One of those milestone birthday numbers make its inevitable arrival in my life this year. I wanted to celebrate, but not in the grand fashion that Boyfriend Drew did (a three-week American odyssey encompassing Orlando, New York, Las Vegas and LA). I wanted to go somewhere new; somewhere interesting but not far-flung. I also wanted to relax, especially since my birthday fell smack-bang in the middle of Millinery Season.The answer was a fairly easy one. I love champagne. I love the tantalising, tickling bubbles and the bready, rich flavour and the way it makes any ordinary moment much more special. We would go to the Champagne region of France, just a 2-hour-20-minute ride under the Channel, followed by another 45-minute journey et voilá: all the champagne I could handle and probably more!I enlisted the help of Grape Escapes to plan my party for me and eight of my closest, travel-loving friends. After a super-lengthy email exchange with the very patient Jenna, we settled on two full days in Champagne, leaving Paris on a Friday afternoon and returning to the City of Light early Sunday afternoon.Our first stop was an obvious, but has-to-be-done choice: the house of Moët et Chandon in Épernay. Just a short walk from the train station, we are greeted by imposing iron gates bearing the famous gilded logo and a statue of the Godfather of champagne, Dom Perignon, with one hand clasping that uniquely-shaped bottle. (Fact time: contrary to popular belief, Dom Perignon did not invent champagne - British scientist Christopher Merret is credited with discovering the addition of sugar created bubbles in 1662 - but he did pioneer several game-changing wine-making methods, including the use of cork to seal bottles.)We participated in the signature Moët et Chandon tour, rather than the Dom Perignon tour, and this may have been our key mistake. As the world's highest-selling champagne maker, it was quickly evident a large portion of their profits went into marketing, particularly when we were made to watch a five-minute video about the house, which was nothing more than a glorified TV advertisement.Down in les caves (the cellars where the bottles are kept), our tour guide repeated a well-rehearsed speech detailing M&C's wine-making methods with the minimum amount of information possible. When more in-depth questions were asked by the visitors, she usually replied in a conspiratorial fashion with, "I don't have that information, only the Cellar Master knows, and he'd never tell!" It was getting dull, we were getting restless and it was definitely time to taste the product. Finally arriving at the tasting room, we were welcomed by two impeccably-dressed staff pouring Brut, Rosé and Vintage reserve champagnes. Alas, our "signature" tour only allowed us a single flute of Brut Imperial, which was much appreciated at this stage of the afternoon but at the same time was nothing special.After a slick 30-minute train ride, we found ourselves in scenic town of Reims - our base for the weekend. Jenna had suggested we stay at the three-star Hotel Bristol on the very central Place Drouet d'Erlon. Hotel Bristol was perfect for what we wanted: comfortable, large rooms in a convenient location and within our not-so-luxurious budget (save the rest for the champagne!).Our group of nine gathered for a welcoming dinner at Au Petit Comptoir, a chic little restaurant on rue de Mars with an interesting menu. Plates in the 3-course, 36€ menu included roasted duck breast with crumbled sugared almonds, and a popcorn-flavoured chilled soup - dishes which may sound bizarrely Willy Wonka-esque, but actually transported us back to our childhood in a rather gourmet fashion.Saturday morning provided a leisurely start, as we weren't due to start our champagne tasting tour until 13:40, so we took the opportunity to savour the delights at the Boulingrin covered market on rue de Mars. Most stalls were dedicated to mouth-watering edible goods, including rotisserie chickens, pungent cheeses, plump strawberries and crisp spears of white asparagus, which elicited gasps of delight from a few members of our group.A few of us also paid a quick visit Notre-Dame de Reims, the imposing cathedral in the centre of town where the kings of France were once crowned. Although not as large as its Parisian counterpart, the 800-year-old Notre-Dame de Reims displays similar beautiful French Gothic architecture on its exterior, and a mix of intriguing stained glass windows dating from the 13th century to as late as the 20th century.Our driver for the afternoon's bespoke wine tour arrived a little early, and did not speak any English. With a little help from the staff at our hotel's reception, we learned how to ask the day's most critical question: "Peut-on boire dans le bus?" (Translation: Can we drink on the bus?) The answer, to the boys' relief, was a hearty "Oui!" I'm sure he later regretted this answer.First stop was a crowd favourite: the distinguished house of Veuve Clicquot on the outskirts of Reims. Although not as instantly impressive-looking as its LVMH-owned counterpart, M&C, it had a quiet elegance about it, and a much more informative tour guide. Down in les caves we learnt in detail about méthode champenoise and Veuve Cliquot: how Madame Clicquot was made a widow at the young age of 27, but took on the responsibility of the house and saw business thrive; how they combine three different types of grapes - chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier - to produce the distinctive flavour; how bottles are positioned and turned daily to disgorge the sediment and bring it to the top; and how the oldest bottle of champagne ever found - at the bottom of the ocean - is actually by Veuve Cliquot.The Veuve Clicquot tasting was one I'd been looking forward to - no non-reserve brut here, but 2004 La Grande Dame, the house's signature champagne. Beautifully golden in colour, the first taste elicited citrus notes while hints of brioche, nougat and apricot gradually made their way onto our palates. (But, really, most of us just tasted this: deliciousness.)Reluctantly, we left the magical champagne land of Veuve Clicquot and travelled to our next destination: a smaller, grower champagne house called Henry de Vaugency which only uses the chardonnay grape in producing their bubbles. We had zero idea of what to expect when we arrived - especially when we realised it shared space with a wedding museum! Pascal, the 8th generation owner and wine-maker, greeted us warmly with his cute little daughter, Manon, after whom one of his cuvées is named and proceeded to show us around. During the super informative tour, Pascal demonstrated all the techniques we had only been told about up until now, including disgorging (removing sediment from the bottle), adding dosage (the sugar liquor), and his impressive grape press.Post-tour we settled into the tasting cellar and were presented with "menus" of what was on offer. Unlike the houses we had been to previously, we were able to sample almost all of the cuvées he makes (save for two or three out of nine different styles). Our favourites included Carte Noire, Pascal's "everyday" champagne; Sélection, which comes in very affordable magnums; and Intemporelle, his limited-edition equivalent to Dom Perignon with only 846 bottles available. Given there were nine of us, it seemed like a great idea to purchase a magnum to consume on the bus on the way to our next house, and the occasion was marked with a photo with Pascal while I waited for my bottle of Intemporelle to be gift-wrapped.After cracking open the magnum, giving our driver a fright, and consuming it in about two minutes (note to self: magnums do not stretch far between nine people), we were well on our way to the weekend's most anticipated event: sabrage, or the art of chopping off the top of a champagne bottle with a sword. Philippe Brugnon would be the scene for this, and the man himself would be showing us how to do it. Not only would we be learning sabrage, we would also take a tour of his champagne house, and eat a delicious four-course meal with matching Philippe Brugnon champagnes (the rosé was a firm favourite).During the meal we each took our turn to open a bottle in the method popularised by Napoléon's army, thus those of us who had to wait until the end of the meal were wielding the sabre à champagne (champagne sword) in a slightly drunken haze. Luckily we had Philippe on hand to show us the correct method and very kindly hold the bottle while we followed-through with the blade.As it turns out, sabrage is remarkably easy (only one of our group struggled, and she was the last in line therefore the most drunk): you feel for the seam in the bottle, run the blade gently down the seam twice until the lip of the bottle, and on the third stroke you hit the bottle lip with a gentle force and the cork and lip simply fly off! It's all down to the pressure in the champagne bottle, and Philippe told us that sabrage can even be done with a butter knife.Once successfully opened, Philippe pronounced us competent with the sabre and made the occasion official with certificates for each of us from the Confrérie du Sabre d'Or.Feeling heady from the mix of delightful champagne, delicious food and the excitement of sabrage, it was time to retreat back to our hotel and work out just how to pack the several bottles we'd bought into our luggage - that's if we don't drink them first.The facts:
- We booked our Champagne tour through Grape Escapes, which offers both bespoke tours and ready-to-travel tours starting from £212 per person.
- We travelled to Paris by Eurostar, with prices starting from £59 return, London to Paris.
- Train travel from Paris to the Champagne region was included in our tour, but if you'd like to put together your own tour visit Rail Europe.
- We stayed at Hotel Bristol in Reims, which was part of our tour package. Prices are around £60 per night for a double room in high season.
- Moët et Chandon tours can be booked through their website here and start from 16.50€ per person.
- Information on Veuve Clicquot cellar tours can be found here and start from 25€ per person.
- To learn more about Henry de Vaugency and the Musée du Mariage, visit their website here. Pascal's champagnes can also be purchased in the UK through Grape Escapes, with prices starting from £19.50 per bottle, delivery just £5 for a case of six, and free delivery for two cases or more.
- Our Philippe Brugnon sabrage dinner was organised through Grape Escapes, but you can email Philippe here.
By Lisa Tan