It was all Abi’s fault. Tania mentioned to me a few weeks ago that our daughter Abi who is currently studying culinary arts at UCB and working front of house at one of the city’s leading restaurants, was keen to expand her knowledge of wine production with a visit to one or two wine producers. My suggestion that we take a couple of day trips to the worthy vineyards of Halfpenny Green and Three Choirs was met with a certain level of disdain and so it was that 4.30 am on August 10th saw 4 of us piling into the jalopy, setting the satnav and heading off in the general direction of Champagne. (Needless to say, by this time Abi’s brother Ben had got wind of what we were up to and had, coincidentally, found himself at a loose end.)
My only precondition in organising the trip was that once parked, the jalopy would not move until departure day so our visit to our old friends at Champagne Gardet on Monday was preceded by a 20 km bike ride along the canalside cyclepath out of the city before a steady climb up through the vineyards on the Montagne de Reims to the pretty village of Chigny-les-Roses. I’m not sure how many of Gardet’s visitors arrive by bike but all credit to Export Director Lynda Fiel, who was not remotely fazed by our mode of arrival, allowing us to make some effort at tidying ourselves up before taking us around the cellars which have seen considerable expansion since my last visit some 5 years ago. Gardet now rank among the top 20 Champagne Houses in terms of their volume yet continue to fly beneath the radar in the UK, eschewing the main High Street retailers and grocers in favour of building long term relations with traditional merchants based on their quality and incredible value.
This was particularly brought home during the course of our tasting when, in spite of my preconceptions, I thoroughly enjoyed the newly released “Byzantine,” an “extra dry” Champagne (meaning slightly less than dry) which works really well when poured over strawberries and blackberries and served with mint leaves. I’m sure my father will be turning in his grave to hear me say this but trust me, it works. I was also particularly taken with the latest release of the 1er cru, a much more traditional style produced exclusively from black grapes; this has a well defined, toasty character and a long, dry finish. Neither are in stock currently but both should be available within the next few weeks.
Having taken full advantage of Gardet’s generous hospitality, we were then in the fortunate position of being able to freewheel down the gentle slopes through the vineyards before hitting the towpath back into the city where, 2 days later we were guests of Champagne’s oldest House, Ruinart. With a pedigree dating back to 1729, extensive cellars under the city including the wonderful old Roman “crayeres,” a range of such high profile brands as their Blanc de Blancs and the legendary Dom Ruinart and a somewhat indulgent parent in LVMH, the contrast with Gardet could not have been greater.
Their stockholding is frankly jawdropping as you pass through miles of cellars stacked floor to ceiling with thousands upon thousands of bottles of Ruinart. A 2 hour tour passed in a flash as the company’s chequered history was brought to life. After years of growth and success, 1939 saw their fortunes irreversibly altered. Throughout the second world war they suffered the misfortune of being the Champagne House favoured by the local German High Command and as a consequence, by the time they left the cellars were empty and the bank balance not dissimilar, hence the subsequent takeover by Moet & Chandon. Fortunately, such generous parenting is not without dividends and as we concluded with glasses of Blanc de Blancs and Dom Ruinart we were reminded as to the benefits of all those years the bottles spend in the cellars.
Whilst riding through the vineyards, it crossed my mind that we may have a few likeminded customers who would enjoy a short, cycling tour of Champagne, visiting growers and one or two of the larger Houses, taking in the scenery and taking advantage of some of the region’s gastronomic haunts. If this idea appeals, give me a shout at some stage and there is the vaguest of outside chances that we may organise something……….eventually!