Tour de France

Champagne For Breakfast And Tastings All Afternoon

Three generations work together at Ruffin et Fils, a small champagne house in Etoges, France, to cultivate the family’s 11 hectares here in this country’s Champagne region. The harvest from the vines on that land, along with the grapes the family buys from other small farmers who cultivate vines but have no capacity to turn their harvests into wine, allow the family Ruffin to produce some 250,000 bottles of bubbly per year.

Madame Ruffin welcomed us warmly into her winery when we stopped by one afternoon last week, inviting us for a tasting if we had time. She poured us three small flutes of her classic house blend, very dry, including one for young Jackson. This was our 14-year-old’s first glass of champagne ever.

We chatted and sipped and then purchased two bottles of what we’d sampled to take away with us back to our hotel. Out on the street, Jackson looked up at me with a big smile and said, “My head feels a little funny, but it’s nice. Now I think I understand why you like champagne so much.”

Within walking distance of the Chateau Etoges where we’re staying are at least six such small champagne houses, all family owned and operated, and in the villages between Etoges and Epernay, then in the villages between Epernay and Reims, are many others, hundreds in total.

Beneath these maisons de champagne are hundreds of kilometers of cellars carved out of the chalk earth. The original chalk caves were dug by the Romans. Some of these first tunnels are today the cellars of the Taittinger house.

The tour at Mercier, perhaps the most popular brand of champagne among the French, was less history and more spectacle. M. Mercier was a showman, a Mad Man long before the boys of Madison Avenue came up with the idea, and largely responsible for making champagne available in volume and for general (not only royal) consumption.

A tour of the boutique winery Comtesse Lafond is an excuse to have a look at this house’s impressively fanciful chateau. The Mumm tour, meantime, is full of information. Our guide explained in interesting detail the complicated and exacting steps involved with turning grapes not into simple wine but champagne. Although much of the process today can be and is mechanized, even the biggest houses continue to manage at least some small part of their annual production according to long tradition, with, for example, riddlers turning up to 40,000 bottles per day by hand on the wooden racks that line cave walls for kilometers.

We are in Champagne a few weeks post-harvest. This is not the busiest time of year (that’d be the harvest season of late August through early October, during which time the big houses can employ up to 1,000 pickers apiece and nothing else matters but the picking), but it is perhaps the most critical. For it is during these weeks that the cellar masters are determining the blends and mixes for their respective varieties.

We wondered how we’d fill a full week here, but that hasn’t been a problem. No two champagne house tours are alike, and each finishes with a tasting, so I’d be happy to do these day after day for some time. Driving from town to town is a treat; the view everywhere is of neatly tended fields, some green, some reddish, some golden now as the season is changing.

We’ve existed this past week from tour to tour and from meal to meal. The chateau where we’ve been based (heartily recommended) serves a full, formal French meal each evening. We indulged one night, but our jet-lagged selves struggled with courses running past 11 p.m.

Perhaps our most memorable meal has been lunch in the local Etoges pub, 10 minutes’ walk from the chateau. The three daily menu choices are written in chalk on the board out front. Each choice includes a buffet selection of appetizers (choose from salads, Carpaccio, and pate), the main course with potatoes, dessert (choose from fresh tarts and fruit), a small carafe of wine, and coffee. Inside the small pub when we dined were a dozen others, mostly local residents, all enjoying a two-hour lunch in friendly company and alongside a roaring open fire. All this for 12.50 euro per person.

We asked the lady of the pub which of the local wineries provides her house champagne. Boral Lucas, she informed us. We’re off to visit today. It will be, alas, our final champagne house tour of this trip.

What a trip it’s been. Champagne on the buffet at breakfast, champagne tastings twice a day, champagne with dinner, after dinner…even a champagne bar in the Banque de France building in Reims. Maybe it’s time to dry out a little…

Tomorrow, we head to Paris, for a week of business meetings and property viewings. Interest rates remain appealingly low in this country, and we’re considering investing in a small Paris apartment to serve as a new Euro-base for Live and Invest Overseas. Lief will share details of what we learn from our search about the French property market with his Marketwatch later in the week.

Kathleen Peddicord