It was a rough night’s sleep in our Chambre d’Hotes in the gorgeous Grand Cru Champagne town of Ay.
We’d bedded down for the evening and were well into the land of nod, when heavy footfalls on the stairs leading to our door awoke Nadine. She shook me awake and whispered that there was someone at our door. I listened for a moment as light started to spill under the entrance. Then the attempt of a key in the door and the rattle of a handle made us fairly rattled too! A second attempt at the door followed. I’d managed to throw a shirt on over my pyjamas and went to save the day just as we heard some muffled French and retreating steps down the stairs. I opened our door to stare at a bewildered elderly couple who, in the dark, had mistaken our entrance for theirs. Then around midnight, almost back to sleep after we’d made comparisons of our current accommodation to the pitfalls of staying in youth hostels, the thin walls announced that our neighbours had arrived home. Within moments, the conjoining room door, which we assumed was locked from both sides (as it should only be used for a dual or family booking and there was no key on our side), burst open wide to be met with a scream from Nadine. Needless to say the door shut pretty bloody fast with a frightened yelp from the other side. With the possibility of random strangers popping into our room at any stage they wished, returning to sleep was not an easy feat.
The alarm went off and I managed to head out the door for an early morning run high amongst the hills and amongst the vines behind Ay. The sun was yet to rise, the gothic church spire and the dim lights of the town below providing a beacon in the pre-dawn gloom. In normal day to day life I try to keep as fit as I can and enjoy running, but the gradients of the vineyard slopes were suprisingly steep and left me a little breathless as I passed vineyard markers for top marques Laurent-Perrier, Moët & Chandon and of course Perrier Jouët. Heading back through the empty streets of Ay, the houses seemed to be the intruders on the landscape. But vineyards and homes are neighbours here, intrinsically linked ensuring co-existence for the foreseeable future.
As we sat down Chambre d’Hotes for breakfast, a well dressed lady in her 70’s approached our table somewhat hesitantly and asked “Are you the couple staying directly above?” When we stated we were, she was quite visibly embarrassed and apologised profusely. It turns out she was previous evening’s intruder through the conjoined door. She offered the excuse that after arriving home late from a gathering with friends, she was simply unfamiliar with the room’s layout and thought it was the cupboard. Nadine and I were left to wonder, due to her age, what might have happened if she’d had a heart attack due to the shock of being met a scream. By way of atonement she offered us free entry to be spectators at the local Crossword Championships in which she was participating. Luckily we were already booked to visit Champagne Tarlant…
A short drive from Ay into the heart of Œuilly to reach Champagne Tarlant. Warmly greeted by Micheline, mother to vigneronne Melanie and (now 12th generation Tarlant) winemaker Benoit. Sitting and tasting with Micheline was to experience her energy, passion and enthusiasm for the family’s champagne and the land. Family is always hard to work with, but it produces the best results and Micheline’s recounting of the blending trials only emphasises this fact. We discussed vintages and new technologies for viticulture such as remote monitoring of weather stations (admittedly, this lead Micheline to state that Jean and Benoit now stare at the computer rather than the skies!).
The tasting room at Tarlant feels more like a lounge room and holds the circular tasting table in the middle of the room. It encourages conversation and interaction, Micheline sat at the head to pour but the small tasting group was intimate and inclusive. The wines themselves are also easily in the upper echelon of Champagne. From the razor sharp Zero Dosages (and in particular the Rosé with spicy cinnamon, lavender & soft cassis) to the complexity (and relative youthfulness) of the Prestige Vintage 2000. The Tarlant family are producing the complete Champagne experience that I encourage people to visit. From here we were to experience the complete antithesis of Champagne tourism: G.H Mumm.
G.H Mumm, Reims, Champagne’s capital is part of the Pernod Ricard group and often referred to as the Brother to Perrier Jouët (the Sister) that we’d visited the day prior. As soon as one enters the Caves of Mumm, the masculinity of the brand is emphasised. Mumm has been the Champagne that has been used to celebrate Man’s exploits…from Forumla 1 Racing podiums to Antarctic expeditions. The bold Cordon Rouge blazes fiercely across all advertising throughout the Caves. Our time here was the ‘standard’ tour and left us a little wanting. After experiencing such passion at Tarlant; personal service at Perrier Jouët and pride of place at Ayala, Mumm felt a touch cold. The Cordon Rouge NV is a masculine beast also, with overt acidity and a dense palate compared to the finesse we had come from at Tarlant.
Our last day in Champagne was to experience something new, distilled Champagne products…Ratafia, Fine and Marc. Dumangin et Fils had been recommended to us by Alex Gambal in the pretty little town of Chigny-les-Roses high in the Montagne de Reims national park. Dumangin et Fils seem to celebrate their notoriety of being a “cheap” Champagne served at Paul McCartney’s wedding with folios of British tabloid trash mag pages for perusal whilst tasting their perfectly good wines! They also specialise in other Champagne products: tasty mustards, honeys and grape jams. Admittedly Nadine was far more taken with these flavours than the spiritous, warm and alcoholic distilled products. The Marc certainly warming the cockles (even the sub-cockles) on a cool, autumnal Champagne day and the Ratafia showing finesse and still strong with length of flavour rather than out and out alcohol.
Sad to leave Champagne and for the moment, France, but our journey had to continue northwards. Next destination: Brugges in Belgium. From everything we’d seen of the city, it was to be just like a fairytale….