Margaux is explaining how babies drink champagne before they drink milk. ‘Really,’ she assures me, ‘it’s a tradition that goes back generations. A family member puts a drop or two on to the baby’s lips after it is born.’
Margaux, 25, was born and grew up in Reims, in the heart of the French Champagne region. Her father worked in a champagne house and she now works for Laurent Perrier.
I’m spending three days here, staying at the swish Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa.
The swish Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa has a glorious swimming pool with ‘golden tiles that glisten with every stroke’
Double rooms at Royal Champagne start from £440. Pictured is the hotel’s elegant bar
Once a coaching inn where future kings of France (and Napoleon) would stop en route to their coronations, it was bought in 2012 by a Bostonian couple who wanted to match the splendour of champagne with a top-end hotel.
Nowadays, the infinity pool looks across the rolling sea of vines and champagne is reflected in every room. Large bubbles dress the walls of the spa, the pool’s golden tiles glisten with every stroke and the chandeliers in the restaurant imitate fizz going up a glass.
There are nearly 16,000 wine growers in striking distance of Reims, producing 302 million bottles a year. And the biggest of these guzzlers outside France? That’s right, Britain, where 30 million bottles a year are sold.
The countryside provides the unique conditions needed for the finest Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grape — chalky soil, cold weather and hilly terrain.
The one-Michelin-star restaurant at the Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa, where ‘every perfectly composed dish is plated on custom Maison Fragile china’
Views from the rooms at the newly renovated Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa are rather lovely
We visit five of the 320 houses, all of which are represented by trade organisation Comité Champagne, and sample at least five varieties at each. We are also taken around the Laurent Perrier cellars that stretch underground for eight miles and contain the equivalent of 45 million bottles at any one time.
Most houses provide hour-long tours of the cellars, with a tasting at the end, which can be booked in advance online or on the day.
We’re impressed by Champagne Geoffroy, as it’s involved with every stage of the process, from growing to labelling (most houses buy grapes from farmers, rather than growing them themselves).
Sea of vines: There are nearly 16,000 wine growers within striking distance of Reims, producing 302 million bottles a year
Perhaps most impressive, though, is the beautiful Boizel house, situated on the cobbled Avenue de Champagne, also home to Moët & Chandon, in the town of Epernay, where there are more wine cellars than streets. The house holds daily, hour-long tours with multilingual guides who can answer the most complex of questions.
We are delighted to get the chance to have lunch with the former head of the house, Madame Evelyne Boizel, who retired in December, passing it on to the sixth generation, her two sons Lionel and Florent. We share a 1995 vintage Brut in glasses the size of bowls over five courses, including cold Arctic char and sticky chocolate tart containing Grand Cru (bien sûr). There’s something special about sharing a bottle of vintage with a woman who has spent her life perfecting the blend.
But this isn’t an unusual encounter: the families are regularly on hand to share drinks with visitors. Madame Boizel is disappointed with the lack of bubbles in her glass, but I couldn’t be happier.
It’s the nicest champagne I’ve tasted. What strikes me during my time here is how terrible we are as a country at serving champagne. We’re repeatedly told that drinking from a flute is sacrilege. Wider, tulip glasses allow the wine to mix with more oxygen, enhancing the flavour, and the curved shape encases the aromas. Bottles should also be left at room temperature for 30 minutes once opened, and condensation should never be seen on a glass.
Clearly, we’ve a lot to learn. And this is the best place in the world to do so.
Eurostar (eurostar.com) from London to Paris costs from £58 return. Trains from Paris Gare de l’Est to Champagnes-Ardennes from £17 return. Double rooms at Royal Champagne start from £440 (royalchampagne.com). Visit champagne.co.uk.