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Lovely Bubbly - Epernay and Reims

Lovely Bubbly - Epernay and Reims
Image: CIVC
The Champagne region is deliciously awash with fizz and a few foods to match, as Craig Butcher discovers.

Just 45-minutes from Paris on the high-speed TGV train, Reims and its neighbouring town Epernay lie at the heart of the Champagne region in north-eastern France. Famously home to the great Champagne houses including Moet & Chandon, Taittinger and Mumm, it’s impossible to dine out anywhere in this ancient Roman town without hearing the constant popping of corks, the gentle sloshing of ice buckets and contended sighs of appreciation. These towns live, breathe and are, Champagne.

With a history dating back to Roman times, and the old city walls to prove it, Reims was lamentably damaged during both World Wars. Sympathetic restoration during the years which followed: art deco flourishes and pedestrianised boulevards abound mean there’s now much to admire. Nowhere more so than the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, once the venue for crowning kings with its stunning stained-glass windows and Gothic architecture. Reims is also said to be the birthplace of the biscuit. You can still pick up their famous biscuits rose from Biscuits Fossier (25 Cours Jean Baptiste Langlet), their creamy sweetness makes them the ideal aperitif accompaniment to champagne.

A short drive from Reims lies Epernay, a small town around and to the south of which lie the champagne vineyards. Chardonnay grapes grows to the south in the Cotes du Blanc, petit meunier to the west in Chateau-Thierry and pinot noir to the north near Reims. The petit meunier variety provides lively, pungent aroma while the pinot noir adds body and depth. The chardonnay grape gives the welcoming, creamy yet dry mouthfeel. These three grapes, the only ones permitted in champagne, adorn this land of gently rolling slopes home to some of the most expensive grapes in the world. Champagne producers, large and small, inhabit the terrain too
Lovely Bubbly - Epernay and Reims
Image: CIVC
welcoming visitors with open arms and open bottles.

The biodynamic champagne house of Leclerc-Briant, with a relatively small production of 250,000 bottles each year is precisely the sort of small-scale, enthusiastic, knowledgeable producer visitors come to Champagne to meet. Thirty metres beneath their outwardly suburban location lies an astounding myriad of cellars and passageways for the maturing champagne. Here, the exuberant and ever-smiling Pascal Leclerc has turned his focus to producing single-estate champagne from small parcels of land, produced with minimal impact on the environment using biodynamic methods. The aim is to reduce external inputs, avoid chemical use and produce champagne in a more sustainable way. The fifth generation of his family to produce champagne, it’s in his family’s interest to ensure he succeeds. His conversion to biodynamic over the last eight years is a potentially risky move, lowering his production and raising his costs. But the end result is excellent. Like Pascal, it’s likeable, distinctive and passionate about terroir.

In Champagne, they say their local tipple is a match for every food imagineable, you just need to pick the right bottle. ‘Blanc de Blancs’ champagnes are 100% chardonnay and, given their creamy mouthfeel, pair particularly well with complementary fish like a lightly buttered Dover sole with capers or a similarly prepared skate wing. They also pair well with nutty cheeses like a young Comte, or with stronger local cheeses like Chaource and Langres. A young Blanc de Blancs, with its lemon and citrus notes, is just the ticket for oysters without overwhelming them. For more substantial dishes like local specialty Reims ham, a softly breadcrumbed cold dish typically served with salad and potatoes dauphinoise for lunch, a non-vintage blend champagne like Billecart-Salmon works well, or a Blanc de Noirs (no chardonnay) for stronger pork flavours. Hefty beef dishes like a carpaccio or the ubiquitous Reims steak need a champagne heavier on pinot noir, which gives it the body and structure needed to punch through the meat. Alternatively, a local Champenois chilled red like Ay Rouge Gosset-Brabant has the luscious cherries of pinot noir to stand up to a hearty steak. Don’t stop at dessert, either. While not an ideal partner, something simple like strawberries or biscuits would work well with the revered fizz, but avoid pairing with chocolate which to my mind and palate is an uncomfortable bedfellow.

With champagne houses of all sizes welcoming tourists, a handy high-speed line to Paris, excellent bases in Reims or Epernay and a landscape littered with character and characters, I fully recommend getting involved. As one Swedish wag noted at Leclerc-Briant, “A magnum is an ideal size for two people, provided only one of you is drinking.” I couldn’t agree more.
 
For more information about Champagne producers, contact the CIVC via http://www.champagne-civc.co.uk/
Eurostar has regular services to Paris with TGV services to Reims. http://www.eurostar.com
Champagne Leclerc-Briant has information about tours and tastings at http://www.leclercbriant.com
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