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Tiny bubblers

In a region of behemoth champagne producers, thousands of small cellars preserve generations of process, tastes, and hospitality

By Marta Zaraska
Globe Correspondent / December 26, 2010

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VENTEUIL, France — Madame Autréau places a wicker basket full of pink-hued biscuits on the table and motions me to take one, as she reaches to uncork another bottle of Autréau-Lasnot champagne and pours its bubbly contents into my glass. I take a sip; I smile. The champagne is great. As promised by my Guide Hachette Des Vins (the French wine lovers bible), it smells of strawberries and dried flowers, and is sweet and fruity in taste.

The Autréau family has been producing champagne in the tiny village of Venteuil on the banks of the Marne River for generations. “That’s my great-grandfather over there,’’ Autréau says, pointing to the wall where several pictures hang. One is of a gentleman with a stately mustache and a black beret on his head. “He was a great winemaker,’’ she says, smiling fondly. “His champagnes won many prizes in Paris.’’

If it’s a James Bond-style champagne experience you are after, domaine Autréau-Lasnot is not your vintage. There are no luxurious showrooms here, no ornate chandeliers, no caviar. Instead, you’ll find a homey atmosphere, a fireplace with old bottles lined up on its mantel, and a welcoming family of wine growers who will let you taste their champagnes for free as they relate their family history.

Here, in the heart of the Champagne-Ardenne region, wherever you go you stumble upon small cellars like Autréau’s. In Venteuil there are fewer than 600 inhabitants but more than 60 champagne producers. Wherever you look there are signs pointing to cellars, bottles piled in garages, wine-growing equipment scattered in the courtyards. And the air smells of soil, yeast, and wine.

Later in the afternoon I have an appointment with another small producer in the nearby village of Saint Martin d’Ablois. In other parts of France even the smallest of cellars usually have their doors wide open to unexpected visitors, but if you want to taste the bubbly wines of Champagne, you should call ahead.

The road from Venteuil toward Saint Martin d’Ablois winds through seemingly unending vineyards. I can only imagine how stunning they must look when the leaves are still green, covering the hills in thick carpets of lushness. Now the sky is heavy, the branches bare. And yet it’s this time of the year that Champagne attracts many visitors. “We are usually the busiest from the 15th of November till about 15th of December,’’ says Madame Huot as she welcomes me to the cellar of her family domaine. “Many people come here to stock up on champagne before the party season begins.’’

Huot’s family has been producing champagne for generations, and she knew since she was a little girl that one day she would become a wine grower herself. Now she gives me a tour of the cellar, explaining the details of the traditional champagne making process. I follow her into a brightly lighted room where eight enormous stainless-steel vats line the walls. Here the grape juice undergoes initial fermentation, the yeast eating the sugar in the grapes, and excreting carbon dioxide in the process.

Then we move deeper into the cellar, into rooms where the light is dimmer and champagne bottles are stacked to the ceiling. They have to stay like that for a minimum of 36 months, maturing, the pressure inside the bottles reaching even six atmospheres (but my guidebook reassures me that only about one bottle in 10,000 explodes). Then, in a small room by the cellar, I try the bubbly. Five types, five glasses, and a world of different tastes: kiwi fruits, plums, minerals — to name a few.

There are about 19,000 producers like Autréau and Huot in the Champagne region, but it is names like Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, and Moët & Chandon that are famous across the globe (one of the reasons being that they produce a lot of champagne). Most of those big houses offer guided tours in several languages. They are touristy and you have to pay (as much as $37 per person), but they are usually informative, fun, and a much different experience from the small cellars.

The famous houses are located along Avenue de Champagne in the town of Épernay. Side by side stand the imposing mansions of Moët & Chandon, Mercier, De Castellane, Perrier-Jouët. And below ground there are more than 68 miles of cellars filled with over 200 million bottles of champagne. No wonder the locals call it the richest avenue in the world.

As my small group steps down into the stone cellars of Moët & Chandon, the guide warns us not to get lost: The maze-like corridors, dating to 1743, are more than 17 miles long. In places, the mold on the ceilings is so thick you could plunge your whole fist into it. There are bottles everywhere, stacked high and dusty.

“How many bottles do you have here,’’ I ask the guide. “I can only tell you it’s millions,’’ she says. We are standing in front of wooden racks called “pupitres,’’ in which the champagne bottles are stuck neck down. She says that a professional “remueur’’ rotates them by hand, so that the yeast sediment slides down toward the cap before being removed. Such bottle turners can handle 40,000 bottles a day, but nowadays most champagne is turned mechanically.

When we pass row upon row of Dom Perignon bottles, most people in the group reach for their cameras. After all, Dom Perignon is one of the most famous brands of champagne, and here it is, thousands of bottles.

It is a myth, though, that the 17th-century monk named Dom Perignon discovered sparkling wines. They existed long before he was born. But Perignon improved the champagne production process. Today, you can visit his grave in the tiny village of Hautvillers. The grave itself is unimposing, but the charming village more than makes up for it. Perched high on a hill covered in vineyards, it has champagne-inspired details wherever you look: a poem about wine painted on a wall, a name of a street (rue Dom Perignon), an old barrel full of flowers hanging over a door.

It is 7 p.m., dinnertime in France, and I head back to the center of Épernay. The moment I sit down in a cozy restaurant, I hear a pop — yet another bottle of champagne being opened. And if that didn’t remind me that I am in the capital of bubbly, all I have to do is reach for a menu. Many places serve champagne-inspired dishes, be it snails in champagne butter or salmon cutlets in creamy champagne sauce.

But the Champagne region is much more than just the bubbly drink. There are the charming villages with winding, cobblestone streets; memorials of both World Wars scattered along the Marne; and, last but not least, the cities. Troyes, with its medieval atmosphere, crooked, half-timbered houses, and an old town shaped like a champagne cork; and Reims, with its spectacular Gothic cathedral that towers over the city and where so many French kings were crowned.

It is in Reims that I finish my tour and turn toward home. I have to drive carefully though. The trunk of my car is full of champagne.

Marta Workiewicz can be reached at mworkiewicz@yahoo.fr.

If You Go

Where to stay
Le Manoir des Charmes
83 Blvd Charles de Gaulle
51160 Ay (near Épernay)
011-33-326-545849
www.lemanoirdescharmes.fr
A charming country house. Doubles with breakfast $147-$188.
La Loge de Vigne
21 Rue des Vignes
51700 Villers sous Châtillon
011-33-683-057810
www.loge-de-vigne.fr
A great place to stay if you are traveling with a baby or another couple. Doubles with breakfast $107.
Suite Novotel Reims Centre
1 Rue Edouard Mignot
51100 Reims
011-33-326-895200
www.accorhotels.com
A three-star hotel. Doubles from $121, without breakfast.
Where to eat
La Cave à Champagne
16 Rue Léon Gambetta
51200 Épernay
011-33-326-555070
www.la-cave-a-champagne.com
A good place to try local dishes. Entrees $16-$24.
What to do
Moët & Chandon
20 Avenue de Champagne
51200 Épernay
011-33-326-512020
www.moet.com
One-hour cellar tour, $20-$38 per person, including tasting. Reservations recommended (visites@moet.fr).
Champagne Mercier
68-70 Avenue de Champagne
51200 Épernay
011-33-326-512222
www.champagnemercier.fr/#/cave
Cellar tour in a laser-guided train, $12-$23 per person, including tasting.
Capitulation Museum
12 Rue Franklin Roosevelt
51100 Reims
011-33-326-478419
www.ville-reims.fr
Here World War II in Europe ended, at General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s supreme Allied headquarters, where on May 7, 1945, German capitulation was signed. $2 per person.