Friday, October 25, 2013


Owing to the blind monk Dom Perignon’s important role in the development of Champagne, Hautvillers calls itself ‘Le berceau du Champagne’ aka… “The Cradle of Champagne...”

Dom Perignon, known as the inventor of champagne, ultimately put the region of Champagne in North-eastern France on the map. And thanks to the TGV bullet train, I reached Reims (pronounced ‘rance’), the region’s Capital, in less than an hour from Paris. From here I drove down to Hautvillers (translates into high place), a gorgeous village founded in 658, overlooking the Marne and surrounded by vineyards, it is here in the Abbey that Dom Perignon made the cloudy, effervescent, regional wine of the time (the mid-1600s) into something which is clear, bubbly and cork popping now known as Champagne.

As I walked the cobbled streets of the picture perfect town, I could see history everywhere I looked - Roman ruins, a medieval centre, street side cafes and creperies, and of course the stupendous Abbey of Saint Pierre where also rests the tombstone of Benedictine monk Dom Petrus Perignon. But what I loved most was seeing the wide sweep of bountiful Champagne vineyards along the slopes of the Mountain of Reims. And when I looked up, I could see the whimsical house signs.
There are 160 of them in the small village and all of them have something to do with Champagne. It is the place of around 70 wine growers and many inhabitants during the summer months. Champagne Tribaut is one of those family run houses that is worth a stop and certainly a taste. The town is one of France’s loveliest, and as for the drink, I would let Dom Perignon have the last word. “Come quickly, I am tasting stars,” he had said, after his first taste of champagne. 

 And while the Abbey was beautiful and had some gorgeous stained glass windows, you don’t go to Hautvillers for just the Abbey you also go for the Champagne. ‘88 Rue d’ Eguisheim’ is open daily 9am-noon and 2-6pm so I called in advance for a free tour in English (there was a small charge for tastings), I found it to be a charming, family operation producing particularly well-regarded Blanc de Blancs and vintage champagnes.
There are far more champagne houses than anyone has time to visit so I planned just the famous ones. And sure enough, after the cellar visits, I feel quite educated on how champagne is made. Traditionally made using a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (black grapes), but one can also find Blanc de Blancs which is 100% Chardonnay or Blanc de Noirs, two Pinots only. It is fermented twice, which gives it the bubbles. In the second fermentation, yeast and sugar are added and the liquid is sealed and aged for approximately one and a half years. The yeast inside the bottle consumes the sugar, releasing alcohol and gas. Interestingly, as the champagne ages, the yeast begins to die, leaving sediments. 

At this stage, one has to start riddling the bottles i.e. rotating them every few days and storing them tilted upside-down, so that the sediments move down into the neck and can be removed. Lees are then removed by freezing the only neck of the bottle, and removing the cap. The pressure from inside the bottle pushes out the ice with the lees frozen inside, additional blends of wine are added to top off the bottle and it is recapped. And of course, it does not lose all of its bubbles because the gas in champagne is actually in the wine itself, not just added carbonation. Interestingly in the days of Dom Perignon, bottles were pushed into sand piles so that the sediment could collect. It was in the nineteenth century that ‘Veuve Clicquot’ invented the riddling table and the process of turning and tilting the bottles became more efficient!
At the end of the tour we were given a tasting. In our case we were very lucky because they were sampling special vintage champagne made from only Chardonnay grapes …. Now that’s the way I love my holiday! And of course I loved the tasting session, and to be honest I cheated …drank instead of spitting it out….I mean how I could waste it. My departure was looming in the near future. For the time being, I let the exhilaration of champagne bubbles lift my spirits with hopes of more unexpected moments to come. I’d say that my most fond memory is watching those delicate bubbles escaping to the top of my champagne glass. All in all, Hautvillers treated me extremely well. But alas, my Champagne days were over! I would also recommend bringing back a Dom Perignon from ‘Moet & Chandon’ as it is one of the best-selling labels of arguably the world’s greatest champagne house. When Moet & Chandon bought the Abbey of Hautvillers in 1792, they promptly put the monk on the label to sell more wine. And yes I did not forget to take a picture of the famous Dom Perignon, who doubled the size of the Abbey’s vineyard while it was under his stewardship.

A special celebration, an impromptu party with friends or just for pure enjoyment of a flute … these moments deserve the very best. According to your mood or imagination, depending on the ingredients and the amount of time you have, there are endless combinations: from the basic to the sophisticated recipe, or for a quick snack, eaten delicately with your fingers, without fuss and at your leisure, so simply keep these basic rules in mind. Heavy foods or main entrees, usually do not go well with Champagne, however there are in numerous foods that pair beautifully with it, making for yummy finger foods and an elegant looking soirĂ©e. The thumb rule is that the food shouldn't overtake the wine.

HARMONY (OF LIKE TASTES): When the sensations produced by the Champagne are similar to those produced by the dish (sweet- sweet and Acidic- acidic etc.)
Example: Vintage Rose with a lamb tagine (spicy- spicy)
BALANCE (OF OPPOSITES): When two opposite flavours produce a balanced, and therefore pleasant, result (acidic – sweet, acidic – fat).
Example: Vintage Reserve and chicken in a cream sauce (cream: fat – acidic wine).
Vinegar, Fresh eggs, White asparagus, Cauliflower and other ‘sulphurous’ vegetables, Excessive garlic, Pistachios & Chocolate

Before the discovery of the de-sedimentation process, Champagne was used as a dessert drink? That was because it allowed time for the sediment to settle into the stem of the glass, while dinner was being eaten!

Perignon was born around 1638 A.D. and became a Benedictine monk at the age of 19. In 1668 A.D., he transferred to the Abbey of Hautvillers and was appointed as its Treasurer and Cellar Master.
Best Way to Reach- Champagne-Ardenne region (the official name) is in North Eastern France, 129km northeast of Paris. Fly Air France to Paris and then take a TGV onto Reims and then drive onto Hautvillers.
Visa and Currency- Indians require a Schengen Visa to enter France and the currency used is the Euro (approximately 65 INR).
Best Way to move around- Hire a car.
Must do- Reserve visits to Champagne cellars at least a day in advance. Most cellars offer at least three English tours daily.
Must know- Remember that after pouring Champagne into the Champagne tulips do not swirl the champagne in your glass like wine, it will destroy in mere seconds the bubbles that took minimum three years to produce!

published in India Today Travel Plus