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My wine friend Max-Georg always speaks of "sparkling water" when he means champagne. He has created many a misunderstanding with this. Is champagne really "only" an expensive "sparkling water" or is it quality wine after all? This question has been bothering me for a long time.

20 million bottles of champagne in the vaults of Pommery

So I accepted an invitation from wine enthusiasts to Reims, right in the heart of Champagne. As a student of art history, I once visited this city several times. But back then, I didn't notice the many Champagne producers with resounding names, nor the famous vineyards of the "Coteaux de la Montagne". All my attention was focused on culture: on the Gothic cathedral "Notre-Dame" from the 12th century, on the "Palais du Montre" from the 18th century. The Basilica of Saint-Remi, where the twin brother of Romulus (founder of Rome) is buried, or the 17th and 18th century buildings of the former monastery of Saint-Remi. and 18th centuries, where historical testimonies from prehistoric times to the Second World War are now presented.

Today, forty years later, I see none of that. There is not enough time even for a cursory glance at the world-famous cathedral. But even the vineyards where the grapes for the champagne grow remain hidden from me: fog, fog, fog...

116 steps to the 18 km underground cellar
For this, I visit three famous champagne houses to get a little closer to the secret of champagne. "Louis Roederer", one of the few large traditional companies that is still family-owned and does not belong to one of the large luxury goods groups, like "Pommery", for example, where you can reach 20 million stored bottles via a staircase with 116 steps at a depth of 30 metres and encounter an incredible variety of modern and older art on the way through the catacombs. Not in Reims, in Aÿ is the home of the Domaine "Bollinger", founded in 1829, again one of the last world-famous estates, run by the same family for decades. This already unique tradition is documented by the fact that today's patron, Ghislain de Montgolfier, a great-great-grandson of the founder, welcomes us personally in the style of the committed entrepreneur, a relic from the "founding era" in a place where otherwise the most polished possible, but mostly arbitrarily interchangeable managers stand.

For the first time, I have the impression that champagne can be something more than just a "luxury good" or sparkling "bubbly water", as a companion in noble moments: New Year, birthday, wedding or simply intermission of a concert, opera or theatre.

Ghislain de Montgolfier's welcome at Bollinger Castle

I am still moving in the area of cuvées without a vintage, I dare not speak of vintage champagnes. The price alone prevents a somewhat broader tasting experience. A "Bollinger" "Brut Grande Année 1999" costs a hefty 85 euros, a "Brut RD 1996" almost twice that, 140 euros (guide prices). Pommery is somewhat cheaper, but far less exclusive: "Brut Cuvée Louise 1998" is available for 116 euros, the Brut Crand Cru 1998 even for 37 euros. And Roederer can be compared to Bollinger in terms of price: Brut Cristal 1999, for example, costs 132 euros....

Only now, when I look up the guide prices in the wine guide, do I get a "shiver down my spine". This reminds me of Bordeaux.

To conclude the Reims journey, we are served a "Cristal 1999" (Roederer) from a Jéroboam before an eight-course menu. Sparkling, fresh, noble, beautiful also in the aromas, changing, developing on the palate. I enjoyed it! But did I really respect and enjoy this drop as much as a Bordeaux from the same price range? No!

Art in the cellar of Pommery

Champagne remains an unknown beauty for me: attractive, enjoyable, noble and - with a little longer engagement - definitely as excitingly nuanced as a great Bordeaux.

With a first, tentative step, I set out in search of good cuvées without a vintage. Comprehensive tastings, as they usually appear in wine magazines before the holidays, were helpful to me. Recommended: Henriot: Brut Souverain (26 ), rated 17/20 in the "Revue du Vin de France". But then I also tested it extensively - despite my naivety about champagne: Louis Roederer: Brut Premier, very fresh, with a lot of finesse and above all beautiful length. And Moët et Chandon "Brut impérial", from the world's most famous house of champagnes: idiosyncratic in character, nothing of "sparkling water", rather elegant, with almost salty notes in the finish... All these wines cost around 30 euros.

Ready for tasting

But what am I writing, what am I - amateur - quoting from my spontaneous notes? Imposture or an attempt to turn "sparkling water" into a differentiated, French top wine that can be enjoyed and described with just as much nuance as a great Bordeaux? There is still a long way to go until then. I will practise, practise, practise..... So the coming festive season will be very welcome to me. Cheers!

Yours sincerely, Peter


NB. I also drank a Bollinger "R.D" (récemment dégorgé) 1996 in Reims. But it left me speechless!

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