Often overlooked in favour of the more “serious” wine regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy, a visit to Champagne will certainly make your summer pop! I would plan to go between May and October when the weather is warmer and in just three days you can have an adventure, as decadent as you like.
Take the Eurostar from London and in a little over two hours you will be at Paris Gare du Nord. It’s a ten minute walk to Gare de L’est and from there it’s just another 45 minute train journey to Reims, the heart of Champagne country. Stay at the Grand Hotel Continental, but don’t be deceived, as it is not the grand place it used to be, but it is right near the station and you only need to be there for a night. If you get in early enough, go for dinner at La Brasserie du Boulingrin (31 Rue de Mars), a neighbourhood brasserie, full of locals and tourists, with an art deco vibe and an excellent champagne list. I know you just arrived but you may as well get on with it and the brasserie’s famous potato dauphinoise will soak up the excess!
If you want to go easy on your first night, order a half bottle and given that the average glass of fizz has 10g of sugar in it, you can go lighter by ordering something “extra brut”. Brut is the classic champagne you regularly coiff and rosé will keep the grape skins in to give a beautiful colour and often fruitier personality. Vintage means all the grapes are from one particular year, look for at least seven years of ageing. I would steer clear of any champagne that has been aged for less than two years and finally ‘only’ drink the demi-sec with dessert towards the end of the day, because if you have it any earlier, you won’t be able to taste much else.
Blanc de Blancs champagne will only have chardonnay in it so it can be more sour or tart. It’s not to my taste, personally, and blanc des noirs will have little, if any, Chardonnay – mostly pinot noir and pinot meunière so typically, more fruity and lively.
Right, you are an expert now so it’s time to get on with the tastings.
Make like the French and after a coffee and a croissant in the morning, head to the market (Porte de Mars) to pick up du pain et du fromage, as few wine cellars serve food.
You will need a couple of layers also as the cellars tend to be around ten degrees celsius. The most exclusive houses often require reservations in advance, you will have to do your homework here but it’s worth it.
La Grande Dame to champagne (and so much more than the iconic yellow party label suggests) is Veuve Clicquot. It was set up in the late eighteenth century by a 27 year old widow, Madame Clicquot, and this was unheard of in those times. She was the first female entrepreneur and successful business woman, at least in the Western world, and was famous for saying “we have only one quality- the finest” and her technical expertise was copied in many other houses. It’s a great champagne, particularly if you veer towards the older vintages and its feminist history is often overlooked. Veuve Clicquot’s sister house is Ruinart, a very prestigious house, some say the oldest champagne house. Definitely give it a whirl while you are in Reims.
The next day, you have a choice. Maybe you want to take it easy, in which case, hire a car or better yet, a driver too, and head to Chigny des Roses for some old school family champagne producers. But, if you are feeling adventurous or in the mood to ‘earn your champagne and cheese’, you can cycle to Epernay (contact The Winerist who will take your luggage for you and provide bikes) and stop off half way at Chigny. It’s a 30 mile cycle and definitely achievable without much training as long as you have a decent level of fitness. Your route will take you up quiet roads with few cars and although there are two steep hills, you can get away with walking part of the way.
But again, you need to book. The most notable in the village is Cattier, who supply the House of Commons. Check out J. Lasalle, and just for giggles, Andre Tixier et fils, which is a very decent family winery but not prestigious, so you can buy a case of fizz here for 15 Euros. Stock up for the family, wink!
Your ride, or taxi, will take you onto the famous Avenue de Champagne. If you arrive early enough, reward yourself within a glass of “prestige” at Collard Picard, a lesser known winery that makes one of my favourite champagnes on the avenue.
An Extended Stay?
Check into Epernay for two nights, if you have been cycling you definitely deserve some spa time and I recommend Hotel Jean Moët.
If a family run boutique is more up your street, stay at the beautiful La Poterne where Charlotte and her parents will make you feel very at home. My favourite restaurants are La Banque, a very fine brasserie indeed, set in an old bank and La Cave, which serves traditional dishes from the region. For a nightcap or six, hit up C Comme, a champagne bar that specialises in lesser known micro champagne wineries from the region.
On your final day, it’s all about the champagne life. Begin at the beast of Moët et Chandon, you will need a reservation and again I urge you towards the vintage tastings. They are serving 2008 right now, about the only thing in 2008 that went well, and in August you will able to buy 2009. Moët et Chandon also own Dom Pom, the handiwork of the monk that basically dedicated his life to bubbles so don’t forget to try some while you are there.
As you wander down Avenue de Champagne, stop off at any of the lesser-known houses you see, they might surprise you! But at the end of the road you will see a beautiful building on the left that may look tempting, it is called Castellane, but is Laurent Perrier’s poorer cousin and I would avoid. Keep going until you get to Mercier, the people’s champagne! It may be less expensive but you can’t fault the flair and take the train through the cellars and at the tasting try the blanc de noirs which at €25 for a bottle is an absolute steal.
So if you’re not living the champagne life, make sure you live it for the weekend! There is a huge amount of love and sweat that goes into every bottle and if you are super keen you can show up around harvest to help pick the grapes! This is a trip that will take a little more effort in advance on your part but grab your girlfriends as this is the ultimate girls weekend.
Need to Know
Veuve Clicquot – Book in for the Cellar Tour
Ruinart – Book here with 3 weeks notice
Cattier contact: [email protected]
Andre Tixier contact: [email protected]