French Champagne Touring
Let’s get one thing straight: Champagne isn’t merely anything with sparkles in it. Champagne refers to a type of bubbly produced according to strict standards within a specific area of France’s Champagne region. Located northeast of Paris, this wine-producing region is home to the cities of Reims and Epernay, which are frequently used as tourist bases (leading producers like Veuve and Mumm are also based there). The two are relatively close to Paris by train and can be reached in less than two hours by car (or hire a driver if you intend to drink and not stay overnight).
The region of Champagne, located Northeast of Paris, is one of France’s great historic provinces. As early as the times of Emperor Charlemagne, in the ninth century, Champagne was famous for its fairs, as well as being an agricultural area. Champagne is known worldwide today, thanks to the sparkling wine of the same name that has been named after the region, even if many of those who know the drink are unaware of its origins.
It was not in this region that champagne, that most delicious of sparkling wines, was invented. Tradition has it that monks first brought the method for making sparkling wine up from the Languedoc, in the south of France. They discovered soon after that the chalky soil and climatic conditions in Champagne produced a bright bubbly wine superior to those made further south. The story of champagne is, of course, much more complicated than that; its success throughout history was just as much linked to its location near Paris and other major European cities as it was to its intrinsic quality. Yet, no other French region – or perhaps any other place in the world – has had a local product so famously named after it although Dijon, Burgundy, Bordeaux and Cognac may put up a little squabble.
Getting to Know the Champagne Region
You can easily travel to Champagne by rail or by car. From Paris, there are direct express trains (TGV) that go to Reims, the capital of Champagne, multiple times a day. It will take you 45 minutes to ride the train.
The second major city in Champagne – Epernay – can also be reached by train. Train travel to Epernay will take about an hour and a half. That said, whichever destination you choose to begin your trip should be based on the kind of experience you want to have in Champagne.
In Reims, you will find a variety of shops, restaurants, and tasting rooms that sell Champagne. Visit Epernay if you want to see most of the producers themselves by renting a car, as having the flexibility will make your trip more enjoyable
The Best Time To Go
Caroline Brun, one of the area’s leading tour guides, recommends two days for a first trip. “Don’t worry,” she says with a smile. “You will be addicted to Champagne after that first visit, and next time, you can visit for longer.” If you want to see smaller, independent vineyards instead of just the big names, avoid harvest time, which tends to take place in the late summer. Owner-operated setups, known as grower champagnes, are likely too busy to welcome visitors. The best time to go is in October or November, Brun says. “The harvest is over, but you can still find some grapes remaining in the vineyards,” she says. “The colors are changing, so all the slopes aren’t green, but reddish gold.”
What to Bring
Visiting this region is a great opportunity to indulge in a glass of champagne, but you should embrace a more practical approach to dressing. You may have to walk across cobblestone roads, over uneven cellar floors, and through vines. Wear sneakers or flats. This region of northern France can be quite cold, so you’ll also need a sweater or jacket: It’s often gray and rainy here (regardless of the time of year), and the caves are often cold.
Have a Touring Strategy
You shouldn’t expect spontaneity. Even the larger champagne houses operate by appointment, in contrast to the U.S. or Bordeaux, where tasting rooms are usually open to walk-ins. Booking your time on websites is easy (but be prompt—lateness might mean you lose your slot). Most wineries open in the morning and close over lunch. Since your first tasting is likely to occur at 10 a.m., it’s very important to have a hearty breakfast. “[Before drinking all day], this may be an unusual experience for you,” says Jenna Jones, member of wine tour company Grape Escapes.
Getting around can be challenging in this region. Public transportation is spotty, and cabs are expensive: Calling for a taxi from a vineyard beyond city limits, and you’ll pay not only for your journey but for however long it takes for the taxi to arrive. It’s best to book a tour that includes transportation if you want to visit more remote champagne houses. You can book a tour with Grape Escapes, and Brun, too, offers private tours for €350 per person. Email her at Caroline@Wine-art.expert.
In case you don’t have much time, try visiting the Montagne de Reims, where Ruinart and Taittinger are located.
There are 5 main zones or regions of champagne. Stay in Reims to explore the Montagne de Reims, known for its pinot noir champagne. Champagnes from this region are often aged and have the best body. As an alternative, stay in Epernay to explore the pinot meunier-focused region of the Vallée de la Marne. In most cases, Pinot meunier is blended with other types of grapes: for example, it’s used with pinot noir to make delicious blanc des noirs. Make sure to check out the Côte des Blancs, which focuses exclusively on chardonnay-based bubbles. It can also be used to make aperitif-style Champagne or blends. In Troyes, you can explore two lesser-known regions: the Aube, which produces mostly non-vintage fizz, and the new Côte de Sézanne, which has many chardonnay plantings.
Most travelers will be most interested in the first three regions. You can visit all three in a single day, albeit with a lot more planning, but if you want to spend less time commuting and focus on one particular area, Jones suggests taking in the Montagne de Reims. Most household-name champagnes are pinot noir-based, so visitors’ palates know what to expect. This familiarity also makes tasting easier, and a newbie is better able to distinguish the subtle differences between the houses.
Among the major marquees, don’t skip Taittinger, which most insiders agree is the best organized and most insightful of all the visitor experiences. Ruinart is also a standout. You may try Eric Rodez in Ambonnay, which makes an unusual Blanc de Blancs from the chardonnay grown on the estate, or Henry de Vaugency, where owner Pascal conducts tours personally (his Grand Cru quality wines start at around €20). The tiny vineyard of Meteyer also produces superb Champagne from the Côte des Noirs; Lamiable in the Grand Cru village of Tours sur Marne is another worthwhile stop.
The Vine Trail offers more suggestions of standout boutique producers. A big advantage of visiting smaller producers like these is that the entire process takes place on-site, so you can see it from grape to bottle. In contrast, larger brands typically only invite visitors to their cellars, where the bottles are stored.
Reims is the capital of the Champagne wine industry, but for perhaps the most enjoyable cellar tours and Champagne tastings, visitors will prefer the nearby town of Epernay, 15 miles south of Reims. Lying in the heart of “Champagne country”, Epernay is home to many of the most famous Champagne producers, including Moët & Chandon or Perrier-Jouët. As the town is small, it is easy to visit a number of Champagne houses or cellars on foot.
The Champagne wine area consists of some 450 producers and cooperatives, most of them quite small. To discover them and the vineyards, visitors can follow the Champagne discovery trails. Wine trails start in Reims and Epernay, as indicated by brown “route des vins” signs for cars, and green route markers for cyclists.
There are also guided tours that pass through the famous vineyards and through the villages where, depending upon the season, small champagne houses are open for champagne-tasting, direct sales, and even guided visits.
Then there is another vineyard producing champagne not found at Reims-Epernay. Vineyards in the southern Champagne region are located between the towns of Bar sur Aube and Les Riceys in the Aube department.
Lodging and Dining
Due to its central location, Epernay is arguably the best base. Its main street is the Avenue de Champagne, whose tenants read like a roll call of the area’s best-known alums: Moët & Chandon, Perrier Jouët, andPol Roger. There is also a five-star hotel and spa, Royal Champagne, which opened just north of town and is owned by Franco-American couple Denise Dupré and Mark Nunnelly, who also own biodynamic Champagne house Leclerc Briant. You’ll stay in a historic location where Napoleon once guzzled a few bottles of bubbly. the head sommelier, Alberto Segade-an an alumnus of Claridge’s in London-is particularly knowledgeable.
Reims has all the feel of a bustling regional capital; its old town is dominated by the 13th-century cathedral, one of the great Gothic cathedrals in France, and a UNESCO world heritage site. The cathedral, badly damaged in the first world war, has been painstakingly restored to its former glory.
A cellar tour is available at Taittinger and other major Champagne producers in Reims.
As a University city, Reims is much livelier at night; both Ruinart and Taittinger are based here. Besides its own wine, the town has its own attractions—its Gothic cathedral, for example. In the heart of the city, stay at the 18-room Grand Hotel des Templiers. The city is dotted with Michelin-starred restaurants, but they tend to be overpriced despite being delicious. Try Le Bocal, a fish restaurant tucked behind a fishmonger, as well as Au Bon Manger, a funky wine bar and deli-style restaurant.
Consider Troyes if you’re feeling adventurous. Though it is less business-oriented than the other two, it retains more of those medieval buildings, with their familiar, whitewashed wooden facades. One of them is the wood-timbered Maison de Rhodes, located in the historic center. The name derives from its former use as a Knights of Malta base. A wine bar and shop in town, Au Crieurs de Vin, offers surprisingly affordable organic Champagnes.
Champagne’s Best Wine Bars, Cafes, & Restaurants
- Le Bocal (Reims, FR) – A local fishmonger and café offering a large selection of raw seafood, champagne’s perfect match. Casual dining with great outdoor seating.
- Café du Palais (Reims, FR) – Haute cuisine in an art deco setting with 1930s stained glass ceiling.
- L’Epicerie Au Bon Manger (Reims, FR) – A casual and delicious cafe. Besides being a great place for breakfast, cheese and charcuterie are great for lunch on-the-go.
- Glu Pot (Reims, FR) – A local favorite bar for late-night bubbles. You can get a list of off-menu items.
- Perching Bar (Verzy, FR) – a treehouse champagne bar nestled in the forest offering stunning views.
- Le Coq Rouge (Reims, FR) – A casual and busy bar in the city center.
- Tresors de Champagne (Reims, FR) – Bar featuring small, family-run Champagne producers in the collection of the « Special Club ». The menu changes daily and offers a chance to try a flight of wines from many private champagne producers.
- Le Parc Les Crayeres (Reims, FR) – A more casual extension of Michelin-starred Le Parc, run by Chef Philippe Mille.
- L’Assiette Champagnoise (Tinqueux, FR) – Three Michelin stars for renowned Chef Arnaud Lallement
- BONUS—-BEER, Pub L’escale is the best place to go for a beer and have a number of French Craft Beers as well as Belgian beers. (Sorry-no website however).
132 rue de Vesle51100 REIMS
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