WORLD TRAVEL NEWS ARTICLE
The wine-growing region of La Champagne has obvious sparkling attractions and makes an easy short break from the UK.
Vineyards in the Côte des Blancs - John Hodder
When the Champagne industry was granted World Heritage status by Unesco in 2015, corks popped non-stop. You might wonder why the global symbol of joyous celebration needs the prestige and protection of World Heritage status. But Champagne can't rest on its laurels. Although it ships 321 million bottles annually, with just under half exported to over 190 countries (Britain being by far the biggest importer), it has seen increasing competition from other fizz, particularly Prosecco. Then there's the concern that English fizz - which recently trumped Champagne in a Paris blind tasting - could flood into the continent after Brexit.
With 15,000 winegrowers in the region, Champagne is very much a way of life - even the trams in Reims are shaped to look like a champagne flute. You can stop at virtually any bar for a glass of the sparkler, for less than it costs for basic pub wine back home. What’s more, with its range of aromas and flavours, versatile Champagne can be paired with almost any dish - exceptions are vinaigrette-dressed salads, hot and spicy foods and chocolate, though chocolatiers would disagree. The Champagne appellation is unique but the wines themselves are remarkably varied: different terroirs (the unique combination of soil, topography and climate), different grapes, different vintages, different blends and different ageing periods. The result is an array of wines to suit every taste, every dish and to make every event a celebration.
16th century home at Le Domaine Champagne Le Gallais
The Champagne production zone lies around 150km east of Paris, comprising 34,000 hectares (84,000 acres) of vineyards spread across 319 villages. You can visit the big Champagne houses in Reims or Épernay or the smaller, less formal wineries in the countryside which extend a warm welcome to visitors. In either case the tours (in English) and tastings should demystify at least some of the secrets of the age-old tradition of la méthode champenoise. Centres such as Reims and Épernay organise wine tours in the region, or with your own car you can wend your way through pretty villages and vineyards, following the signs for the Route Touristique du Champagne. There are 600kms of marked circuits through three main regions, prettiest of which is the Marne Valley. Overlooking neat, sloping rows of vines are small-scale vignerons or wine-growers, who supply grapes to the big Champagne houses, but also create their own bubbles.
Flying disgorgement at Champagne Le Gallais
Take the very welcoming Champagne Le Gallais (www.champagnelegallais.com) in Boursault west of Épernay, where Charlotte Morgain Le Gallais heads the fifth generation of the family business. Visitors are taken through the vineyards, with glorious views of the Marne Valley, passing the family château and a vast Loire-like castle (modelled on Château de Chambord) which the family bought from Veuve Clicquot. A visit to the press, winery and cellars with explanations of the vinification process is followed by tastings in the panoramic Terrasse des Abbayes. There are workshops too, but as with visits you need to give advance notice. Small does not necessarily mean inferior; indeed the wines from the small set-ups are often superior to - and cheaper than - the big brands. For their own Champagne Le Gallais only use the very best must (grape juice) from the first pressing, the second inferior one is sold on to a large maison de Champagne.
Beyond sampling the local elixir the region offers culinary specialities, historic towns and churches. Reims makes a good base and boasts one of the finest Gothic churches in France. In 496 this was the site of the baptism by St Rémi of the previously pagan Clovis, king of the Franks, using the oil of the sacred phial purportedly brought from heaven by a white dove. The event brought fame to the city during the Middle Ages and led to the founding of the monumental Gothic cathedral which saw the coronation of the kings of France from the Middle Ages to the early 19th century.
Like the rest of Reims, the cathedral suffered devastation during World War I but was meticulously restored. The richly decorated west facade is breathtaking in size, harmony and sculptural detail. Inside stained glass windows span several centuries from the west front's medieval rose window to 'the Champagne window' with winegrowing scenes (1954) (sponsored by the Champagne emporia) and the striking stained glass windows by Chagall (1971) in the apse. Many of the treasures formerly displayed in the cathedral, including statuary and tapestries, are now protected in the neighbouring Palace of Tau (open to the public), the former archbishop’s palace, where the kings resided before the coronation and where banquets were held following the event.
Street sign in Hautvillers
Reims was rebuilt in the 1920s. Today it has an attractive centre with flourishes of art deco, five Michelin-starred restaurants and a wide pedestrianised boulevard flanked with cafés and brasseries. During the German bombardments the residents took shelter in the maze of Champagne cellars. Hewn out of the chalk foundations in Gallo-Roman times these stretch for 250km and provide perfect conditions to age the bottles of big name Champagne houses. Most offer fee-paying guided tours and tastings. Pre-booking is normally required - the tourist office will provide a complete list. The largest and perhaps most spectacular of the grandes maisons is Veuve Clicquot, with 24kms of galleries and 100 million bottles. It would be easy to get lost in this dark and chilly labyrinth (the temperature is 10-12 degrees all year so remember to take an extra layer) but guides keep a vigilant eye on visitors and give informative tours including the fascinating story of Widow Clicquot, who became a widow (veuve) at 27 (in 1805) and defied convention by taking on the small wine business and creating a Champagne Empire. She was one of the most successful and prosperous businesswomen of her time.
Champagne on riddling racks - Michel Guillard
On the River Marne, 28km south of Reims, Épernay is the self-proclaimed capital of Champagne. The famous Avenue de Champagne is flanked by some of the most prestigious producers and was dubbed by Churchill as 'the most drinkable street in the world'. Below lie 110km of cellars, home to 200 million bottles. Most of the grandes maisons are open to the public, including Möet & Chandon, the giant among them, and Mercier which has tours of the tunnels in a little electric train. Between the two is the exclusive family-owned Pol Roger (closed to the public), Churchill's favourite tipple.
Langoustines at La Table Kobus
Unsurprisingly Épernay has no shortage of good bars and restaurants. A favourite for locals and visitors alike is La Table Kobus (www.la-table-kobus.fr), a charming Parisienne-style turn-of-the-century brasserie featuring dishes such as terrine de foie gras with foam of rosé Champagne, saddle of smoked rabbit with petits pois purée or Champagne langoustines with warm foie gras. For Champagne tasting the place to go is the friendly C-Comme in the centre of town with a cellar of 300 champagnes, and a welcoming bar-bistro where you will be guided through the different brands, accompanied at aperitif time with assiettes gourmandes. The bar is partnered with neighbouring Hotel Jean Möet (www.hoteljeanmoet.com), charmingly converted from a private mansion.
South of Épernay Hautvillers is one of the prettiest Champagne villages, lying on a hilltop with lovely views of sloping vines all round. Known as the ‘birthplace of Champagne’ it was here that the well-known monk Dom Pérignan (1638-1715, an exact contemporary of Louis XIV) was formerly credited as inventing Champagne and famously crying out to his fellow monks in 1693 ‘Come quickly, I’m tasting the stars’. The monk worked tirelessly to improve production techniques but the sparkle wasn’t put into Champagne in France until the 18th century. There is now strong evidence that it was the British in around 1662 that were the first to give the wine its effervesence, thanks largely to their stronger glass bottles which could withstand second fermentation without risk of explosion.
Vineyards around Épernay - Michel Guillard
Hautvillers is a lovely spot for strolling, with views of steeply sloping vines, and streets with charming medieval-style wrought iron signs. If you would like a local guide the tourist office can organize this for just €5 with tastings a steal at an extra €2. If visiting independently don't miss out on Champagne tasting and gourmet pairings at Au 36 (Rue Dom Pérignon 36).
In the Aube region to the south the main draw for tourists is the town of Troyes, ancient capital of the Champagne region. Tucked into a loop of the River Seine, it is a picturesque town of narrow streets with half-timbered houses leaning over the cobbles. It’s a good spot for a stopover, with fine medieval and Renaissance churches, good museums - and out of town popular factory outlets. The Seine connects Troyes to the Côte des Bar, the least known Champagne region, but an attractive one of undulating landscapes, rivers and pretty villages. One of the latter is Essoyes, where the painter Renoir lived with his wife Aline, who came from the village. You won't find any original Renoirs here but there's a museum and workshop, and from June 2017 you will be able to visit his home, which has been sold by the family to the town.
Way to Go
The region is easily reached by train from the UK. It takes 4 hrs 30 mins to Reims via Eurostar and the TGV (www.voyages-sncf.com).
From Folkestone to Calais, it’s a 3-hour drive to Reims (dfdsseaways.co.uk ).
Champagne with foie gras - Philippe Exbrayat
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