When you’re so close to Champagne, how could you resist stopping by for a glass or two?
Yet again… we’re travelling with kids. So rather than drag them around a series of vineyards, we decided to head into Épernay for a stroll down the Avenue de Champagne, home to dozens of champagne houses and their magnificent mansions, some of which have been transformed into elegant hotels. Think Moët & Chandon, Pol Roger, Perrier-Jouët. Beneath the streets lie over 110 km of underground cellars carved out of the rock, filled with tens of thousands of bottles of bubbly stuff.
Glamorous couples strolled the avenue arm-in-arm, beautifully dressed and coiffed, stopping here and there for a taste or two, ordering their favourites by the case, or so I imagined.
And then there was us… emerging from our poky campground cabin that smelled of stale cigarette smoke and trailing our squabbling brood who were very clear this was NOT their idea of a good time.
So instead of seeking the most elegant or decadent or luxurious or even the most educational cave visits and champagne tastings… we asked “which is the most engaging for kids?” And the answer: Champagne Mercier.
“There’s an underground train tour! ” beamed the cheerful lady at the Office de Tourisme. “And iPads! C’est plus… interactif.”
iPads? Quel horreur!
But yes, we accepted that happy kids = happier day and more chance of actually enjoying the obligatory end of tour tipples.
So on we strolled, past the elegant wrought iron gates of globally renowned champagne brands and peering wistfully at the mansions within, admiring the mirrored entrance way of the Möet et Chandon hotel that looks like something out of Paris Fashion Week, and pausing only to reprimand a misbehaving child or two.
Eventually, at the more “suburban” end of the Avenue de Champagne, we reached the visitor-centre-style home of La Maison Mercier. Crossing the giant open air carpark, I gaped open-mouthed at the red brick facade that would not have looked out of place as a public library in Hamilton or New Plymouth.
But once inside, I had to swallow my snobbery.
Chic multi-lingual tour guides in sharp navy suits, their lips and nails perfectly lacquered in Mercier red, welcomed us into the entrance hall.
(Once upon a time, the infamous year I had my working holiday visa but didn’t actually make it to France, a colleague suggested he could see me in such a job. Alas he was misguided – I would never have been able to tame my locks into the necessary sleek submission to qualify for such a role, nor indeed have my nails ever looked THAT good.)
The two-and-a-half storey foyer is built around a gi-normous and richly carved wine barrel, the largest in the world. It took 16 years to construct starting in 1870, and could hold 200,000 bottles of the lovely bubbly stuff.
So when the great Paris Exposition was held in 1889, there was obviously only one thing to do: Bust through the cellar wall to access the giant barrel, load it onto four specially crafted iron railway wheels, hitch up two dozen oxen, and tow it to Paris. Mais bien sûr!
Are you thinking what I was thinking? Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we have a nutta. This champagne tour was looking up!
The barrel provided quite the spectacle all the way to Paris, with workers downing tools, school children being released from class and villagers lining the streets just to see it go by. Tree in the way? Chop it down! Paris city gates too narrow to enter? Buy the five corner buildings for a handsome sum and shave off the edges. Nice.
After a week-long journey, it rolled triumphantly along the Quai d’Orsay, and after a bit more widening, into the Exhibition Hall. There it proved quite the sensation, taking out the overall second prize for the Exhibition – with top honours going to the fresh and gleaming Eiffel Tower.
Turned out Eugene Mercier is a bit of a people’s hero in the champagne story. At just 20 he founded his own champagne house, determined to make the apéritif of the elite accessible to all, without compromising on quality.
With a style that was bold, spontaneous and exuberant, he took his champagne to the cinemas and the railways and car rallies, and engaged in wild publicity stunts (like the barrel) and risqué advertising campaigns (some of which backfired).
As the clever iPad commentary and cartoon introduction pointed out, were he alive today, he’d have been the first to embrace social media, video marketing, podcasting – the lot.
Our trip through the caves of Mercier turned out be a fun and diverting afternoon for all. We may not have been invited into the underground banquet hall, or into the renowned library cellar, but there were plenty of sculptures of naked bottoms to make the children titter.
The two glasses of bubbles we grown ups got to enjoy at the end turned out to be rather lovely too, even if we weren’t quite able to savour them as we might have liked. The people’s champagne is now part of the Louis Vuitton group, and while Mercier’s visitor experience remains true to its flashy and exuberant roots, every sip is a mouthful of luxury.
Once again, I saw how the power of a compelling story has the ability to transform our experience and interaction with a brand. We now understand why Mercier is one of Épernay’s most visited champagne houses.
And while a trip to Champagne is still best shared with your lover or a group of girlfriends, and you’ll blend in better in your high heels than your Birkenstocks, we are happy that we got to indulge just a little.
Thank you, lady at the Office de Tourisme. À votre santé!
This is to prove that we did actually see some Champagne vineyards.