France

Bubbles in paradise: a champagne getaway in the French countryside

Supposedly, when Dom Perignon first tasted his own well balanced sparkling white wine in the 17th century, he acclaimed

“I’m tasting the stars”

While awarding the invention of the méthode champenoise to Dom Perignon alone is an arguable recognition, and research can only track back this quote to a champagne ad in the 1880’s, it does match the exclusive image that champagne has acquired from the reign of King Louis XIV to the present.

Nowadays, the bubbly drink is still associated with stars. Champagne is used to add sparkle when celebrating love or a special occasion, for the rich and famous stars who spray the fizz around like confetti, and for popping a bottle at New Years’ Eve when firework joins the starry night skies.

Since I will never be a famous rapper nor a Formula 1 champion, I did not win the lottery nor bought a new house, and at the moment of writing season’s celebrations are still 4 months away, you can already guess what my excuse was to indulge in champagne.

Indeed, love and romance. My partner and I decided to head to the Champagne region to celebrate our three year wedding anniversary. Cheesy? Yes. Cliché? Maybe. A great idea? Bet your ass it was.

Having said that, let me tell you now that travelling to the Champagne region is a good idea for anyone who loves champagne and clearly not only for couples. It is also a perfect destination for friends, although in that case you have to share the bottle with more people. Luckily, there are bottles that serve up to 80 people.

Let me also tell you that, while we all know you don’t really need an excuse to indulge in haute drinking as long as you really feel like it and are allowed to spoil yourself, (a trip to) Champagne does not have to be so expensive as the image of the exclusive drink might lead you to believe. Read more on that in the section ‘How to make a trip to the Champagne region affordable?’

Of course, the truth is that champagne is an exclusive drink. Rather arbitrary, a sparkling wine may only be called champagne if the grapes originate from the Champagne region – limiting the cultivation of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes to ±34.000 hectares. The grapes are harvested by hand as it is forbidden to use machines in the region and in addition, while wine only needs a single fermentation, champagne (and all other sparkling wines) require two.

The cities of Reims and Épernay form the commercial heart of the Champagne making region and house some of the most exclusive labels such as Pommery, Veuve-Cliquot and Moët & Chandon. These houses all offer tours through their wine cellars and have a fancy store with bottles of champagne and all accessories you can think of, ranging from bottle caps to bath towels, all with their brand name on it of course.

The region is also home to multiple UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the Notre-Dame cathedral in Reims where 37 French kings took the crown, including champagne lover King Louis XIV (read more in the section ‘What to do in Reims?’) and the kilometres long underground crayères (ancient Gallo-Roman chalk pits) where a constant 10 degrees Celcius form ideal ripening conditions for champagne. A guided visit to the cellars is an absolute must when in the region; not only to learn about the champagne making process, but also to marvel at the 30 metre deep ancient chalk pits that were used as shelters and hospitals during the first and second World War.

The big houses all have an interesting story on the impact that the family (and label name) have had on the taste and the production process. Interestingly enough for these rather unfeminist times, two ladies especially stand out.

Madame Louise Pommery for instance, who ran the Pommery champagne business after the untimely death of her husband, found out how to make champagne less sweet. In the old days, champagne glasses were filled at the start of a festive dinner only to be paired with the dessert course. Doing this allowed the sediment of dead yeast cells to sink to the bottom of the glass and prevented unpleasant sipping. Besides, the drink was so sweet that it only matched with dessert. Louise Pommery – wise lady that she was – decided that champagne should be drinkable at any time during the day, and so in 1874 the first brut (dry) champagne was produced by her champagne house.

Just like Louise Pommery, Barbe Nicole Ponsardin became the leader of a champagne house after her husband (Monsieur Clicquot) died. She insisted to use the French word for widow, veuve, on the label of the bottle and that is why the orange tag of one of the most famous champagne houses reads ‘Veuve-Cliquot’. More importantly, she invented the typical wooden bottle rack that you see all across the region. The racks are a real eye-catcher in the interior of champagne stores and restaurants, but they did not become wanted for aesthetic reasons. The racks are used to store bottles upside down to sink the dead yeast cells to the bottleneck. By turning the bottles a little each day over a period of time, the sediment is collected in a plug under the bottle cap and can be removed later on during the process of disgorging. A genius invention as it allows us to say cheers and take a sip right after popping the bottle.

Time for tasting, I say.

In Changy, a tranquil French town with just over 100 inhabitants, we meet Jean-Philippe and Corrinne Menu. The married couple owns three vineyards in the Champagne region and have their own small champagne label ‘Menu-Jacquier’.

The vineyards and the ploughed farmlands that surround their abode form a patchwork blanket of yellow and green. The coloured rolling hills form a romantic landscape that in some way makes us think of the Tuscan country side in Italy. (And that is about the best compliment I can give to a landscape if we’re not talking mountains).

Jean-Philippe takes us up to their vineyard in a Land Rover. The gravel creaks under the tires as we pull up to the vineyard, where 100 neatly lined rows of 200 plants each stretch out over two hectares.  

The grape vines have an intense green colour. Only a couple of weeks from now, in September, it will be time to harvest the Chardonnay grapes that adorn the vines.

We walk downhill between the rows of green leaves to the small shed in the middle of the field. Here, Jean-Philippe explains to us not only what happens after the harvest, but also what is required to grow wine ranks in the first place.

Of course, it takes the right climate to grow grape vines. Even within the Champagne region, micro-climates make some areas more suitable for a specific type of grape than another, which is why here in this field in Changy Jean-Philippe and Corinne grow the Chardonnay grape and vines of Pinot Noir are lined up in their field in Reims.

The couple set up their vineyard in the 1990’s and it took them 12 years to cultivate and plant the grape vines. In 2006 their very first champagne was produced. Yes, champagne-making requires some patience. It takes at least three years for vines to produce a first harvest. Then, you need to wait at least another couple of years to taste your first champagne. Luckily, grape vines are capable to produce a good quality crop for about 20 years.

Besides patience, making champagne also requires hard work. It is the love for that work and the passion for their family business that makes a visit to a small Champagne house like Menu-Jacquier so completely different from a tour at one of the big labels. Jean-Philippe and Corinne are a hard working team.

“My favourite part of the process is pruning”

says Jean-Philippe. In winter, when the vines are dormant, it is time to establish a right balance between the number of shoots and the number of buds. An abundance of leaves for instance will keep away the much needed sunlight from the grapes, and too many fruits will deplete the energy levels of the plant. Pruning thus requires the skill of making the right choices to keep the strongest branches for the next harvest, and to make sure that sufficient grapes will ripen well.

If you have ever walked passed a vineyard you may have noticed that between the wooden poles that are placed about a metre apart, two or three wires are stretched horizontally. The wires are there to help the grape vine carry its weight and to lead its growth path. Throughout the year, as the plant grows, its vines are attached to a higher level wire. In the Corinne-Jacquier family, this is Corinne’s task.

When it is time to harvest, the couple gets help to make sure the grapes are gathered brought to the cooperative press as quickly as possible. The Land Rover is then fully loaded with crates of grapes and it is decorated with roses. Corinne, as the lady of the vineyard, is offered a bunch of roses by the workers to celebrate the harvest.

The roses are a hidden beauty growing between the grape vines that nowadays are just there as part of the winemakers tradition. In the old days however, the roses were used as a safeguard to detect diseases that would be caught on by the roses before they would show on the leaves and branches of the grape vines.

Roses are not the only thing hidden among the vines. At the end of his explanation, Jean-Philippe moves aside some branches and leaves to reveal glasses and a bottle of Ratafia (a French aperitif that tastes a bit like Port). Cheers to that.

We return to the small village to taste their own produce in a stylishly decorated cellar on the couple’s premises. We taste the Blanc de Blancs, Brut Tradition, Rosé and Prestige. As the golden liquid tickles my palate I can imagine Dom Perignon exclaiming “I’m tasting the stars!”

Taking sips of the world’s fanciest drink, and seeing the agreeable swimming pool of the premises bathing in sunlight in front of me, I am intensely happy that I am not: A) a famous rapper that feels the need to spill champagne in a swimming pool, B) a professional athlete who wins a magnum bottle of champagne but knows he or she should actually not drink it because it will affect performance, and C) celebrating New Year’s Eve because now I get to drink champagne and enjoy rays of summer sunshine.

After all these glasses of champagne my partner and I decide to enjoy the rest of the day just relaxing at La Loge Vigneronne, Corinne’s renovated old family house that offers two B&B rooms.

To celebrate our wedding anniversary – our own tradition without roses but with wedding attire – we take pictures in the romantic room and in the vineyard. Cheesy and hopelessly romantic? Maybe. A great idea? See for yourself.

SAY YES TO CHAMPAGNE – practical tips to arrange the perfect trip to the Champagne region

How to get to the Champagne region?

Living in the Netherlands, we were lucky to be only a 6 hour drive away from the Champagne region. If you’re flying in to Paris, Reims is just a 1hr40m drive away with a rental car. Alternatively, the train will take you from Paris to Reims in less than 50 minutes. If you just want to visit one of the big champagne houses, coming in with public transport works perfectly fine. If you want to see more of the surroundings, visit smaller champagne labels as well and stay in the countryside, you will need a car.

Where to stay in the Champagne region?

I whole heartedly recommend La Loge Vigneronne, the B&B run by Corinne and Jean-Philippe Menu. The hospitable couple welcomes visitors in two beautiful rooms that are housed in the Corinne’s old family house. The house is built in the typical style for the region with a lot of wood. The rooms are spacious, airy and romantic. We stayed in the ‘Blanc de Blancs’ room that is furnished with a four poster bed and a bathtub in the middle of the room. The breakfast is lavish and the outdoor swimming pool is heated.

Do realize that La Loge Vigneronne does not offer dinner (although you can arrange a wonderful gourmet basket to enjoy on your private terrace or inside your room) and Changy does not have any restaurants. Reims, Epernay and Troyes are half an hour to an hour driving away and offer an array of hotels. So if you want to be able to pare your dinner with drinks, you might want to consider to stay inside one of these cities.

Which Champagne house should I visit?

My advice is to visit one of the big labels in Reims that are part of UNESCO World Heritage (e.g. Taittinger, Veuve-Clicquot and Pommery) and to visit the house of a small champagne label.

Both big and small houses will teach you a lot about the story behind the bubbles, but as you can imagine the big houses are more commercial and a small family business will give you more of a feel of the passion for the profession and the hard work behind the golden liquid.

Be aware of the opening hours of the champagne houses as not all are open every day. Veuve-Cliquot for instance was not open on Sundays and Mondays at the time of writing.

We visited Pommery (officially named Vranken-Pommery Monopole) and thought that the estate and the tour through the underground wine cellars are quite remarkable. The Pommery estate has been built in Tudor style architecture in the 19th century to draw more clients from the UK. The cellars are built in crayères (ancient Gallo-Roman chalk pits) that are marked as UNESCO World Heritage and are decorated with bas reliefs showing scenes with the Greek god of wine, Bacchus. It took the artist Navlet four years to complete the carving in the chalk walls, and he had to make do with just the light of candles and deal with the constant low temperature of just 10 degrees Celcius. Contemporary art is also on display in the cellars of Pommery as part of an annual exhibition.

What to do in Reims?
  • Take a leisurely stroll through the historic centre. You will find statues of French kings, stately buildings and lovely streets. If you’re visiting in spring or summer: take a look in Rue de Tambour with brightly coloured cobble stones. Each year in spring, the street is painted in bright colours which most definitely puts a smile on your face.
  • Visit the cathedral and marvel at the graceful façade with hundreds of sculptures, its intricate stained glass windows painted by Chagall while imagining the coronations of dozens of kings that took place here.
  • Visit the UNESCO World Heritage champagne cellars of one of the world famous champagne houses such as Pommery or Taittinger.
  • Eat & drink! You’re in France, so you’d better indulge in the French Cuisine. Enjoy the perfect croissant, macaron or steak tartare. Or try a champagne infused cocktail such as a Royal Mojito and Soupe Champenoise.

We did not consider Reims to be a very thriving city. In fact, some of the restaurants, smaller stores, and cafes were closed because the owners were enjoying their own summer holiday. One day really is enough here.

Check out the website of the tourist office for an overview of all things Reims.  

What to do in Epernay?
  • Enjoy the views of the rolling hills covered with vineyards that surround the city. You can do so from the car, but you can also enjoy 360 views from up in the air with the Epernay Ballon Captif (a kite balloon, not a hot air balloon).
  • Enjoy a an actual champagne tasting. Instead of just enjoying a glass at the end of a tour, you can also sit down on a terrace to taste a some sips of the various champagne types a house has on offer. We enjoyed this at Janisson Baradon.
  • Take a walk on the Avenue de Champagne. And make a picture of what is perhaps the fanciest street name in the world.

Epernay also houses some big champagne labels. We visited the store of Moet & Chandon but thought it lacked atmosphere and just oozed luxury shopping. I would recommend to make a visit to an estate in Reims instead.

Check out the website of the tourist office for an overview of all champagne cellars and activities in the region.

How to make a trip to the Champagne region affordable?

Famous champagne is expensive, that’s true. Having dinner at one of the Michelin star restaurants and sleeping in one of the exclusive hotels in the region also is. Organized tasting tours also come with a price. However, you don’t need any of that to have a wonderful time in the Champagne region.

For a lovely and affordable stay in Champagne, you should focus on the smaller champagne houses. Champagne prices for smaller labels already start from €15-20 per bottle as opposed to €30-40 for a bottle from a famous brand.

Our tour through the vineyards of Menu-Jacquier was included in our stay at La Loge Vigneronne. They offer the tour for free with any stay of more than 2 nights.

Regarding breakfast, lunch and dinner: it takes quite some effort to find an indecent meal in these culinary surroundings. Book a hotel room excluding breakfast and enjoy an airy, crispy croissant at a bakery. Note: in France, you often pay a higher price for your drinks and food if you sit down at the bakery. If there’s a nice bench on a square or in a park, you can also enjoy your croissant and take-away coffee there.

During our champagne tasting at Janisson Baradon in Epernay we were allowed to bring our own food since the store only serves drinks: a perfect lunch and tasting combination, since bakery Paul is next door.

For dinner, you can find a main plate of goodness for just €15 at a brasserie.

So, what’s keeping you?

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