Dateline - Champagne, France

It's always been my ambition to put that heading on an article. Others may seek the trenches of Iraq or a Philipino volcanic hot spot. I'm prepared to settle into the Champagne city of Reims and wait for a story to break. However, it would be possible to overlook the start of World War III if the sun is shining on the vineyards and there are still bubbles in my glass.

While in Champagne recently, I suffered a personal tragedy. In the cellars of Krug I stopped to take a photograph, the group moved on and I was locked in. Just me, several million bottles of the region's finest, and a whole weekend before the first workers returned . . .

Then one of my travelling companions noticed I was missing. She raised the alarm and our escort "rescued" me. I even managed to thank her.

Later I found out why the guide rushed back. There may only be 18 million Australians but in terms of Champagne consumption, we are the tenth largest national market. The admirable French buy locally - they consume the most. Other European nations (including the UK) fill the minor placings. Japan and the US join Australia in the top ten.

The first surprise about the Champagne region is that it is so tiny. A mere 25,000 hectares supply the world's needs. And machine picking remains illegal - every Champagne grape required to fill 240 million bottles consumed each year is picked by hand. Gleaming chateau, manicured rows of vines and an overall air of prosperity disclose that this is the most expensive agricultural real estate on earth.

It would be hard to find a part of the world that so closely epitomises the character of a nation. It's as if there were a suburb of Darwin called "Beer", a village in England named "Tea" or a place called "Coke, Idaho". Trevor Bell, the Director General of Piper tells me that "the only rush hour in Reims is at lunch time." That reflects the true spirit of Champagne.

As our train from Paris concluded the 140 km journey to Reims, I looked out on rows of budding vines. In years to come this fruit will be an integral part of birthday parties in New York, seductions in Rio, christenings in Perth and, I hope, quiet romantic dinners in Roseville.

There is an immediacy to air travel that gives experiences added intensity. My UTA flight left Sydney on Friday afternoon. I spent Saturday relaxing in Parisian cafes trying not to hum Edith Piaf songs a la the Bushells commercial. On Sunday morning here I was at the door of one of the great Champagne houses. The atmosphere was a heady mixture laden with the fragrance of fruit and oak and the indefinable smell of Piper Heidsieck's ancient cellars.

Piper Heidsieck is one of Champagnes' Grandes Marques. Along with Charles Heidsieck and the inimitable Krug (universally acknowledged as "the king of champagnes"), it is owned by Remy Martin. It is also one of the few champagne houses to welcome visitors to its cellars.

The tours of Piper's cellars are very well conducted. Visitors travel through a small section of the many kilometres of underground passages here in a tiny electric "train". At various stages short entertaining audio visual presentations explain the extremely complicated methode champenoise.

The showroom upstairs is lined with photographs of the rich and famous who have visited. A replica of a jewel-encrusted bottle of Piper designed by Faberge is on display. Piper has always been well connected - one of the first vintages was presented to Marie Antoinette and it's the official champagne of the Cannes Film Festival.

Our long lunch in Reims would have sorely depleted the Piper Heidsieck cellars. It also revealed that the French idea of a simple barbecue runs to about 10 courses (and five vintages). My notes become illegible at this point except for a line pointing out that "there must be over 100 million bottles of the stuff stored nearby!"

As the sun set over the vineyards, castles and chateux of Champagne, the train carried me back to Paris. Champagne is an easy day trip from the capital. Many will regard it as a pilgrimage.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd