Your Complete Champagne France Travel Guide: Part I – Things You Need To Know (And Our Top 6 Tips) Before You Go
By Alison Blackman and John Dunham
This is Part I of our 2-part feature on visiting the Champagne Region focusing on the history of Champagne and how to plan your visit. Part Two is a detailed review of three Champagne Houses: Pommery, Ruinart & Drappier, plus exclusive tasting notes, and tips for drinking champagne at home.
Part Two is a detailed review of three Champagne Houses: Pommery, Ruinart & Drappier, plus exclusive tasting notes, and tips for drinking champagne at home.
Champagne: the very word conjures up visions of celebration, luxury, happy times, memories. But Champagne is more than a wine, it’s a specific region in northern France . For your champagne to be the real thing (not merely sparkling wine), the grapes and the wine must come from this region.
Why Visit Champagne?
The Advice Sisters go to many wine tastings in New York, but visiting the champagne region of France itself, checking out the terroir, and spending time with the champagne makers in their houses, er…. Chateaus, er… wineries offers visitors a real understanding about why a wine is produced the way it is, why it has a particular taste profile, and how the wine pairs with particular foods from the region. It also connects you in a personal way to the wine and the winemakers.
Champagne is a beautiful agricultural region, full of picturesque villages located just 90 miles northeast of Paris. It is easily reachable from Paris by train, bus or a couple of hours by car (depending upon the traffic).
A Very Brief History of Champagne:
Epernay is also home to the Comite du Champagne, where we began our tour of the region with a conversation with Philippe Wibrotte, Manager of Public Relations, who provided us with a background presentation on Champagne – both the wine and the region.
From a historical perspective, as with most of the wine growing areas of France, the Romans were the first to plant vineyards in the Champagne region. Following the fall of the empire, most of the vineyards (and for that matter wine production) fell into the hands of abbeys, and nearly every champagne house can point back to a monk in their family tree.
The oldest recorded sparkling wine is Blanquette de Limoux, “invented” by Benedictine Monks in 1531. The sparkling characteristics of the wine from the region were likely known before this time; however, it was not until the mid 1600s when the method champenoise was invented (by an English scientist). The traditional inventor of Champagne, Dom Pérignon, actually did not even come to be until about 40 years later. It was not until 1874 when the cellar master at Pommery invented the dry Brut Champagne that we traditionally drink today, but you will likely come across several statues of Dom Perignon and other champagne innovators, as you are visiting the Champagne region.
Champagne: Wine of Celebration & Coronations!
One reason why wines from Champagne are linked to celebrations, and why the region is so important, is that the Kings of France were traditionally crowned in the historic cathedral in Reims, which is well worth a visit. Even though the 800-year-old Gothic art church is undergoing some restoration, it is easy to see why it was one of the first monuments registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is famous for its stained glass and though many of the original medieval windows have been lost (during WW1), they have been replaced by works by renowned modern artists such as Marc Chagall and Brigitte Simon. Be sure to check out the impressively scary gargoyles on the outside of the cathedral. Should you feel a bit “thirsty” there are some champagne tasting shops near the cathedral catering to tourists who want to taste the bubbly wine.
Be sure to check out the impressively scary gargoyles on the outside of the cathedral. Afterwards, should you feel a bit “thirsty” there are some champagne tasting shops near the cathedral catering to tourists who want to taste the bubbly wine.
Even though the 800-year-old Gothic art church is undergoing some restoration, it is easy to see why it the Rheims Cathedral was one of the first monuments registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is famous for its stained glas. Although many of the original medieval windows have been lost (during WW1), they have been replaced by works by renowned modern artists such as Marc Chagall and Brigitte Simon. Be sure to check out the impressively scary gargoyles on the outside of the cathedral. Should you feel a bit “thirsty” there are some champagne tasting shops near the cathedral catering to tourists who want to taste the bubbly wine.
While the cities of Epernay and Reims are lovely just for looking around, one comes to Champagne for the wine. According to Mr. Wibrotte, while there are 15,000 growers and about 5,000 wine producers in Champagne, most sell exclusively to lists or negotiants meaning that wines from many smaller producers are simply not available at the wineries (you may be able to taste exclusive and local champagnes in local restaurants, however).
Champagne is Different Than Other Wine Touring Regions:
If you are used to wine tasting in other regions (e.g. Tuscany, Napa/Sonoma or the Finger Lakes of New York State) you probably expect to pick a date to visit and then just show up at the beautiful venues where someone will greet you, take you on a tour, and offer you a tasting for a couple of dollars. In these regions, visitors are seen as an important market, especially for smaller producers. It is one of the main outlets where they sell their wine.
The exact opposite is true in Champagne. While there are literally 5,000 producers in the six main growing regions, most of their wineries are not open to visitors and if they are, it’s with appointments made in advance. In general, only the very large producers offer walk-in tours, and these are limited. For example, when we arrived 15 minutes late to tour one champagne house (thanks to confused directions) we were told that there would not be another opportunity to visit the cellars for the entire day.
The French are not purposely trying to make life difficult for oenophiles and tourists. In order to do tastings for the public in France, producers need to essentially obtain a tavern license. It is also costly to create and run exhibits and tours for tourists. Most small producers work with grapes from only a few hectares which means they’ve already sold virtually all of their wine before it is produced. There simply is not much of an opportunity or economic benefit to opening up to tourists considering the costs involved. Even the larger houses focus their tourist visits on history, art and a tour of the cellars themselves (not specifically on sales).
Champagne Travel Tip #1: Set Up Your Introductions & Visits in Advance:
The good news is that you can enjoy a more stress free-visit to the champagne region if you set up some introductions and visits to champagne houses in advance.
Thanks to Millesima USA, one of the major retailers in New York City,we were able to set up a few specific visits to champagne houses in advance of our visit in May 2016. Without the help of Hortense Bernard, the General Manager of Millesima USA, we would have been lost once we arrived in Epernay. We recommend working with a local importer or retailer to help make introductions – particularly to the smaller houses.
In addition, every major town in France has a tourist bureau, and organizations including the Office du Tourisme Epernay the Office du Tourisme Reims and the Office du Tourisme du Grand Troyes are good places to call. They will help set up tours in their specific regions, and recommend champagne houses that are the most visitor-friendly.
The Comité Champagne, the trade association that represents all the grape growers and houses of Champagne, has been working with producers that wish to receive tourists. Green Vineyards and Discoveries signs featuring a grape leaf surrounding a little castle are popping up across the region identifying both vineyards and houses that are receptive to visitors.
Champagne Travel Tip #2: Factor in “Down Time”
This was our first time in Champagne, and we only had a few days there. We didn’t realize the distances and our plans were overly ambitious. As a consequence, we missed a lot of other things we might have liked to do, including exploring the little towns and villages, doing some shopping, trying out some tasting rooms, spending time at the spa where we were staying at La Briqueterie in Vinay, and just having some to rest and relax and perhaps have another glass of…champagne!
If you are driving, you will be spending plenty of time in your car (bring a water bottle and snacks). Give yourself extra time to find your way around and find legitimate places to park in the towns and villages. Don’t rely solely on how long the GPS or the concierge at your hotel says it will take you to get somewhere. Our hotel offered a few vineyard tours, so if you don’t want to drive, taking a bus tour might be an option.
Champagne Travel Tip #3: Driving with GPS + Smart Phone Are Must Haves”
We’ll admit that we got lost using a map just trying to get our rental car out of the Orly airport, GPS got us where we needed to go! Once in the Champagne region, however, you may be surprised at how vast it is.
Unlike many of the French appellations, champagne grapes are grown in vineyards scattered throughout a broad agricultural belt extending south from Reims to Aube, and from Chateau Thierry in the west to Bar Sur Aube in the east. Getting around requires a car with GPS (absolutely essential), and if possible a smartphone with international service (so you can call or text if you are lost or are late).
Champagne Travel Tip #4: Focus on One Region At A Time:
Even if you have a week or more to spend in the Champagne region, it’s best to focus on one region at a time. Depending upon how many days you’re going to stay, consider that Epernay is in the heart of the region.
The Avenue du Champagne in Epernay is home to many leading champagne producers including Moët et Chandon, Mercier and Pol Roger. Take a stroll down the avenue (from the outside) and enjoy the impressive buildings sporting the names of all the famous Champagne houses.
Epernay is also home to the Comite du Champagne, where we began our tour of the region.
Champagne Travel Tip # 5 Where to Stay (in Epernay, at least):
The champagne region offers plenty of options, depending upon your budget. We splurged on the luxurious La Briqueterie, a former brick factory located just outside of Epernay, and now home to a fabulous Relais and Chateaux hotel and restaurant. There is a well-recommended spa which we never had time to even visit, due to our over-booked schedule. However, the food and wine selections were excellent. We tried both the 6 and the 8-course tasting menus which came with local champagne and wine pairings and some of the finest local cheese we’ve ever tasted. You don’t have to be a guest at the hotel to enjoy the restaurant, although we highly recommend a stay at this lovely place.