My journey through Champagne

Two weeks ago I was driving through the Champagne region of France. I thought I had some vague idea of what the Champagne region would be like: sort of like Stellenbosch or Franschhoek, but obviously, you know, better. More scenic and lovely. More giddy and refined, with a finer bubble and a more precise sparkle.

It was quite startling at first to realize that the Champagne region is indeed like Stellenbosch or Franschhoek, only, you know, a bit worse. I don’t really mean worse (why must things always be better or worse?), but it’s certainly not as scenic and lovely. It’s a lot flatter than I expected, with fewer purpling mountains and dramatic painted cloudscapes and panoramic vistas of glowing leaves in the afternoon sun. It comes as a pleasant jolt sometimes to be reminded that not all the hype that South Africans sometimes spout about South Africa is just hype. It really is a beautiful place. I don’t mind to sound like a tourist brochure now, but compared with most other places, our winelands are quite something.

But I was in Champagne, and by golly, I was going to make the most of it. Even though I still had some way to go that day, I was going to stop at a suitable place and tuck into a fair few fine cold flutes. I know that technically speaking you’re not supposed to drive and then drink and then drive, but it was Champagne, and everyone knows that no one has ever come to harm drinking champagne. Champagne prolongs your life, not shortens it. Plus, it was France, and in France everyone over the age of seven has wine with their lunch and then drives down to the coast.

Some way past Reims I turned off the motorway and into the grapelands. In Champagne it doesn’t work quite the way it works here – you don’t go to wine farms but to wine villages, small and fairly unremarkable towns built of grey stone and whitewash, and in those towns are the various champagne houses where you can slope in and drink your fill of the house marque.

It was a bright sunny Sunday around noon, the perfect time for encountering goblets of champagne in their natural environment, perhaps nibbling on a handful of brie and a sleeveful of grapes and perhaps the odd twisty cheese straw and smokey saucisson.

I sought out the small village of Ludes, because the house Canard-Duchene is in Ludes and I once stole a bottle of Canard-Duchene from a bar fridge at a swanky party I gatecrashed when I was seventeen, and ever since then I have held myself forth as an expert in all things Canard-Duchene – so biscuit and dry, so much more subtle than Veuve Cliquot, don’t you agree? – for all the world as though I’m Ian Fleming, or someone who knows anything at all about wine or champagne.

When I drove into Ludes my first thought was that a nasty outbreak of botrytis had mutated into murderous spores and killed all the inhabitants. Where was everyone? The doors were all closed, the shutters drawn, the windows barred. I parked and walked up and down the hot narrow streets, peering through window after window. All was closed to me. I found the house of Canard-Duchene and struck the wooden doors with a baronial rap. Nothing doing. The apocalypse had come to Ludes and only I remained.

I was genuinely baffled and even alarmed, until a certain dreary quality to the stillness, that characteristic bass-note of boredom – once experienced, never truly forgotten, no matter how you try – started to feel familiar. I looked around in a kind of queasy anti-nostalgia. Surely not. Not here. Not in Champagne, whence all the world’s glamour and sophistication springs! But yes – in Champagne, just like in the dismal, backwards, provincial South Africa of my youth, everything is closed on a Sunday.

I walked around the village, hearing somewhere a distant dog barking, catching for a moment a whiff of some hidden Sunday lunch. I drank some cold water from a trickling fountain in a dusty square and sat under a shady tree eating a salami that I found in my pocket. I didn’t see another human being the whole time I was there.

It’s funny, how the mind works. I drove down the sunny uplands and through the Midi to Arles, thinking how typical it is for me to be so unlucky. My one day in Champagne, and I am shut out from delight. I imagined how good it would be behind those shuttered windows, in the cool shade, my head afizz with some crisp local jouissance.

Some days later in a café on a terrace on the Place du Forum, I met a couple who had taken the same drive and stopped at the same places, just days after me. They stopped in Ludes and went to the Champagne houses, but oh! They cried. So many people! And so hot! And the anxiety of choosing which house to go into! And the prices! The prices! How you had to elbow your way through hordes of Americans off a bus just to pay some scowling Frog your children’s university fees for a miserable half-flute! Oh, they said, how they wished it could have been just them and the sunlight and the narrow streets, the empty silence, the scent of the earth and the vines and the stones, wandering along with the heads full of Champagne and dreaming about what they were missing.

Times, 16 May 2019