He cycled up to this prestigious establishment to be met by
one of the staff, Sophie, who was to give him a personal guided tour
of the cellars. Sophie had a warm and welcoming manner. Her
grooming and dark good looks had an instant effect on Bede. Sophie
was a Berliner, married to a French soldier stationed in Reims. The
tour started with an audio-visual history of the founding and
development of the House and of the production of champagne. Then
followed a long walk through the cavern-like cellars located under the
former Benedictine Abbey of St Nicaise, where some 3,000,000
bottles of special cuvée Champagne are stored at any one time. The
temperature in the cellars is a constant 8 all year round.
At the conclusion of the tour of the cellars, Sophie directed Bede to
the tasting room, where he was able to enjoy a large flute of nonvintage
Brut. At this point he considered the visit to be over and
thanked Sophie for a most interesting tour. Sophie politely responded
by leading Bede through to the reception foyer, where he was
presented with a very special bottle of Champagne: the Taittinger
Collection – Vintage Brut 1983. The Taittinger Vintage Collection is a
series of limited edition cuvées considered unique. The wines are
superbly presented in lacquered bottles designed by famous artists;
the first four releases were the work of Victor Vasarely (1978), Arman
(1981), Andre Masson (1982) and Vieira da Silva (1983). The 1983
vintage produced the largest ever yield and an excellent wine. The
1982 vintage had also produced a record yield at that time. The last
time there were two successive years of such outstanding quality was
1927 and 1928.
Bede was told by Sophie that Taittinger valued their connection with
their numerous global agents and that his letter of introduction meant
that he was regarded as a respected visitor. Bede was flattered by this
attention, which was totally unexpected. He staggered out into the
sunlight clutching his prized ‘collection’, so beautifully packaged and
in a Taittinger’s carry bag to collect his bicycle and head back to his
hotel. This was one bottle of wine that was not broached until Bede
returned home. In fact, Jane and he found a special occasion to enjoy
it in the early part of 1990.
The afternoon of 13 June saw Bede on the train to Paris, where he
arrived at the Gare de L’Est in the early evening. His tour des
vignobles was over. Behind him were 3,000 kilometres of cycling in
only six weeks on the road. He had originally intended to visit Chablis
and also the region of Alsace as part of the tour , but in the end time
did not permit this. They would have to wait for another time, as
would the Roussillon region and the Southern Bordelais.
Cheers

BARRY JOHNS ( aka Le Vigneron )

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