We’ve spent the past week floating through Champagne, leaving the rural Ardennes, home of dairy farms, forests and villages so small they lacked even a bakery (merde!). In one day we went from being tied up in the midst of fields, with the nearest town an hour’s walk away, to motoring besides the highway and tying up in downtown Reims (rhymes with France, somehow), the twelfth-largest city in France. We left the countryside, motored through what appeared to be an industrial suburb of Mordor and, voila, all of a sudden we were in the middle of a medieval city, passing the Cathedral where every French king was crowned. We feel as if we are flying under the French radar at times like this, coasting into the city, tying up at the side of the canal and hopping off the boat to explore, all without being charged a euro. We paid more to park our rental car in Reims last year than to park our 70-foot barge for three nights this year.
Reims bills itself as the Capital of Champagne (but, then, so does just about every city, town, village and hut in the region) and it is home to Taittinger, Pommery, Mumm, Veuve Cliquot and a dozen smaller houses. We toured Taittinger (pronounced “tay-tin-jay”) and were duly impressed at seeing 10 million bottles sitting in underground caves carved by Roman slaves. But these big champagne houses are big business and slick and showy. Last year, on a barge-shopping trip to nearby Epernay (which bills itself as the Capital of Champagne), we visited Moet et Chandon and saw its 10 million underground bottles. You can’t help but be impressed by anything on that scale. The Cathedral at Reims was equally huge, equally gargoyle-infested and instinctively infused us with two questions about building such a building: first, how in the world did they build something like that, then, second, why in the world did they build something like that? Cathedrals were the space program of the Middle Ages. Unlike the space program, though, they did not spin off world-changing goodies like Tang and Velcro and Teflon. But we’re sure they impressed the masses and kept the stained glass artisans employed.
We spent a few days in Reims then left the city and motored out into the countryside to the town of Sillery, located at the foot of the Mountain of Reims, actually more of a hill, but oh so much more than just a hill. The slopes are where the champagne grapes are grown. Land there goes for a million euros an acre, when it goes on sale at all. Every village there, no matter how small, has, besides its boulangerie, tabac store selling newspapers and lottery tickets and its hair dresser, a handful of champagne houses, none of which you will have heard of because none of their champagne leaves France. It turns out the Mountain of Reims is a half hour bike ride from the Canal of Sillery. Thusly was born the Rule of Buying Champagne: Always Buy from the Highest Vintner. You don’t follow this rule because of some obscure oeneological observation relating to air pressure or altitude infusing the grapes with bountiful bouquet. No, one follows this rule because a case of wine in thick champagne bottles is heavy. Coasting downhill from the Mountain of Reims to the Valley of the Canal did not require actually pedaling a pedal.
We followed the canal in an arc that took us to the other side of the Mountain of Reims, from the Reims side to the Epernay side, which happens to be the south-facing side. Every village on the south-facing side is quick to inform you when you enter that it is the “Capital of Champagne,” because, after all, it is on the south-facing side. We settled in at Ay (pronounced “eye,” probably because it doesn’t contain a single letter “I”). Ay is across the Marne River from Epernay (remember, the Capital of Champagne). Epernay is slick and touristy. A trolley takes you from Moet et Chandon down the Avenue de Champagne past Champagne Perrier-Jouet, Bollinger and, of course, Dom Perignon. Ay, however, is chock-a-block with literally mom-and-pop champagne houses. We picked one to visit: Champagne Pascal Henin. For comparison, at Taittinger we walked past underground vaults stacked with champagne bottles, aging away for year after year. One vault contained 72,242 bottles (a sign said so). There were lots of those vaults. Pascal Henin produces 45,000 bottles a year, in a good year. But each of those bottles is blended by Pascal himself. So we visited the house where Pascal and Delphine Henin live. Delphine sat us down at a table and started bringing out bottles to sample. And sample. And sample. Pascal and Delphine started the business in 1990. They come from champagne families. As she put it, Pascal’s family is pinot noir and chardonnay, the two primary varieties blended into champagne, but her family has the fields of pinot meunier, the third, and most subtle variety of grapes combined in various ratios to produce champagne. By their marriage, they literally became a blended family.
We bought a case containing their six different blends. This was too much for us to carry so, an hour later, our Champagne Pascal Henin was delivered to the barge by Pascal Henin himself, and son. I expect neither Messieur Moet nor Messieur Chandon do deliveries.
Champagne, on both the industrial and the familial scales, seems to be good business. The Ardennes was far from wealthy. The term “wealthy farmer” approaches being an oxymoron. Even in a Champagne village as small as Ay, however, the streets are literally paved with ceramics.
We’ll move on from Champagne on Monday, heading west down the Marne River toward Paris, where we are due to arrive at the Dutch Barge Association summer rally on June 1, to mix and mingle with 40 other barges. We’ve lots of time to get there, even at our snail’s pace, so we’ll be stopping along the way to touch up the varnish and to paint over our educational lockside dings. Hoop Doet Leven feels like our home now, after two months, which is a good thing as our house in Massachusetts s rented for two years. It stills rains every day but we haven’t had to turn on the heat in a week. We miss family and friends, yet we have the feeling that our adventure is still just beginning.