Just whisper the word “champagne” and voila, you are speaking French. Just think of celebration and champagne pops into mind. Just sip champagne and you are drinking stars. Just visit the Champagne region of France and you will be enchanted with its history, geography, and sites, not to mention the warm welcome from growers, producers and champagne houses who are waiting to offer you the fruits of their labor.
It is so close to Paris that many visitors take a day trip. But the real story can only unfold with a night or two to experience and discover its many delights, as evidenced by its UNESCO designation bestowed in 2015.
Stay at a Champagne House. One notable example, Les Suites du 33, offers comfortable, modern, stylish accommodations on the grounds of Champagne de Venoge in Epernay.
Their tasting room includes a cozy café, and their tour of the property will enable you to appreciate the finesse of their selections, including their prestige vintage cuvees.
For an understanding of an independent Champagne “Grower Producer” of the area, schedule a trip to Roger Coulon, who will open his production facility to explain the unique role of the independent family owned grower/producer in this wine’s history.
The first grape vines were planted by the Romans in the 3rd century AD. They discovered that the unique chalky soil was ideal terroir for the three grape varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the only three varietals that are allowed by law to be used to make champagne. It was Dom Perignon, a monk and wine maker who, at the end of the 17th century, first started combining these grapes to make a more balanced and complex blend.
Next, visit Ruinart, the first House of Champagne started in 1729. Along with the fascinating family history you will thrill and marvel as you descend into the depths of the chalk pits, one as deep as the Cathedral of Reims is tall! These hand chiseled caves from Roman times are the perfect wine cellars for the thousands of bottles that must age by law for at least 15 months for non – vintage and 3 years for vintage bottles. In fact, most champagne houses age their bottles for much longer than required to develop their unique styles.
Click to enlarge
As you tour the facilities and experience first hand the laborious process, the most intense of any wine making, you realize, appreciate and are willing to pay the price for this liquid gold. The demand for champagne continues to rise while the supply remains steady as this heavily regulated luxury product emphasizes quality to protect its hard- earned reputation.
Once you have discovered, and delighted in the bubbles, its time to further explore the region. Reims, the largest city in the area, has been important since Roman times. It became the preeminent city of France in the fifth century when Clovis and every subsequent king of France was crowned in the cathedral. Reims, known as the sacred city, acquired its reputation from the notoriety of the cathedral which is considered the masterpiece of Gothic architecture. The ravages of war took its toll on the structure and its invaluable contents.
Click to enlarge
Today, the remains of the original structure are housed in the adjoining Palais du Tau. While these two structures are impressive “must-sees,” there are many additional sites to visit.
The Villa Demoiselle is an art deco delight and part of the Pommery Champagne legacy located across the street. Besides a wine tour including more deep, chalky cellar caves.
The story of Madame Pommery and the annual art exhibits displayed in the caves are unique points of interest.
Although the Champagne region does not boast a distinct culinary tradition, there are numerous restaurants and brasseries that feature the representative products and preparations from all of France.
Among those are Le Jardin les Crayeres, Café du Palais and Brasserie Flo Excelsior.
Further out of the center of town is the Chateau de Sacy, where you can dine and stay the night surrounded by vineyards.
Click to enlarge
There are many tours as well as complimentary champagne tastings organized by the tourist office near the cathedral. The pedestrian walking streets and the streamlined tram system make Reims an easily accessible city as our guide, who moved here from Paris can readily confirm.
You may start your visit to France in Paris but plan to end your tour with a stay in Champagne. Take the TGV train directly into Charles de Gaul airport in 37 minutes. With this convenient, stress free way to access your flight home, you will be ready to bid the region adieu with a final toast of champagne. Salut and bon voyage.
By Diane Sukiennik and Michael Reiss Courtesy www.foodandwineaccess.com “Photos by Michael Reiss”