The late, Lily Bollinger, a former head of Bollinger Champagne, once said: “I only drink champagne when I’m happy and when I am sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it when I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I am thirsty.” Falling head-over-heels in love with the Champagne region of France, Lorraine Worsely has to agree.
We welcomed in 2018 from Gibraltar, celebrating the first strikes of the New Year chimes at a wonderful restaurant called The Lounge, situated on Queensway Quay Marina and I was delighted when my dear son-in-law, Sean, handed me a branded Moët et Chandon golden crown as a gift. I saw this as sign – 2018 would be my year; my raison d’être would be to investigate the nectar of kings.
By spring, the god of bubbles was with me and by a set of uncanny circumstances my husband proclaimed that we had received a personal invitation to the House of Lanson in Reims in the month of September! As if this invitation wasn’t splendid enough, Lanson is also my favourite ever champagne.
So, this is how the ‘Famous Three’ – my husband Bob, our daughter Hayley and me – found ourselves boarding a train from Paris Gare de l’Est, bound for the Champagne region in France. Sean, the ‘Famous Fourth’ who inaugurated my champagne year, was unable to join us due to work commitments, but we assured him that his share of bubbles would be well looked after by us. We decided to take the opportunity to visit Epernay first, ending our visit to the region with our tasting at the House of Lanson.
Through the sparkling train windows, we watched in awe as the September morning mist lifted and we were privy to the sight of acres of grapes being harvested, by hand, as is the tradition, in the vineyards along the route. As the train pulled into Epernay station, the champagne tower of Champagne de Castellane welcomed us and within minutes of alighting, we were on the most expensive street in the world, the Avenue de Champagne – so called because of the kilometres of underground champagne cellars beneath.
Some of the most significant and magnificent champagne houses, such as Perrier-Jouët, Pol Roger and Moët & Chandon are available for visiting along the street and tours are best booked online before you travel. However, many of the houses allow you a tasting or two of their fabulous offering at around five or six euros per wonderous glass, without the need to go on a tour.
I have been in humbler establishments around the world where the atmosphere has been downright frosty and unwelcoming, but not on the Avenue de Champagne! The welcome that awaits behind the grand facades, the ambiance and the willingness to discuss the provenance of the grape is an experience in itself. There are many opportunities to sample these nectars and I would suggest staying in Epernay for a night or two – much wiser than trying to sample all in just one day!
We took a left turn off the Avenue de Champagne, where a huge cork sculpture adorns the roundabout! As we walked down Avenue Alexandre Merand, as if by magic, the doors of Champagne de Castellane opened and we were ready for our pre-booked tour to begin. We found the tour most interesting and listened intently about how the champenois labourers tunnelled beneath the streets for kilometres to provide the subterranean homes necessary for champagne makers’ cellars where they would house their vats, barrels and bottles. We even climbed the de Castellane Tower, at least burning off a few calories on the winding, seemingly never-ending steps . We were even shown some 600ml bottles that had been once commissioned by Winston Churchill himself:
“Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!”
We were rewarded with a small tasting of non-vintage and vintage from the House of de Castellane.
Even before our visit, Champagne de Castellane was already on my list of favourites, and is still in my premier league table. My favourite glass of the day was at the House of Collard-Picard, which has now been placed in second place to Lanson on my champagne leader board.
Clutching the most gorgeous handmade macarons from one of the many patisseries in Epernay, we boarded our Champagne-Ardennes train back to Reims, the champagne capital. The Kings of France who were crowned at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Reims knew a thing or two to choose such a magnificent site for their coronations. We ate well at Au Bureau in the shadow of the ancient and beautiful religious site and as the sun set, the stained-glass windows lit our way home.
We needed to sleep in readiness for our next adventure the following day, the main reason for our trip to Champagne region.
We arrived by taxi at the House of Lanson at 10 in the morning, having ensured we had feasted on a hearty breakfast of eggs, croissants and pain au chocolat. We were welcomed by Marie-Julie and shown to one of the oak-panelled reception rooms, where we were met by international export manager, Edouard de Boissieu, who had bestowed this wonderful invitation to us. We were also introduced to Philippe Baijot, the esteemed Chairman of Lanson. After gazing at the beautiful bottles and photographs of famous people enjoying Lanson, our tour began. Our personal tour guide was to be Marie-Julie, and she spoke excellent English, much to our relief. Hayley is fluent in French following her three-year university studies in Paris, but Mum and Dad would have struggled to understand a full tour delivered in French!
We learned so much about the process, which differs from one champagne house to another. No secrets were given away here! We did, however, find out about the reason for the red cross depicted on each and every bottle. The history of the House of Lanson began in 1760 when François Delamotte decided to create his own champagne and in 1798, Nicolas-Louis Delamotte, a Knight of the Order of Malta, succeeded his father and adopted the Maltese Cross as their Company crest. In 1828, he formed a partnership with Jean-Baptiste Lanson, who, in 1837, gave the company the name of Lanson et Cie.
During the fabulous tour of the limestone cellars, we noticed a small statue on one of the cellar walls. On closer inspection, we saw it was a statue of the Virgin Mary and we learned that during the two world wars, local people were given shelter in the champagne cellars of the region and in the Lanson cellar there had been a make-shift chapel and a school. These years of wars and the great depression of the 1930s hit champagne production and sales, but thankfully from the 50s onwards, like the approximate 45million bubbles in a bottle of champagne, sales continued to rise. Champagne is synonymous with celebrations and our love affair with champagne continues.
We were told about Lanson’s decision to preserve the original style of champagne, privileging wines with no malolactic fermentation, and we also heard about the different stages of production. While we found it absorbing, I am aware that readers may not, so if you want more information I suggest that you book a tour!
Just when we thought our tour had come to an end, we were delighted to find there was more to come. We were taken outside where, within the grounds of the House, you’ll find the last remaining walled vineyard in Reims, known as the Clos Lanson. The vineyard, situated on top of the hill where the House of Lanson and its wine cellars are located, benefits from a distinctive micro climate and very chalky soil. The vineyard is treated like a family garden due to its small size and accordingly receives very special care and attention. We spied beehives, where the bees must also benefit from the favourable conditions. The revered Chief Wine-Maker, Monsieur Hervé Danton, visits each day and the plot is managed using traditional organic wine growing methods that respect nature’s cycle and encourage soil life.
Following our extensive tour, our heads bursting with fascinating facts, it was time to experience the tasting. So there we were at 11am in a gorgeous tasting room, sampling six of some of the finest champagnes of the House from non-vintage to vintage. My personal favourite was the Champagne Lanson-Noble Cuvée, Hayley’s the Gold Label Brut Vintage 2008 and Bob’s… well, every one of them!
It was time to say merci beaucoup et au revoir to our gracious hosts and as we carried our gifts and purchases to the awaiting taxi, our eyes were drawn to the House’s flagpoles, where the Union Jack flag had been hoisted next to the French flag in our honour. We are deeply honoured to have been invited back to assist in the 2019 Clos Lanson harvest.
We now have three months left of my champagne year and I am concerned my trip to Champagne region will never be beaten. I am always happy to be proven wrong!