East of Paris, about one and a half hours by road and one hour by train, chalk hills rise above a flat plain. Topped by dense forest, the slopes of these hills are covered with the northernmost vineyards in France. In ancient villages with solid, square churches, wine producers lie hidden in courtyards. Underground, vast cellars house millions of bottles resting in the darkness.
This is Champagne, home of the most famous wine produced in France—probably in the world. For visitors to France, who so often start their tours in Paris, this is the most accessible wine region, as well as the one that is best organized to receive tourists.
The Lay of the Land
There are three things to do in Champagne. One is to tour the area, to be able to say to folks back home that you have been to the villages of Bouzy and Dizy (one on the Montagne de Reims, the other in the Marne valley) and to the town with the shortest name in France (and beloved of Scrabble players), Aÿ.
But let’s get one thing straight: Champagne doesn’t have the drama of Tuscany. Nor does it have the bucolic beauty of the Loire Valley. What it does have is an attractive obsession with its famous wine. This is especially true of the real wine capital of Champagne, the city of Epernay, which forms the best center for wine tasting and touring.
To drive along the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay is to pass the houses, (or maisons, as they are called in Champagne) of name after famous name: Moët et Chandon, Pol Roger, Perrier-Jouët, Mercier. These are not just cellars, these are grand palaces. The Petit Trianon palace of Moët et Chandon is modeled on the Versailles original, and Perrier-Jouët has a Belle Epoque-decorated house to match its most famous wine.
The Avenue de Champagne is a true avenue, leading directly to the Chardonnay vineyards of the Côte des Blancs, which is a succession of hills, punctuated by small villages. Here, every other person has a Champagne cellar; the clink of bottles has replaced the church bells as the local music.
The major producers are in Epernay or in the cathedral city of Reims. While Epernay devotes itself almost entirely to wine, Reims is a major city with many other modern industries. It is worth remembering, as you walk the streets of this grand cathedral city, that during World War I, this was the front line for three years. Photos from the time show a flattened city, only the cathedral standing proud against the sky.
There are four major divisions of Champagne, the first being the Côte des Blancs. Between Epernay and Reims (or, as English speakers sometimes spell it, Rheims) is the Montagne de Reims. This is a national park, partly because of the vineyards that circle round its slopes, but mainly because of the forest that runs for several miles along the summit. The Montagne is mainly planted with Pinot Noir.
Epernay acts as the fulcrum for these two, as well as the third region, the Vallée de la Marne. This stretches to the west, the two valley sides planted with Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, completing the trio of Champagne grapes. At the far west end of the valley as it debouches into the plain is Château-Thierry, almost as close to Paris as it is to Epernay.
These three are the classic heartland of Champagne, and most visitors to Champagne will stay here. But there is a fourth major region to the south, almost into Burgundy. The Aube is the new frontier of Champagne, based around the city of Bar-sur-Aube—an area that has been increasingly planted as the demand for Champagne has grown and the traditional areas have been planted to their limits. In between the Aube and Epernay is a smaller area of vineyards around the city of Sézanne.
Having worked out the geography, the important activities can start.
Many of the major producers (see sidebar listings) have tours of their premises, followed by tastings. You will receive a visual explanation of the Champagne method (méthode Champenoise) by watching the producers at work and you will tour the cellars.
And what cellars. Under the streets are more bottles than you can imagine—millions of them. Many famous producers have bottles stacked in the chalk caves—originally carved by the Romans—and in long tunnels linking the caves. Other producers, less lucky with their location, have built brick-lined tunnels that are equally lined with bottles.
The reason for these huge stocks is that, by law, Champagne producers have to keep even their most basic bottlings for more than two years before selling them. Famous vintage and top wines are kept even longer.
Here is what you can expect: The tour will begin with an introduction to the concept of Champagne and why the Champagnoise defend the singular use of the name. This is not bubbly country, this is Champagne.
While you will likely hear more detail about the Champagne process than you thought possible (particularly at the monk Dom Perignon’s home of Moët and Chandon), don’t hesitate to ask questions. Knowing about the region and the wine enhances the drinking experience.
Your tour, usually offered in English (call to confirm), concludes with a tasting. What type depends on how much you have paid for the tour. This is the time to use what you have learned to assess the house style at each maison. The differences can be amazing; this is also a good way to determine your own Champagne taste preferences.
Eating in Champagne
Following a day of visiting and tasting at the cellars, you will naturally want a good meal. Champagne has some fabulous restaurants, which combine the proper French grandeur and elegance with some innovative cooking. Eating here is a matter of white tablecloths (the French seem to prefer pink tablecloths, but you get the idea), discreet wait staff (who will definitely not tell you their name before they start service), and a leisurely pace, making dinner a full evening’s event. Of course the meal will start with—and often continue and finish with—a glass of Champagne. But if that is too much, restaurant wine lists are some of the best in France, covering all the major regions. And when you return home (or use the benefits of duty free), not only will you have a book of memories but a Champagne taste that only a well-traveled, discerning palate can bring to the table.
You eat well in Champagne. There is a high density of top-notch, Michelin-starred restaurants in Reims, in Epernay and in the countryside. Prices, of course, match the cuisine. If you want simpler food, the region of the Côte des Blancs has the best village restaurants in Mesnil-sur-Oger, Vertus, Cramant and Chouilly.
Le Vieux Puits. Small, traditional, but with a modern flair. Located in central Aÿ. Excellent Champagne list.
18 rue Roger Sondag
La Table Kobus. Popular bistro lunchtime hangout for local business and wine people. Simple, well-cooked food and short, well-balanced wine and Champagne list.
3 rue Dr Rousseau
Brasserie le Boulingrin. A traditional brasserie, full of brass and long-aproned waiters.
48 rue de Mars
Côte des Blancs
Thibault IV (in the
Hostellerie de la Reine Blanche). A popular village restaurant, packed with locals. There are also simple, inexpensive rooms. This is a good center for exploring the Chardonnay vineyards of the Côte des Blancs.
18 Avenue Louis Lenoir
Depending on your budget, you can pamper yourself in the grand surroundings of Gérard Boyer or The Royal Champagne; or stay in one of the many chain hotels that ring the city center of Reims. Another option is one of the restaurants with rooms in cities like Aÿ, Epernay and Tours-sur-Marne.
Here is a selection of both the best and the idiosyncratic.
In and near Epernay
Le Royal Champagne. By far the best vistas, overlooking Epernay and the Marne Valley, surrounded by vines. Choose a suite for the best views. Annual closing: December 4-January 4. Room rates: EUR 205-380.
Hostellerie La Briqueterie. Hotel and restaurant in a vineyard, at the start of the Côtes des Blancs. In the summer, outdoor dining is a must. Annual closing: February 18-March 2, December 16-27. Room rates: EUR 235-335.
4 route de Sézanne-Vinay
Les Berceaux. Restaurant with rooms in central Epernay, close to the Avenue de Champagne and the main Champagne houses. The restaurant is comfortably smart, not too grand, but with excellent food. The rooms are small but adequate. Room rates: EUR 95- 115.
13 Rue des Berceaux
Les Crayères – Gérard Boyer. The most luxurious hotel in the region, a chateau on the edge of Reims, with beautiful English gardens. The Michelin-starred restaurant is a shrine for devotees of grand cuisine, while the 19 rooms reflect the luxury of the surroundings. Not for those on a tight budget. Room rates: EUR 290-530.
64 Boulevard Henry Vasnier
L’Assiette Champenoise. On the northern edge of Reims, close to the autoroute exit, a luxury hotel set in a garden. Use the swimming pool to take off a few of those extra pounds after all the eating and drinking. Room rates: EUR 140-250.
40 Avenue Paul Vaillant-Couturier
Hotel de la Paix. If you want city center accommodations, this is your hotel. The luxurious rooms are recently modernized. There is an indoor pool, and a good bar. No restaurant, but you’re within walking distance of the main restaurant scene of Reims. Room rates: EUR 115-350.
9 Rue Buirette
Touraine Champenoise. This is a charming old inn that specializes in traditional cuisine (hearty and heavy to keep out the cold) in low-ceilinged rooms by the Canal de Marne. The rooms are simple B&B style. Room rates: EUR 78-82.
51150 Tours sur Marne
Touring the Cellars
Many of the Champagne cellars are open to the public and organize tours. Some cellars are huge, with miles of underground caves stacked with bottles of Champagne. Most of these large companies charge for the tour and tasting.
Smaller producers—growers—are also open and will provide tastings. They don’t normally charge, but do expect you to make a purchase. Lists of these producers are available from the CIVC (for details see below), the Champagne trade’s regulatory body.
Here’s a selection of the best tours offered by the major producers. Be sure to check ahead of time if they will be open on the date and time you plan to visit. Days open exclude holidays and sometimes weekends and certain days during the week.
Moët & Chandon. The most comprehensive cellar visit, lasting one hour, including a tour of part of the 17 miles of cellars and tasting. Open: January 1-November 16.
20 Avenue de Champagne
Mercier. Offers a 45-minute tour through the caves with
a tasting. Open: February 15-Dec 17.
68 Avenue de Champagne
De Castellane. The most extravagant building, surmounted by a tower, makes the cellar of De Castellane the most visible in Epernay. Open: April to December. By appointment January to March.
63 Avenue de Champagne
Philipponnat. In the small village of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, on the banks of the Marne, this smaller cellar offers a personal tour by appointment, and a tasting. Open: By appointment.
13 Rue du Pont
Mumm. One of the most famous names in Champagne (and parent company of the Napa Valley sparkling wine producer) has huge and modernized cellars in central Reims. Open: Daily.
34 Rue du Champs du Mars
Pommery. Go to Pommery for the spectacular building and the deep cellars carved out of chalk. Open: Daily.
5 Place du Général Gouraud
Taittinger. The most professionally organized tour includes a well-made film (great moment to rest your feet) as well as tasting and cellar visit. Open: Daily.
9 Place Saint-Nicaise
Piper-Heidsieck. For those who don’t fancy a long cellar walk, Piper offers electric cars, while there is a light show in the cellars during the tour. Tastings follow, and there is a gift shop. Open: March-December.
51 Boulevard Henry Vasnier
Lanson. Lanson offers personal, guided tours by appointment. This is probably the best tour for those who want to see every stage of Champagne production. A commentated tasting follows. Open: By appointment.
66 Rue de Courlanc