Saturday, July 18, 2015

Our best holiday ever

This is me with Nicolas Jaeger, 'chef du cave', a wine mega-star who introduced us to Alfred Gratien champagne, on the holiday of our lives.

Our campervan is a total money pit.  It probably should be illegal to spend the amount of money we have spent on it.  But we have just been on our first foreign holiday with it and it has come into its own!  It's a driveable micro-home.  We have come back total Francophiles, the love affair that I never really had with France has just been ignited.

The holiday started off very well too.  We can heartily recommend travelling to France in June (prior to the kurfuffles) and in particularly on a Sunday morning which was when our Chunnel crossing was.  I drove the van there - only for the third time and it was a dream.  No traffic, singing 'Don't stop me Now' by Queen at the tops of our voices, joy of joys.  And then France swept us off our feet.  She started full on, with a smacker on the lips - believe it or not at a service station near Calais.  I had argued with hubby that you get amazing French food wherever you are, even at service stations.  He protested.  I insisted.  Anyway we went in and for eight euros (£6) I had the most delicious gnocci in cheese sauce with a delectable regional cheese topping.  Divine.  I'm not kidding.  You can't eat anywhere like that in the UK, never mind at a service station for less than a tenner.

Then we had our first experience of a French toll.  Yes even that was ok, we had a very helpful smiling attendant who stopped the beeping and helped us pay.  (This was not typical though, a later toll experience was a low light of the trip).

We had already decided to stay in Epernay for one night on our way down to Burgundy, so we arrived at the campsite municipal.  There was no toilet paper provided, or soap, no views.  But it was by the river and about 30 minutes walk into Epernay.  The staff were helpful and there were good brochures at reception.

Our book that we were heavily reliant on did very well indeed.  A beautifully written book, with great detail on every appellation of wine.  It was 'French Wines' by Robert Joseph published by my favourite publishers - Dorling Kindersley. This book was essentially our bible and Robert Joseph our guru.  Burgundy is his favourite wine region which is why we went there, Volnay his favourite wine so we went there.  We didn't agree with him on every detail of course, and I'm starting to wish I got their matching 'French Cheeses' book, hundsight is a wonderful thing...  In the wine book that we did have, Joseph recommends the Castellane champagne tour.  They have a big unused water tower which overlooks the town and is a great landmark, hubby wanted to climb up it and get views of the town so we did.  But by the end of the tour I was pretty convinced that champagne was a huge capitalist conspiracy - a total con and snake oil sale at its finest.  Their massive complex was just a huge cold factory - with clinking machines churning out the end product just like every other manufacturing outfit I've ever worked in or been unlucky enough to walk into.  They showed us the process - which is essentially adding sugar - something I did to poor wine when I was seventeen when camping to make it taste nice.  They eventually led our group of twenty into an enormous hall with a bar the length of an Olympic swimming pool, with shiny ceramic tiles so our voices echoed round.  This was where we were going to do the tasting.  Funnily enough it didn't taste very nice.  I got hubby to finish mine.    I thought that I would be put off Champagne, my favourite drink, for ever.  Husband saved the day, with a spot of what can only be described as holiday optimism.  Joseph had also recommended a tour of Alfred Gratien champagne producers.  Husband said 'the smaller producers will be much better'.  I didn't believe him.  We rang them and husband spoke to a man who would give us a tour in a hour's time.  I had to admit it sounded promising.He was the 'chef du cave' or wine maker it turns out.  And what a master stroke the visit was.

We found the building, non-descript near Rue de la Winston Churchill (of course) on the back streets of Rue de la Champagne in Epernay.  There was no obvious reception or office, just an enlarged photograph of the founder, Alfred Gratien in a window.  A man simply waved us into the warehouse.  There we met the incredibly friendly, more than helpful, total legend, that is Nicolas Jaeger.  He was immediately welcoming and so generous with his time.

Straightaway he took us to the oak barrels.  He told us the history of the barrels and the wine house.  The different wines that make up the champagne get stored in these old oak barrels which had been storing Chablis from Burgundy (where we where to later visit).  Nicolas was the fifth generation of Jaegers to have the prestigious position of 'chef du cave' or winemaker. The owners had invested a lot in the house he told us, yet they still had only five members of staff (all of whom bar his wife we met).  He was proud to call himself the winemaker, which was such a contrast with the other producers we went to where we never even met the 'chef du cave' as they were too busy.  He took us into the cellars and on to the tiny 'production line' where we saw him direct the quality control, gently admonishing staff for putting a label on skewiff.

He told us where the wine went - an impressive short list: Lufthansa first class cabins, the Wine Society in the UK and Berry Bros and Rudd - again in the UK.

Then the tasting.

We were ushered into a beautiful room on the first floor.  White washed with shutters on a marvellous enormous window, overlooking those typical French red rooves, with a large dining table and a sink in the corner.  We sat down, it was just the three of us.  Such a contrast with the monster of a room for tasting Castellane.  In this intimate and spectacular environment with the most charming of hosts how could the wine not taste nice? couldn't.  But our expectations were exceeded.  I will run out of superlatives.  Sublime, divine, unique.  You will not taste a nicer wine. Meeting Nicolas Jaeger was the icing on the cake.   The experience of a lifetime.  Needless to say husband is getting membership of the Wine Society for his birthday.