A few things struck us about the Champagne vine-growing area around Epernay. Firstly, there are vines everywhere: vistas where there is nothing but grapes planted, stretching out as far as the horizon, are not uncommon. The landscape is undulating, cut by valleys with steep sides and narrow bottoms. Vines are everywhere on the valley sides, even north-facing ones, taking advantage of the chalky soil. Only in the valley bottoms where the soil is clay arising from silt, are the vines replaced by trees or the very occasional veg patch.
Secondly, the area is not poor: the houses are mostly well-maintained on the outside, contrasting strongly with the impression gained during our trip to Bordeaux some ten years ago. And unlike the Rioja area in Spain, the apparent wealth isn't confined to the wine-makers' properties.
Thirdly, there are more Champagne houses than you can shake a stick at. We expected to come across the well-known brands, of course, but we weren't expecting so many smaller houses. They're everywhere.
Given that it's impossible to taste all the options available, we decided to go to a Champagne bar (La Fine Bulle) the first night, where you could get a sample of 6 different wines at a reasonable price. By accident or cunning design, we ended up with the 10cc per glass option instead of the 5cc we had planned, which in practical terms meant 40% of a standard bottle each, on an empty stomach. The wines on offer gave a good spread of flavours and were, we felt, as good an introduction to the variations available as we could reasonably expect in 6 glasses. We bought some of the strongly fruity 100% Chardonnay, the rosé with strawberry notes, and the creamy one. We rolled out to our chosen restaurant, where for some reason I can't quite work out, we had another bottle with dinner.