Valentine's Day is next Wednesday, and I don't know about you, but I'll definitely be drinking Champagne. Not only is it the coupe that toasts l'amour better than any other, it comes from a beautifully romantic part of France. While a rose-scented ticket for two to Champagne would be the most amazing Valentine's Day present, it's not the best time to visit. Far better to wait until May or June when the vines are flourishing, or go in the autumn during harvest time, when the local cep mushrooms are in season. If you want to indulge in some cep-inspired dishes, I can recommend Le Théâtre, a restaurant in Épernay, which is as dramatic as it sounds. And yes, you can have Champagne to accompany your dish.
There are two main towns, Reims, with its famous cathedral; and Épernay, 'the capital of Champagne' with its opulent L'Avenue de Champagne, which is said to be the most expensive avenue in the world, or as Churchill named it, "the world's most drinkable address". The reason for this is that beneath the avenue and its impressive buildings are chalk cellars where millions of bottles of Champagne are matured and stored. In fact, there are hundreds of kilometres of these chalk tunnels in the region. Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Pol Roger and Perrier-Jouët are among the stately Champagne houses that have their headquarters on the majestic avenue, and there are numerous Champagne bars where you can stop for a glass of bubbly and watch the world go by.
I stayed near Épernay, in Hostellerie La Briqueterie, a Relais Chateau Hotel on the slopes of the river Marne, which has all the finesse of the area without any of the stuffiness. There's a truly lovely Michelin-star restaurant there, which is as good for lunch as it is for dinner, and the impressive wine list includes 120 different Champagne houses, so you can get a real sense of the different styles of Champagne from large and small producers. Often in Champagne, you will find that it is possible to have a Champagne pairing with your dinner, and as there was an impressive selection by the glass, this is exactly what I did.
One of the most important things to remember when visiting Champagne is to plan in advance, and this is where staying somewhere like La Briqueterie (pictured left) makes a difference. Most visits to Champagne houses have to be booked in advance, and while you might have a good idea of the big houses you'd like to visit, getting to the more on-trend grower-producer houses requires a bit of inside knowledge and contacts. So the manager there arranged a programme for me which included a visit to a big and a small house, as well as a tour of the region.
First up was Pommery, one of the big houses in Reims. In 1860, upon the death of her husband, Madame Louise Pommery took over the running of the house and set about connecting the old chalk quarries - 120 caves called "les crayères" - with 18 kilometres of underground tunnels, dug out of the pliant chalk terroir. Over 20 million bottles are kept here in the perfect, cool conditions of the 'galleries' which you reach by going through a large door and descending 116 steps. Immediately, you can feel the difference in temperature and the dampness of the chalk. Art installations by renowned artists add to the drama of the tour as do the bas-relief sculptures by the artist Gustave Navlet, which depict Bacchus, the god of wine.
There is a mesmerising number of bottles of Champagne, each one with a secret code, so walking through, it is impossible to know what vintage is in each bottle. Except for the Manchester gallery, which is where the largest bottles are kept, and the wonderfully named Salmanazar, Methusaleh and Jéroboam bottles contain an impressive nine, five and three litres respectively of 20-year-old vintage Champagne.
The small Champagne house that I visited, Maison Jean Diot, was just a few minutes from La Briqueterie, and luckily my bad French was pas de problem. Henry Hackett, an English rugby player who had played for Lille and is now living in Champagne, was working there, and he was learning the ropes before setting up his own wine-importing business. They had harvested their grapes just 10 days previously, so there was plenty of work going on in the small winery. The juice of the three grape varietals that are used for Champagne, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier had just finished fermenting, so I was lucky enough to get to taste the young wines and see the difference between them before they were blended.
They also have a small tasting room at Diot, and as a few bottles were being opened by Jean Philippe, the owner, everyone working there came in to sit down and enjoy the conviviality. Yes, conviviality really is a thing in Champagne, even at 11 o'clock in the morning, and I know that if I had been travelling by car, rather than plane, I would certainly have been loading up with a few bottles. Prices start at €17.90, with a minimum purchase of a case of six. Yes, that's €107 for six bottles of good Champagne. Sigh.
As well as visiting the Champagne houses, it is a lot of fun to tour part of the signposted Champagne route in a tuk tuk. You'll feel more connected with the terroir as you trundle gently through the lush vineyards and hillsides which are dotted with picturesque villages. It's worth stopping in Hautvillers, to drop into the Abbey of St Peter and visit the grave of Dom Pérignon, the Benedictine monk who is considered by many to be the father of Champagne. And nearby there's a small park right beside the rolling hills of vineyards which is a perfect picnic stop. After that, a trip down the Avenue de Champagne in Épernay is a must.
Maybe it's the bubbles, but everyone I met in Champagne was incredibly friendly. Which is not surprising, since most of them drink Champagne every day. While few of us have a fridge with a constantly chilled bottle of Champagne, you can toast your beloved with one of these lovely bottles on Valentine's Day. And if there is no one who fits the bill, why not toast conviviality with a group of good friends?
Hostellerie La Briqueterie,
Maison Diot Champagne,
Tuk Tuk Champenois,
5 to try for Valentine's Day
Veuve Monsigny Brut Champagne
€19.99, 12pc, from Aldi
With a refreshing crunch of juicy apple, flecked with touches of lemon zest and a soft whisper of buttery complexity, this is a delicious glass of fizz that comes in at an incredibly good price.
Louis D’Or Brut Champagne
€32.95, 12.5pc, from Mitchell & Son, Dublin; and Mitchells at Avoca, Wicklow and Meath
An artisanal style of Champagne made by H Blin, one of the smaller producers, the flavours of apple and lemon curd are rounded out with a touch of pastry crust wrapped up in an elegant, creamy mousse.
Tesco Finest, Premier Cru Champagne
€35, 12.5pc, from Tesco
Aged for up to 36 months on its lees, this vegan-friendly Champagne from top-rated Premier and Grand Cru vineyards has a classic brioche character layered with baked apples. Great value for a Champagne at this level.
Canard-Duchêne Brut Rosé Champagne
€36.95 reduced from €44.95, 12pc, from O’Briens and obrienswine.ie
If you’re a fan of rosé, this is for you. With an abundance of ripe red fruit, this is packed with flavours of strawberry, cranberry, redcurrant and apple, balanced with a touch of spice and a savoury character that adds to its complexity.
Pommery Brut Royal Champagne
€53.99, 12pc, from Redmonds of Ranelagh, Sweeney’s, Jus de Vine, and Deveneys, all Dublin
If you can’t visit Pommery, you can always enjoy it at home. With a fine stream of bubbles, the Brut Royal is made in a fresh style, with a dry, steely character and plenty of fruit on the palate.