Fancy some bubbles? Champagne is the place. It is true that many other regions around the globe produce very good sparkling wine, but the most famous brands and the method which classifies all the other sparkling wines are from Champagne. By law (Geographical Indication), only the drink which is produced here, following the local rules, can be called champagne.
I have been to Champagne a couple of times. I love this place and I will tell you everything you have to know in order to enjoy each second of your trip. Santé!
Champagne is the northernmost wine region in France. It is located 150 km east of Paris, and the easiest way to get there is by car or by train. I deeply recommend having a car available because the little wine towns, the vineyards, the restaurants and points of interest are not really close to each other, and driving grants a lot more freedom to explore the area (when not drinking, of course).
The ideal duration of a visit is at least two nights. For champagne lovers and those who want to take the time to visit the Maisons and really learn about the drink and the region, three nights. Or more, of course – nothing better than taking the time to visit not only the famous but also the small producers and learn, taste, see, repeat, find out new tastes, talk and meet locals.
I have been in every season of the year and now, searching for photos to post, I realise that the most beautiful ones were taken in April (lots of flowers) and at the end of summer and autumm. Try to skip winter because it can rain quite a lot, nature is not at its best and many restaurants, Maisons, etc. will be closed. Nevertheless, I have already been and would do it again. Haha!
Champagne is divided in 5 main areas: Aube, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, Montagne de Reims and Vallée de la Marne. Reims and Épernay are the comercial centres of the region. The first looks more like a “real city” while the second is more picturesque – some of the most important producers of champagne are in either one or the other city, and both are good options to pick as a base to explore the region.
Nevertheless, do not commit the huge mistake of visiting only these two spots. There are many other cute charming areas and little villages to explore within the region. Start driving around and allow yourself to get lost.
Reims is in the Ardenne region and is the non-official and historical capital o Champagne (the real one is Châlons). The city played an important role during the monarchy because it was in its Cathedral, the Notre-Dame, where French kings were traditionally coronated. Nowadays it is a university city as well and a Unesco Heritage Site.
Besides the cathedral, other points of interest in Reims are the Carnegie Library and its functional architecture, not common in France at the time it was constructed in 1927;
The pretty and medieval Abbey of Saint-Remi, the ancient Roman Porte Mars and the Palace of Tau, the Archbishop’s Palace where dinners took place after the coronation of the kings in the nearby Notre-Dame Cathedral.
This lovely city can be found exactly in the middle of the biggest and most important wine regions in Champagne: Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne e Côte des Blancs. As if it wasn’t enough, the town is calm, beautiful and, while on a walk in the concise old city centre, one feels in a remote place some decades ago.
My favourite street in Épernay has a quite suggestive name: Avenue du Champagne.
Neoclassic palaces – reconstructed after First World War – stand side by side with some of the most well-known Champagne Houses like Moët & Chandon and Perrier Jouet in this sumptuous avenue in Épernay.
Make sure to admire the Château Perrier, in net-louis XIII style dating from 1854 (number 13) as well as Hôtel Chandon, where Napoleon and Wagner have already been received as guests.
It is a blast to take a walk along this avenue (it is not a very long one), with some strategic stops to sip champagne (a glass or tasting) and to observe the houses. Do not miss the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) because the garden and the little lake are stunning.
There is a reasonable amount of cafes, restaurants, boulangeries and shops selling wine, glasses, buckets, etc.
Attention! Lots of attention when parking your car. Pay attention to every sign, also the ones which are not that obvious, because the police will not think twice before getting your car towed. We were “victims” and had our car taken in one of our visits.
The funny detail in this episode is that our car was taken to another city, around 30-40 minutes away from Épernay. Therefore, the very sympathetic policemen offered us a ride to take cash (no credit cards accepted) and then to the city where the car was parked – on the way they were teaching us about Champagne, the terroir, the best areas to buy and drink wine… all of that in the paddy waggon. Hahaha! It was wonderful! But expensive as well because they charge the fine, the tow and the parking. Take care!
- VISITE DES CAVES
Before I recommend any Maison, most important: Some Champagne Houses require previous booking for the visit and tasting. This is the case at Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Taittinger, Ruinart (the most restrictive of all) and many others. One might obviously be lucky and find a last minute spot but I wouldn’t take the risk. Call or send an e-mail to schedule a visit – find further information in each Maison’s website.
Take a jacket or a pashimina as it can be very cold down in the caves.
Luckily, Champagne counts an impressive amount of sparkling wine producers and unfortunately I did not visit all of them. I will list in this article my favourite caves among the well-known ones and the more “exotic” ones as well.
– Ruinart is the oldest, the first vinery in Champagne and the only belonging to LVMH group that specializes in Blanc des Blancs (my favourite!!!) and Chardonnay. The visit to its crayères is one of the most interesting and most complete ones. It consists of two hours with an ambassador from the Maison who will guide you and explain not only the champagne production process and the history of Nicolas Ruinart (the man who created the first Maison of champagne in the world) but also the influence of First World War in the region’s production and how people used to hide in the crayères during the war.
Crayères are the coves excavated in the region’s limestone where people used to hide during the war and that nowadays are used to produce and to store champagne.
The visit includes two glasses of champagne and should be booked at least 3 weeks in advance. I sent an e-mail and called to confirm. Everything went smoothly. In Reims. Closed from November to March. More info here.
– Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin produces a Pinot Noir vintage, white and rosé, that ages pretty well and a cuvée de prestige, La Grande Dame, which is always a good choice. This is the Maison I have visited more often because I have always been to Champagne with different friends or family and everybody wants to visit it. What an appealing brand!
I should admit that it is maybe the most complete visit. First because the Maison is wonderful, second because the crayère is also very pretty featuring fantastic lights, third because I am a huge fan of Madame Clicquot, fourth because the tasting can include the Grande Dame, fifth because they cover quite a good piece of history and sixth because at the end of the visit there is a little class about champagne basics like how to serve, how to hold the glass, how to keep it cold, how to make it cold faster, etc.
In almost every Champagne House there will be a boutique selling buckets, glasses, champagne, plateaus and many other utensils. At Veuve Clicquot the store is a success.
Besides the conventional tour mentioned above, the Discovery, which should be booked here, the Maison offers some other more exclusive experiences that may include a tour to their vineyards or to places that were dear to Madame Clicquot. Explore the options here.
A good idea is to combine the visit to Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart or Pommery with lunch or dinner at Le Parc or Brasserie Le Jardin, both at hotel Les Crayères, right beside Veuve Clicquot, in Reims.
– Moët & Chandon owns the most famous and most sold non-vintage champagne brand in the world – the Brut Impérial, a wine that is able to maintain a laudable quality even produced at hight quantities. Dom Pérignon, the house’s cuvée de prestige needs no vouch and is a world’s favourite.
The “visite des caves” lasts 45 min/1 hour and the guide will speak about the Maison’s history, about the many celebrities of that time who were habitués at the place and about the bubbly drink, the production, about their huge wine cellar (the biggest in the region, looks like a labyrinth)
At the end of the visit there will be the tasting and an explanation about the champagne they serve, which can be different depending on the tour you pick and that should be booked here.
The Moët Maison is in Épernay, at my favourite avenue. Remember?
– Taittinger is one of the biggest wine houses which still belongs to a family, and the Maison makes pretty good use of their great vineyards to produce their main wine – the rich and complex Blanc des Blancs cuvée de prestige.
This is the Champagne House where I most felt in a cave due to its rustic environment. The place is beautiful and it is interesting and also sad to observe the sculptures that people did while hiding in the caves during the World War.
I recommend the visit because I really love the champagne. More information about the time, prices and reservations here.
Now that I have mentioned 4 famous Champagne Houses, let’s talk about two producers which are pretty cool and not that well known. I have visited both during my last stay in Champagne in 2016 and had a blast – a friend of ours took the time to organize everything in advance and the owners of the Houses received our group themselves and took the time to explain everything. Nevertheless, in some other occasions we just started driving and stopped by some small producers that somehow called our attention – sometimes it worked pretty well and sometimes not so much, but it was always fun. I have also done the tour with a driver and a pre-set schedule. To be honest this was the time I enjoyed the least because everything was too tight. I really recommend, in case a driver is organised, to take it slow and don’t try to see everything in one day.
I fell in love with Champagne Regis Fliniaux, in Äy. Regis Fliniaux warmly received us with a big smile and took us around the property showing and explaining each step of the process to produce his great bubbly wine. During the tasting he was open to tell stories and discuss about champagne as if we were old friends. It was so great that we totally forgot about time and stayed longer than we should. The place is old fashion, the production 100% manual as in the old times. Fantastic!
There is no working website at the moment and I recommend calling in advance to organize a visit in English if French is not an option. Or try mimics! Hehe!
Also in Äy, Champagne Pascal Hénin is worth a visit. It is quite the opposite of Fliniaux, more modern. I find it pretty interesting to see the contrast between both smaller great producers. The visit, explanation and tasting were wonderful and I would definitely return. People were very well-receiving and sympathetic. Know more here.
Smaller Houses normally do not charge a fee to welcome their guests nor to offer some champagne. Nevertheless, it is expected that people will purchase at least a box of champagne at the end of the visite if it was a nice private reception. Fair enough.
- WHERE TO EAT
– Assiete Champenoise is the only restaurant awarded 3 Michelin stars in the region. Chef Arnaud Lallement is also the owner of the beautiful hotel in the same location. Modern dining room and creative French cuisine based in local ingredients. À la carte and tasting menu available. In Tinqueux. More here.
– Le Parc Les Crayères is one of my favourites. Classic and really beautiful interior for a romantic dinner. Modern cuisine by Chef Philippe Mille and 2 Michelin stars. Try the yummy Lobster and the super tasty Foie Gras. In Reims. Reserve here.
– Le Millénaire is another restaurant among my favourites. It has 1 Michelin star and presents modern cuisine in a minimalist and contemporary ambience. There are à la carte and tasting options by two chefs who share the kitchen: Laurent Laplaige and Thibault. Very central in Reims. Ask for a table on the ground floor, here.
– Racine, awarded 1 Michelin star, is one of the most unique restaurants in Champagne. A Japanese-French fusion to remember. Beautiful, delicate and tasty plates prepared by Chef Kazuyuki Tanaka. Pretty close to the Cathedral, in Reims. Reservations and more info here.
– Le Jardin Les Crayères is amazing. I would say it is unmissable in a sunny pretty day. This brasserie is placed at the garden of Domaine Les Crayères hotel and besides great food and attentive service, the place itself is lovely. In Reims. A good idea is to combine lunch at this restaurant with a visit to Maison Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot or Pommery, all at walking distance. Ask for a table at the terrace if the weather allows. Find out more here.
– Le Bocal is a must among locals, offers competitive prices for the region and serves fresh fish and seafood. Laid back and unpretentious but still with an exclusive feeling because only people who know it can find its location, sort of hidden behind the Poissonnerie des Halles. In Reims. Great spot! See more here.
– Le Pré Champenois offers classic cuisine with a modern twist. In Reims. More here.
– La Table Kobus is an honest good brasserie, dating from 1900. Sympathetic service. They accept your own bottle of wine without a fee for lunch, some days of the week. In Épernay. Read more here.
– Le Théâtre presentes good traditional kitchen and is one of the oldest brasseries in Épernay. Know more.
– La Grillade Gourmande specializes in grilled meat and fish and well as champagne based plates and good desserts. The Chef and owner Christophe Bernard has worked with some of the best French chefs and his restaurant in Épernay is always busy. Link to the website here.
– Les Berceaux is the only Michelin starred restaurant in Épernay, with 1 star. Classic regional cuisine by Chef Patrick Michelon and classic interior. Reservations here.
– Bistrot le 7 is the younger and more relaxed brother of Les Berceaux. Tasty plates and great champagne selection. Great option in Épernay. More here.
– Hostellerie La Briqueterie is in Vinay and
even though they once have not allowed us in for lunch because my husband and my brother were wearing shorts (long beautiful ones), I will recommend the restaurant in a beautiful sunny day, to seat at the terrace and enjoy the view (or inside, close to the windows). One Michelin star. Read more here.
- WHERE TO SIP AND BUY CHAMPAGNE
The Champagne Houses are great places to taste and buy bottles, glasses, buckets and utensils, as well as it is great to drink champagne at some good hotel bars. In the end, almost every place will offer a decent sparkling wine in the region.
– Perching Bar is a sort of “tree bar” in the middle of the forest. The menu will bring small and famous champagne producers and the place is a case of love or hate due to its hidden location and its sometimes not so friendly staff. In my opinion it is worth the visit. The website was out of order when I wrote this article.
– Au 36 is in Hautvillers, champagne’s birthplace. Super cute place and a good choice to taste and buy champagne. More here.
– C.Comme is one of the coolest places to buy or drink champagne in Épernay. Click here to know more about activities they offer.
– La Fine Bulle is an unpretentious champagne bar and boutique in Épernay. I like their wine list because besides having almost everything, they describe the grapes and the percentage of the grapes in the bottles. You can also shop for glasses, buckets, etc.
– Saveurs Champenoises is a small cute shop in Äy, specialised in local products. love it! The owners are very nice and sell the best foie gras de canard in the galaxy.
- WHERE TO STAY
– Domaine Les Crayères***** is a Relais & Châteaux, features a classic interior and a great location in Reims – it is possible to walk to Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot and Pommery. There are two very good restaurants which I love and have already mentioned above: Le Jardin and Le Parc. The château is in Art Nouveau style and the garden is simply beautiful. See more.
– L’Assiete Champenoise***** is in Tinqueux, around 10 minutes driving from Reims. There are 33 modern suites in a clean style and familiar feeling. The hotel bar is very cosy and open all day while the restaurant is the only 3 Michelin stars in the area – the property was acquired by chef Arnaud Lallement’s family around 30 years ago. There is a warm swimming pool. Relais & Château. Reservations here.
– Hostellerie La Briqueterie***** is also a Relais & Château member, in Vinay, 4Km away from Épernay. Well know restaurant (already mentioned here) and super classic interior in the restaurant and also in the rooms. The most fantastic attraction are the views to the vineyards and the beautiful garden. There is an indoor swimming pool and a spa. See more.
– Royal Champagne***** is in Champillon, 7km away from Épernay and surrounded by stunning vineyards. Some French kings have stayed here on their way to be coronated in Reims. Relais & Château. Closed until the end of 2017 for renovation. Read more.
- CHAMPAGNE FOR DUMMIES
Many grapes are used to produce sparkling wine around the world but the ones used in the Champagne region are the most well-known for this type of wine: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Brut: The champagne type depends on the quantity of sugar it contains. It can be Ultra Brut (very dry), Brut (dry), Demi-sec (bit sweet) and Doux (very sweet).
Non-vintage: The NV is made from a blend of grapes of different years’ harvest.
Vintage: Should be made from the grapes of only one year’s harvest.
Rosé: Champagne is one of the few denominations which allows the production o Rosé by mixing red and white wines.
Blanc de blancs: Made only from white grapes. Most of times 100% Chardonnay.
Blanc de noirs: Made only from red grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) and usually tastes more fruity than the average champagne.
Grande Marque: Expression used by some Maisons and that means “big brand”. Many well known Champagne Houses use it but this is not guarantee of quality.
Bottle sizes: Magnum (two times the normal bottle) is considered the best to keep the wine; 2) Jéroboam (four times the size of a normal bottle); 3) Mathusalem (eight times the normal bottle); 4) Melchior (twenty four times the normal bottle).
Cuvée de prestige: Some Houses launch wines that are totally top of quality and measure no costs to it. The cuvées de prestige are normally vintage wines, produced with the best grapes of the region and old for long periods. Examples: Dom Pérignom (Moët & Chandon), La Grande Dame (Veuve Clicquot) and Cristal (Louis Roederer).
I hope you guys enjoyed the read and that the article helps you planning the best trip to Champagne.
Santé! Let’s shine!