Chezy sur Marne. France…Napoleon Bonaparte the first emperor of France once said “In victory, one deserves it, in defeat one needs it.” What was it that he had mentioned? It was none other than “Champagne”. Sir Winston Churchill during the world war mentioned to his soldiers ” Remember gentlemen, its not just France we are fighting for, its champagne.” Such is the importance of this wine in European culture, that it finds a place in every home, particularly in every French home. It has become a heritage, even to those who may not be wine drinkers. Be it any celebration, hamper or dinner nothing is complete without a bottle of this magic wine.
Champagne being the King of wines as well as the wine of Kings, many tours in France and elsewhere in Europe, treat you like a king, offering you a wine and champagne tasting tour taking you into the wonderful French countryside. They show you some very traditional champagne making houses, vineyards, cellars and chalk caves where the champagne is brewed. These tours begin with a briefing about champagne and entice you with some free wine as well as champagne tasting. The taste of the many varieties would make it so hard for anyone to choose the best among them. It always ends up, you loving the tingle in the taste buds, to next be buying some exclusive wines or the naturally aged expensive champagnes.
Thinking of taking a tour, I asked my nephew to schedule a trip for a day. To my surprise, he introduced me to his friends, who were one of a famous family of Champagne makers, who had for generations been wine brewers in Veils- Maisons. This is a small town in Chezy Sur Marne which is in the champagne valley of France or rather the only champagne valley in the world. Their brand Jean Louis Petit is well known throughout the valley and their champagnes and wines always find a place in the town’s every celebration, as well as in almost every home.
On their invitation, we drove down small winding roads amid vineyards, estates, and meadows. Their house and cellar were within a fortified estate. We were welcomed by Odile, the queen of the house who was the wife of Jean Louis the champagne maker and she passionately explained the way the family enjoyed making champagne, prior to the industrialization of this traditional business. Champagne making is a tradition she said and was a bit concerned about the use of the word “Champagne” being given by all winemakers elsewhere around France and the world to all kinds of sparkling wines. “Champagne,” Odile said is the exclusive name attributed to the wines made in the Marne Valley of northeastern France. This wine is from grapes of three kinds of vines, traditionally grown and handed, down through the many generations, beginning even prior to the Roman times.
MARNE is the name of a river and the valley surrounding it, is the champagne valley, which is only about 100 miles on either side were these vineyards are tended. She was sad that many think that all sparkling wines are champagne which sadly is a misnomer.
Taking me around the factory she told me that it has been recently modernized to meet bulk orders of the different kinds of brews. The caverns for traditionally, brewed champagne in oak casks stored in chalk caves and cellars are few and the price for the long-drawn process to meet supply does not match the demand or costs. She offered us a taste of a traditionally, double brewed champagne. It tasted very good giving a bite in my tongue, a tingle from the tiny bubbles and a tickle under my nose. Jean who came with his son after a hard days work, took us around the factory beside the vineyards which were cropped and being prepared for the season of spring. I got a free ride on their gyro craft used for inspection and flew around the estate, which was another fabulous experience.
After a long chat over more champagne, I thanked them and bid farewell. We drove back along with their estate, only to stop on seeing some mares. I stood by the fence to admire these free and beautiful creatures. I took out a small sachet of sugar and stretched my hand offering it to the mares even though I was cautioned that mares sometimes kick or bite. One of the mares looked up and trotted towards me. Maybe the sugar smelled as sweet as its taste, and I enjoyed the mare licking it from my palm. This made my afternoon sweeter and I thanked my stars for all the good things I had experienced that day.
That night during super we had some very authentic 30-year-old Champagne. My nephew toasted the drink to René Goscinny’s famous Gaulish comic characters Asterix, Obelix and the magic potion. We feasted, we laughed and it was all friendship and camaraderie. Whether he was right or not, I realized that like the horse that fell for the sugar in my palm, I could not resist this magical sparkling wine. I guess it had become a tradition and has found an exclusive place in every table, cellar and in French culture. As Dickens put it; today “the world treats itself to Champagne as one of the elegant extras in life” unaware of the saying “All that glitters is not gold” or of another cautioning “all wines that sparkle are not champagne.”