Where the party begins

Lydia Bell inhales the smell of money and fine wine in the cellars and grand maisons of Champagne.

Oligarchs swim in it, formula one winners spray it over their adoring fans and wedding guests get high on it. In Australia, the champagne season kicks off with the Melbourne Cup in November.

How did it come to pass that the popping of a champagne cork marks so many rites of passage? The sound equals celebration, euphoria, love, friends and family. The sour-sweet bubbles taste of glamour, success and decadence.

I have come to Epernay, the "capital" of Champagne, in Champagne-Ardenne, north-east of Paris, to explore the place where the global love affair with bubbly began. Here, on the Avenue de Champagne, most of the serious maisons have their headquarters; quelle surprise, real estate here fetches more per square metre than along the Champs-Elysees.

The avenue exudes that particularly French brand of restrained elegance. Dozens of 19th-century classical and Renaissance mansions line the avenue like grandiose hens sitting on their eggs; the precious 100 kilometres of cellars and their cargo dug into the chalky earth beneath.

The names emblazoned on the mansions are a roll call of indulgence: Moet et Chandon (the true champagne monster, owned by conglomerate LVMH and pumping out 35 million bottles a year), Perrier-Jouet, Mercier, De Castellane. The latter, founded in 1895, is my destination for a cellar tour. It is a palatial affair topped with a bell tower, designed by Marius Toudoire, the architect of the Gare de Lyon in Paris, and looks over undulating countryside scored and dissected with neat vines. These days, the corporate culture has infiltrated this proud patch of France and Laurent Perrier owns De Castellane.

Few go to Epernay without descending into the cellars of at least one champagne house and here is the nub of the experience: a dank, earthy, humid smell, with a top note of grapey perfume pervading the senses as guides talk about the labour-intensive process of making champagne.

It is de rigueur to stop at small boutique winemakers, too, as well as at one or two of the big names. Many boutique and big-name houses are open for cellar tours, though some of the bigger houses are so popular they require bookings. Walk-in visits can be made at any house with an "Accueil" (welcome) sign outside.

It is the weekend and De Castellane's six kilometres of cobwebbed cellar are eerily deserted. A commanding young blonde guide lays it out for me. First, there's the selection of la cuvee - the base wine. Top-flight Champagne houses buy theirs from villages in the grand cru, the best-rated patch of terroir. Mostly, the cuvee is a blend of the acidic white grape chardonnay, the black-skinned pinot noir and pinot meunier, which hail from different parts of the terroir.

Sugar, yeast and nutrients are added to the cuvee and the concoction goes into a thick glass bottle sealed with a cap. It's placed in a cool cellar and ferments a second time, which produces that magic sparkle. Thereafter it ages slowly - three years for a decent bottle, five for a top vintage cuvee. The dead yeast cells are removed through a process known as riddling. The big houses have machines for this, but smaller operations use a manual riddler, a person who marches through the dark tunnels to rotate up to 30,000 bottles a day on their racks, forcing yeast deposits into the neck of the bottle.

Then for the degorgement. The upside-down bottle's neck is frozen in an ice-salt bath. A plug of frozen wine and yeast is popped out, and the "dosage" added - a white wine, brandy and sugar injection - to offset the acidity. The wired cork goes in, the label goes on, et voila. C'est finalement fini.

After De Castellane (57 Rue de Verdun, Epernay, +33 3 2651 1919; www.castellane.com) we stop at C.Comme degustation bar and shop (8 Rue Gambetta, Epernay, +33 3 2632 0955; c-comme.fr), an antidote visit to sample a variety of drops from small grower-producers and to buy bottles at producer prices. Each week, owner Frederic Dricot rotates the six champagnes in his €33 ($41) tastings, each of which come with a description of the grower, the blend and the position in the appellation - he has about 50 producers and 400 champagnes in his cellar.

We spend the night in Reims. At the city's heart is a Gothic masterpiece cathedral with flying buttresses, rose windows and niches filled with open-winged angels. That night, a psychedelic son et lumiere (sound and light show) is projected on its facade, with each statue picked out in wild colours, and a thousand points of light trained with mystifying precision. This is a reimagining of the Middle Ages, when France's sculpture-laden cathedrals were all painted, more resembling Hindu temples than the monochromatic structures we admire today.

Reims was bombed to smithereens by German cannon in the Great War, after which only 60 of its 14,000 houses were habitable. But the cathedral, the city's pride and joy, was meticulously rebuilt. Contemporary stained glass was integrated into the empty windows, including Marc Chagall's evocative Tree of Jesse window in the axial chapel. The city today exudes a quiet, polished sophistication with its spacious avenues, well-kept facades and pathways garnished with hanging flowers and fat balls of topiary.

Thirty-four sovereigns of France, from 816 until 1825, were crowned in the Reims cathedral, after the 5th-century French king Clovis I converted to Christianity. Champagne was used in coronation festivities; it was a perfect marketing opportunity that did not go unnoticed by leading manufacturers, who thenceforth devoted themselves to associating champagne with nobility and royalty, luxury and festivities.

The Romans were the first to plant vines and dig cellars here, but from the Middle Ages, monasteries owned the vineyards and produced eucharistic wine. In the late 17th century, a Benedictine monk, Dom Pierre Perignon, perfected the process. By the 19th century, champagne was all the rage. It was much sweeter than today - the trend for brut champagne didn't take off until about 1850.

Champagne's "appellation d'origine controlee", mapped out rigorously in 1927, covers about 34,000 hectares in four areas: the Montagne de Reims, La Vallee de la Marne, La Cote des Blancs and La Cote des Bar. Climate, chalk and marine-rich soil and subsoil, geography, finesse and exactitude are the alchemy in this fragmented patchwork of small-plot vineyards passed down through families. The appellation is controlled by a rigorous set of rules enshrined in law, which protect the region's economic interests: "Il n'est Champagne, que de la Champagne." These rules codify the terroir, even how the vines should be pruned. Only 17 villages have grand cru status, and 44 have premier cru status. Most champagne these days is non-vintage, a blend of wine produced in different years. This guards against the variability provoked by the unreliable weather - this year has been particularly soggy and mildew-ridden.

The champagne house of note in Reims is Champagne G.H. Mumm (+33 3 2649 5969; ghmumm.com) and we visit the next morning. Opened in 1827, this is a friendly, medium-size producer (pumping out a "modest" 8 million to 9 million bottles a year with the help of winegrowers in the grand cru). Mumm, the third-largest producer in the world, has gone the corporate route, too, and is owned by Pernod Ricard. In its cellars, we learn this was a shelter during World War I for schoolchildren and front-line casualties. In 1920, the German owners sold the business to a French family. During the Nazi occupation they seized it back, which dissuaded visiting German soldiers from swigging the contents of its vintage vaults, as they did at other houses.

A mid-morning champagne preps us perfectly for lunch at the bon bourgeois Cafe du Palais, the town's 1930 art deco bistro (14 Place Myron T. Herrick; +33 3 2647 5254; cafedupalais.fr). Sunlight pours through the Jacques Simon stained-glass ceiling onto walls crammed with paintings, etchings, murals and drawings. A Marc Chagall drawing lurks on a side wall. Champagne is not known for its food, so focused have the Champenois been on their bubbles. But we devour what there is to enjoy: Chaource and Langres soft cow's cheese and sliced Reims ham - boneless shoulder slow-cooked in champagne stock and rolled in breadcrumbs.

Next morning we head to the chalky slopes of the Montagne de Reims, south of the city. Much of the dark-skinned pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes are grown here; the latter gives the wine its length and backbone. The Montagne de Reims is one of five circuits on the 60-kilometre Champagne Tourist Trail. It takes in 10 of the 17 grand cru-classified villages in the appellation and is the prettiest of the nation's tourist drives, being in a regional nature park. We start from the village of Ludes, home of the great maison Canard-Duchene. The most appealing stop is hollyhock-filled Hautvillers, which survived the wars bomb-free. This is where Dom Perignon worked and the monk is credited with perfecting champagne making in the 17th century as the cellarer in the Benedictine community.

Outside the town's houses, more than 100 wrought-iron signs swing in the wind, a reminder of the days when residents advertised their trade. Here, Au 36 is a pleasantly old-fashioned shop and degustation cafe that sells champagne at producer prices, and offers tastings along with a plate of champard'ises, charcuterie and cheeses from the region (36 rue Dom Perignon a Hautvillers, +33 3 2651 5837; au36.net; open 10am-1pm and 3-7pm, closed Wednesdays).

At Verzenay, we pop into Musee de la Vine (+33 3 2607 8787; lepharedeverzenay.com). It tells the history of champagne making through film, photography and objects. Bizarrely, it is housed in a lighthouse, which was the brainwave of producer Joseph Goulet, who in 1909 correctly surmised it would bring attention to his brand. Its beam swept all the way to Reims and a cabaret theatre entertained the Champenois bourgeoisie. Its pinnacle is a great place for a panoramic tasting.

Another quirky spot is at Verzy, near a mysterious forest of twisted beeches. The Perching Bar (+33 6 0767 9442; perchingbar.eu) is a little treetop spot in the Arboxygene adventure park, reached by suspended footbridges. Its seats and ice buckets are suspended on ropes from the roof, and guests sip and gaze over the plains.

Most grape growers sell to the big champagne houses, but about a third - and these are increasing in number - have begun producing their own. This is where the wine experts' noses are firmly trained.

The owner of our hotel in Verzenay, the ebullient Emmanuel Pithois, is a champagne maker, too. His label produces 40,000 bottles a year and he runs this successful B&B, which serves top-notch suppers to guests (+33 3 2649 4863; maisondesvignesdeverzenay.com).

Pithois uses wooden riddling racks but has his own grape presser and dosage machine. The latter doses 200 bottles an hour. Two hundred an hour? I ask if that's 40,000 bottles dosed in 20 days. "Yes! This is not a holiday!" he says jovially. I'd enjoy watching a reality TV program involving ingenue Australian teenagers seconded here. That night, his wife, Catherine, serves us home-baked savouries as amuse bouches with our brut and rosé, then asparagus cooked with lardons and quail with champagne-infused rice. We finish with their sweet ratafia aperitif.

My final, favourite pit stop is the exquisitely pruned Chalons-en-Champagne, which has snaffled the top prize in the Villes et Villages Fleuris for years. Joseph Perrier, established in 1825, is the only champagne house in Chalons. We manage to sneak a peek at its human-scale cellars, but it does not generally open to the public. It's a curious fact that the Champenois, so focused on their prize, do not cater to the gawping masses. Nor are there many restaurants or chambres d'hote (bed and breakfasts) in the vineyards, for the same reason.

The sight of Chalons' handsome, honey-hued churches and shuttered, half-timbered brick and chalk houses are best enjoyed from a boat on the mint-green canals that criss-cross the town. They leave regularly in summer from the tourist office. The rivers are flanked by wild flowers and overhung by weeping willows, and are perfectly silent. We glide through dank tunnels and pass abbeys and nunneries, bridges, turreted mansions and sleeping houses - stillness after intense, bubble-filled days.

Lydia Bell travelled courtesy of Champagne-Ardenne Tourism and Railbookers.


Getting there

Cathay Pacific has a fare to Paris from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2130 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Hong Kong (about 9hr) and then to Paris (13hr 5min); see cathaypacific.com. This fare allows you to fly back from another European city. Reims is 45 minutes by train from the Gard de L'Est station in Paris.

Alternatively, Railbookers arranges four-night rail journeys from London to Paris and Reims, including two nights' accommodation in each city, train transfers and a guided tour of the Mumm Champagne House. Fares cost from $565 a person. Phone 1300 938 534; see railbookers.com.au.

More information See champagne-ardenne-tourism.co.uk.