Underground in Épernay
Wednesday, July 03, 2019
We took our time over a shorter drive from Beaune to Épernay. French autoroutes somehow sit more lightly on the landscape than British motorways. They lack the embankments to screen them from their neighbours, the gantries to monitor and nag their users and the ugly safety infrastructure that makes a British motorist feel part of some dark industrial process. In consequence one can get a sense of terroir as one passes through it. I enjoy driving in France more than anywhere I’ve been — except the United States. Swiss roads are more beautiful perhaps, but too aggressively policed to provide enjoyment!
Higher speed limits help too. On this run I made a conscious effort to slow down in order to break the habits I’ve acquired on this road trip before returning to the UK. The French limit of 130kph is 11mph over the UK’s maximum. I need our home limit to feel fast again when I return or I’ll be picking up points between Folkestone and London.
At one stage of our run, we found ourselves stuck in a convoy, driving precisely at the French limit, behind a gendarmerie van. Time after time we were overtaken by motorists surprised to find themselves faster than a Ferrari, a Porsche 911 and a nifty little Abarth 500 only to watch their brake lights come on as they spotted the gendarmes’ waspish paint job and see them join our snake of frustration.
They played with our heads a little to amuse themselves. They slowed by 5kph at one point, tempting a Citroën to overtake them — very slowly — only to return to the limit and hold him there, uncomfortable in their gaze. They tried that again after a few kilometres but no-one took the bait. We never did find a boundary to their jurisdiction. We took the exit for the road to Lille and Calais while they carried on — for all I know or care — all the way to Paris
Our goal was to arrive at Moët et Chandon’s headquarters on the Avenue de Champagne in Épernay in time to take a tour. We arrived at 3.15pm. Having posed for a photo with the statue of humanity’s benefactor Dom Perignon and bought our tickets, we rested in the elegant exhibition area for thirty minutes before joining the last tour of the day with Belarusian guide, Marina.
I’d been before so knew that Mrs P II would enjoy it. Épernay has 110 kilometres of champagne cellars beneath its streets. 28 of those kilometres belong to Moët et Chandon, the biggest if not necessarily the greatest of the famous houses. Marina told us it produces enough of its fizzy joy juice for one bottle to be opened every second. That’s almost true. The house produces 28 million bottles a year (taking seven years per vintage bottle). There are 31.5 million seconds in a year. Near enough for elastic marketing arithmetic.
I enjoyed the tour as much the second time as I did the first though I’d forgotten how much Napoleon featured in the story. M. Moët was so excited at the prospect of his enthusiastic imperial customer's first of several visits that he built a palatial Versailles-style home opposite his workplace to receive him. We viewed that from a domed pavilion built to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Moët Impérial — the House’s iconic product — created in 1869. The dome is made from bottles of it!
Boney is of course the Emperor referenced in the cuvée’s name. Marina’s constant warm references to that old tyrant jarred a little, but he’s long dead and deserves some credit for his excellent taste in booze, watches and bonbons. Sadly his influence lives on in his legal code, which has done more damage (in the view of this proud Common Lawyer) than his cannons ever did.
Our tour rounded off with a tasting of the white and rosé expressions of the latest vintage — 2012 — we bought some to take home and headed for our hotel.
We are spending our last night of our honeymoon in one of my favourite hotels in the world. Many years ago I was journeying south in Claudia — my beloved Mercedes cabriolet — with my family. I asked the satnav to suggest a lunch spot on our route. It guided us to a converted brickworks on a champagne estate where we enjoyed ourselves so much that it became our regular overnight stop on road trips from our then UK home in Chester to the Côte d’Azur.
Since I was widowed and moved to London it’s been too far north to be a half way point and I’ve tended to break my journeys at Dijon instead, but I wanted Mrs P II to experience its charms. I knew its splendid restaurant would provide a superb last supper of our honeymoon.
After an aperitif in the sunny garden outside, It duly did.
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