How to read a champagne bottle label:
» Vintage champagne is not necessarily the best — it just means that it comes from one particular year. Non-vintage can be preferable, because many winemakers prefer to blend two years to give a better flavor, and only create a single-year champagne — also known as a millesime — if it’s a particularly good one.
» Extra brut means no sugar has been added. Brut is dry, with up to 12g of sugar per liter. Extra dry is actually not dry at all, with up to 18g of sugar per liter and demi sec can contain a syrupy 35g.
» Cru means village or vineyard. The best vineyards are classed grand cru because of their sunlit, well-drained positions. A premier cru is almost as good. If neither is on the label, it’s from a basic champagne vineyard.
» Cuvee is the first pressing, giving the best juice from the flesh of the grape. Premiere taille is in fact the second pressing. Blanc de blancs means wine made from white (green) grapes. A blanc de noirs is white wine made from black grapes.
» Some producers will include the words ‘traces of egg’ on bottles destined for the UK. Egg white is put into fermented grape juice to force the biggest sediment to settle.
Warning: Excessive consumption of alcohol can damage your health
A self-drive champagne-tasting trip? It sounded like a literal crash course. I would need to get airbags fitted to the outside of the car, to be sure I would bounce off oncoming vehicles and vineyards.
Before investing, though, I enquired further, and heard the good news: that we would be walking between the champagne houses, so there was no danger of crashing, getting Breathalyzed or — worse — having to limit my tasting to one sip per glass. The only driving I would do was to the village of Ay (pronounced “ah-yee”), near Epernay, which is home to some 30 champagne houses. These include some of the big boys, such as Deutz and Bollinger, but this tour is designed to shun the famous labels and focus on the small, independent producers.
In the run-up to the festive season — or before a wedding or big party — it’s hard to think of a better weekend break. It is still possible to snap up bargain-price bottles that, first, don’t have any tell-tale supermarket branding on them, and second, actually taste rather fine. The more you buy the more you save. You just have to get to Ay. Perhaps this is the perfect trip for our chastened times, a holiday that’s simultaneously decadent and financially prudent — a credit-crunch-busting orgy of champagne.
First stop, our chateau hotel, to meet our guide, the tres charmante Caroline Guizelin-Brun, owner of the Roger Brun champagne house, fluent English-speaker and fount of local knowledge.
It’s 6pm, aperitif time, and Caroline welcomes us with a champagne bouquet: five gold-capped bottles on ice. So I am somewhat confused by her first question. “Which do you prefer,” she asks, “Chardonnay or Pinot Noir?”
“Er no, champagne, please,” I reply, and sense from Guizelin-Brun’s patient smile that this isn’t quite the right answer. She explains: pure Chardonnay champagnes are very light and fizzy. Pure Pinot Noirs are stronger-flavored, fruitier. Pinot Meunier is usually added less for its taste than to help with the ageing process. Most champagnes are blends of two or more of these grapes.