Champagne, food and rolling countryside with Lexus Experiences

IT TURNS out that weekend breaks don’t have to involve a 6am flight from Stansted to an airport that’s fifty miles from your destination. Nah, eschew the crowded plane for a roomy executive car and 36 hours out of London can involve a decadent journey across two countries that takes in good food, even better alcohol and gorgeous countryside. But to really enjoy the trip, you need the right car – and that’s where Lexus comes in.

The carmaker has clocked that while its cars perform brilliantly in the city (the Lexus GS I was driving was great fun, with astonishing acceleration) you can’t enjoy their full capabilities while creeping along clogged London streets. Instead they’ve teamed up with a variety of high-end brands to create experiences that let you test the cars to the limit while also enjoying some much-needed luxury.

In the case of our trip, this means swilling vintage champagne in Reims, the French city at the hub of the drink’s production. After heading through the Eurotunnel, we hit the blissfully empty French autoroute that zips all the way to Champagne. Just a few hours’ pacey drive from London, you find yourself in a completely different world of vineyards and sleepy villages. Reims itself was ravaged by two world wars but the 14th century cathedral – where generations of French kings were crowned – remains standing, surrounded by a picturesque city centre.

Leaving the car behind, we head off to the imposing 18th-century headquarters of Ruinart – the world’s oldest champagne house, founded in 1729, and with whom Lexus has a longstanding partnership. Every single drop of the company’s fizz is still produced on this original site, matured in deep cellars carved out of an ancient chalk mine so secure that hundreds of locals sheltered down here during World War II.

We’re guided by cellar master Frédéric Panaïotis, a Champagne native who recalls how his grandparents would knock back the local sparkling wine at the end of a long day in much the same way that a City worker might slip out for a quick post-shift Peroni. But today Frédéric has something special for us – a highly prized 1989 vintage, of which only a few dozen magnums survive. We do our best to make it even more endangered. A glowing amber colour, the champagne’s fizz has entirely subsided, while its flavours have mellowed and deepened: with notes of tobacco and burnt sugar, this is closer to a brandy than any champagne I’ve ever tasted.

Champagne is not, at first glance, the most picturesque area of France. But perseverance pays off and the next morning, we make for the back roads, where we discover a beguiling landscape of rolling hills and quiet villages. The Lexus proves just as adept at manoeuvring narrow lanes and hairpin bends as it is at tearing up the autoroute.

Fitting such an ambitious itinerary into less than two full days would usually be a recipe for disaster. It turns out the trick is to make the journey itself just as much fun as the destination.

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