Although Champagne is one of the most well known wines in the world, visiting the region is not as simple as many would expect. It’s an appellation we hear so much about, a wine thoroughly infused with wealth, beauty and romance, but the area does not always reflect this in reality. Weather is often dreary, accommodation is sparse and restaurants mediocre. If you don’t pre-book you’ll never get into one of the grand houses, and it’s hard to know where to start with the plethora of unknown smaller houses.
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?
From our own countries we see a few labels on the shelf, but in the region the abundance of smaller houses and grower Champagnes (smaller houses that own the vineyards they produce from) can be baffling. It’s often great to have a stab in the dark, but Champagne tasting can get expensive and overly boozy, or even plain disappointing if you don’t have a sense of direction.
- Consider 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. 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.
- Don’t rely on Tripadvisor. This tourist may have never visited any other houses to compare the experience, or even tried Champagne before. And think about it – who would give any tour a bad mark – it’s Champagne.
- Consider the site rather than the wine. As mentioned before, a house visit is much more involved than a cellar door wine tasting. The wine itself only comes after the tour, and may be just a glass of the NV, so make sure the walking around will be as interesting as the drinking down. Some recommendations of both large and small houses (There’s also a great lists here on The Evening Standard, Wine Searcher and Decanter):
- 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.
Taste Champagne without the tour
For a concentrated experience in a short time, there are some very special Champagne bars. More for drinking than tasting, try 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.
Where to stay and when to go?
Most travellers will centre their stay around the two major centers of Reims or Epernay. The former is by far the larger, with a famous cathedral, a bustling and tight old centre and sprawling outskirts. Epernay is smaller, and surrounded by some of the key Champagne producing villages of Ay, Dizy and Hautvillers. Both towns have many of the larger houses within them, a reasonable number of restaurants and contrasting accommodation options.
Despite being one of the world’s best known wines, the area does not provide the gourmet tourist set with the ease of stay that one might find in Provence or Bordeaux. The few large hotels are generally bland two-to-three-star establishments that cater to horticultural sales reps, barley traders and strictly budgeted MW students. More gentile stays are likely to be in family-run bed and breakfast or gite style accommodation, many of which have less than four rooms. This makes it nigh-impossible to book for a large family or group in peak season.
Epernay and surrounds
- La Briqueterie: A classically styled Relais & Chateaux luxury property 7km from Epernay in Vinay, with spa, Michelin-star restaurant and 3 hectares of gardens. From around €210 per room per night.
- Les Suites 33: Placed in the annexed buildings of Champagne Venoge on the Unesco listed Avenue de Champagne, this is as close you can get to living the Champagne life. Modern fittings in classic architecture, just 4 rooms. From around €190 per room per night.
- Le Clos des Armoiries – Gorgeous traditional manse within the vines. Rooms are large, and although retain a touch of the classic, have a crisp modern feel. Lovely views and easy access to the village of Hautvillers. Around €180.
- Hôtel Jean Moët: A renovated 18C building in town with well priced double and family rooms. Indoor pool and sauna, and back stairs leading into the cozy Champagne bar, C Comme. Excellent service. From around €150 per room per night.
- Au Coeur des Vignes: Your best budget bet at €72 per double. It’s walking distance from Epernay, but just far enough out that the lane backs onto the vines. Quiet, with free parking, pets allowed.
Reims and surrounds
- Chateau Les Crayeres: The epitome of luxury, an elegant and classically styled Chateau walking distance from many major houses. Onsite is a two Michelin star restaurant, so you can save on the cab fare home from dinner -and you’ll need to, with rooms starting at €400.
- Domaine du Chalet: The previous house of Mme Pommery, and as grand as you’d expect. Expansive grounds, impeccably restored with modern styling, suites, indoor pool and even a tree house to stay in. From €180 to €330.
- Le Parc du Chateau: In the pretty winemaking village of Hermonville, Le parc might fall a little short on glamour, but is simple and sticks to budget, with a great reputation, clean spaces and good breakfast. From €110 per double
- Maison des Vignes: A chambre d’hotes on a working vineyard run by a husband and wife team. Great breakfast, and on request, excellent local food for dinner. From €105 per double.
- 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.