Discover history and mystery in the legendary land of the popping cork – where there’s something on offer all year round.
The French region of Champagne is the only one that can legally call its sparkling wine “champagne”.
Just 90 kilometres, (55 miles), from Paris, the Champagne region comprises 30,000 hectares of vineyards, which produces over 320 million bottles of champagne every year.
Head first to the city of Reims. It is here that you can wonder at the majestic thirteenth century cathedral, where no fewer than 26 kings of France were crowned. Joan of Arc witnessed the coronation of Charles VII in the cathedral in 1429.
Épernay and the avenue de Champagne
Then move 26kms south to Épernay, and directly to the avenue de Champagne, where most of the big champagne makers have made a base in nineteenth-century mansions that squat across more than 100 kilometres of underground tunnels, where millions of bottles are stored.
Many of these champagne houses offer tours underground through these labyrinthine tunnels, rich with smell of damp and mystery. Two companies that don’t require a reservation beforehand are Moët & Chandon and Mercier.
The former has a well stocked gift shop and the latter’s tour includes a trip by train. Upstairs, both offer tasting – most people’s goal in the hour-long visit!
Route Touristique de Champagne
However, with over 300 wine-producing villages and some 15,000 growers, (5,000 of whom who sell their own champagne) you can get a more intimate sense of the whole business by driving along the well signposted Route Touristique de Champagne. It criss-crosses the five main Champagne districts – the Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs, Vallée de la Marne, The Aube and Côte de Sézanne.
A fun time to visit is during harvest (from last week in September, but check nearer the time), when the sleepy stone-built villages are kick-started into life. It is then that the air hangs heavy with the odour of crushed grapes, and the rolling hills suddenly become alive with pickers handling the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes.
If you want to try to pick them yourself, several producers (names from the tourist board) offer a harvest day in the vines with a champagne breakfast and cellar tours. Some can even send you a bottle of the champagne made from the grapes you have picked two or three years later.
To buy wholesale, follow the champagne route and stop at the vignerons who make and blend the champagne themselves, where prices are particularly attractive. Look out for the signs that say vente en bouteille, for you can buy directly from there.
But if you want to learn a little bit more, there are also companies who organise a range of courses on champagne. They range from two hour-long introductory classes to comprehensive two-day sessions and, if especially arranged, you can taste up to 20-30 champagnes.