Although Champagne is one of the most well known wines in the world, visiting the region is not as simple as many would expect, especially if you want to get the best of it. After two visits with plenty of research and aforethought, I’m still learning what it’s all about, and realising I’ve missed some of the best bits only once I have left.
It’s an appelation we hear so much about, a wine so thoroughly infused with wealth, beauty and romance, but the area does not always reflect this on its surface. Weather is often dreary, accommodation is sparse and restaurants are average. If you don’t pre-book you’ll never get in to taste wine at one of the grand houses, and you’ve never heard of any of the small ones. How on earth are you supposed to get a decent wine tour out of that? Easy…
Unlike many wine growing regions, Champagne is not the kind of place where you can just drive around the beautiful countryside looking for vineyards with boards stating “Degustation, vente” (tastings, sales), and expect to pull in and try and buy wine.
- Where to taste: Champagne production does place great importance on the vineyard, but you are more likely to find the cellar door (and degustation) far removed from the terroir. Larger champagne houses will likely have their head office and sales point within the three main metropoli of Champagne – Reims, Epernay and Ay. Some of these will also contain their cellars and/or wineries. Smaller houses may also be found here, but are more likely to be discovered in the tiny villages (Hautvillers, Sézanne and Bouzy for example).
- When to turn up: Generally, it’s fairly un-PC to just to knock on the door and ask for a taste. Most premium brands require a booking, which can usually be done online. The more prestigious the house, the longer ahead you should book (Ruinart recommend booking at least 3 weeks out). Large houses will possibly allow walk-ins, but in high season they are likely to be fully booked. Smaller houses may not even have the office attended unless you call ahead. (There is a great resource here if you have forgotten to book)
- What you will do: A champagne house visit is rarely just a tasting, with many experiences involving an extensive tour of the cellars (often going many floors underground), and a run-down on the bottling processes and general magic of Champagne. If you don’t have an hour or more to spend, you may be better off sticking with the smaller houses, where it will likely be more simple, or heading to an oenothèque or wine bar in one of the towns or villages, which often offer horizontal tastings of many brands.
- How much to pay: A one-hour tour and tasting generally starts at around 20€/person, stretching upwards of 75€ for super-premium experiences. There are some free tours and tastings available, but these will generally be with lesser-known brands. Some houses might charge a small fee for tasting only (e.g. 5-10€). Trust me, this is good – if there is no charge, you might feel some internal push to buy at least one bottle, even if it is terrible. Oenothèques and bars will often have a series of small glasses (e.g. 3 x 60ml) that will cost around 10-20€.
How do I select two or three Champagnes out of 5000?
Once you get to Champagne, you will realise there is so much more out there than you had been aware of. It’s baffling. From our own countries we see a few labels on the shelf, but in the region you’re going to want to check out some “grower Champagnes” – Smaller houses that own the vineyards they produce from. It’s always great to have a stab in the dark, but Champagne tasting can get expensive if you are constantly throwing out the remainder of a glass, so keep a few things in mind:
- Go to a house that has a wine you already love. If you’ve had a great experience with a NV, there’s a pretty high likelihood that you will also enjoy one or two of a house’s other wines. Many houses only export their highest quantity product, so you might find something very unique at the cellar door.
- Know your villages and crus. There are 318 villages in the Champagne appellation, but of this, only 17 are grand cru villages, and another 44 premier cru. We rarely see the words “Grand Cru” on a Champagne label, because houses might include many standards of grapes within a certain blend, particularly those producing large export quantities. There’s a whole other post in this that I will pop together shortly, but in the meantime, Wikipedia has a list of the key villages.
- Research UK wine guides and specialist Champagne blogs. There are 5000 Champagne houses in the region, but most countries only import around 30-50 brands at the most. The UK is however the best market outside France for Champagne, and so they see many, many more, and that’s what you need if you want to discover something new and special. I love Secret sommelier, Jancis Robinson and Decanter.
What are the best Champagne houses to visit?
Firstly, don’t necessarily rely on Tripadvisor. You don’t know if this tourist has ever visited any other houses to compare the experience, or even tried Champagne before. Plus, who would give any tour a bad mark? It’s Champagne. Hedonista recommended below.
I’d ask you to forget your personal tastes here, and remember that the wine itself only comes after the tour. You want the walking around to be as interesting as the drinking down.
- Pommery – The prettiest palace above ground to be sure, a non-pretentious tour with miles of cellars, myriad chalk pits and crowd pleasing fizz.
- Ruinart – It’s dead posh, and fabulous champagne, but it’s also got 2000 year old chalk quarries, and the tour is decidedly more serious and oeno-geeky.
- Moët & Chandon – If you’re going to visit a large house, you may as well go all the way. Moet’s labyrinthine cellars traverse 28 kilometres. Don’t go the basic – step up to the grand vintage tour so you can try the good stuff.
- Henri Giraud – Very flavoursome champagnes with plenty of high quality oak. They are also experimenting with the use of terracotta amphoras. Their Dame Jane rose is something special.
- Barnart – in the phonetically perfectly named village of Bouzy have some very good grand cru champagnes, plus a lovely Bouzy rouge if you’ve finally got sick of fizz. They also offer harvest visits in the vineyards.
- Aspasie – This 18C family estate still produces some of the forgotten grapes of Champagne – Arbanne, Petit Meslier and Pinot Blanc. Winemaking is traditional, and the wines are very well priced.
- There’s also a great lists here on The Evening Standard, Wine Searcher and Decanter.
Where can I try a wide range of Champagnes all at once?
Champagne bars are many, but there are some very special ones. Look for the haphazard flea-market terrace of Le Clos in Reims, and the exceptional modern treehouse venue Perching Bar in the countryside near Verzy. Otherwise, try one of the following, which combine tasting and retail sales
- C.Comme in Epernay is understated and approachable. They deal with a group of 41 relatively small producers from neighbouring areas. 34.50€ per person for a tasting of 6 wines.
- Trésors de Champagne (Reims) stock only 30 growers champagnes, all of which have passed strict guidelines (size, production and quality). Wine tasting workshops and tastings from 7€ per glass.
- Aux 3 P’tits Bouchons (Reims), like Comme are both bar and wine store. A tiny place with plenty of organic and biodynamic labels, cheese and charcuterie.
- Au 36 in the beautiful (And grand cru) village of Hautvillers have a charming upstairs tasting room, and lead guided tastings for small groups.
1 day – Especially if you don’t have a car, opt for a tour company. La Vigne du Roy offer single-day or multi day tours, and even horse and carriage jaunts. Instants Tours have many options, including one that pickes aup a 2-Michelin-star lunch, and one that teaches you how to blend wines like a Champagne pro. Most tour companies offer pickup from Reims TGV station or from Paris.
- 2 days – Arrive in the afternoon and spend the evening at one of the bars mentioned above. Wake up at 10 the next day, and visit a large champagne house in Reims, Ay or Epernay. Have lunch somewhere spectacular. Visit the village of Hautvillers and stroll around, tasting where you can. Take home a bottle of something lovely, a wedge of gorgeous fromage, some fresh fruit and some Roses de Reims biscuits, and dine al fresco or in your hotel room. The morning after, visit a grower Champagne house. If time permits, return to a wine store in town and purchase as much of the good stuff as your duty free allowance permits.
- 3 days or more – This gives you time to do the above, then explore the tourist sights of the region, so you’ll definitely want a car. Reims and it’s cathedral are high on the list for many, but the village of Epernay will allow a stroll down the Avenue de Champagne, and Chalons-en-Champagne is full of beautiful green spaces and gothic churches. Smaller villages of note are Avize, Verzy, Sezanne, Chateau-Thierry and Hautvilliers. The “Route de Champagne” is a scenic drive that takes you through many villages, to the Massif de Saint-Thierry, Ardre Valley, Mont de Berru and Montagne de Reims.
As for where to stay and where to eat? There are plenty of options despite my opening comments – that comes next, so stay tuned….