Travel out to Reims and further afield to raise a glass to France's most famous drop.
Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world and while French chic may still rule the capital, France’s epitome of luxury is surely its sparkling Champagne. The region of Champagne is just 45 minutes by train from the French capital, an easy daytrip, although the Champagne area is well worth a longer visit.
Rolling hills with corduroy-striped vineyards surround Reims as the train approaches Champagne’s historic capital. The pedestrianised Place Drouet d’Erlon runs south from the station into the heart of the city where boutique shops, chic cafes and bars spill onto the street. In London there are burger and kebab vans but on Place Drouet d’Erlon food vans serve fresh oysters and scallops.
The city’s Roman origins are evident at the Porte de Mars — a third-century Roman gateway to the city — and its medieval history towers over the city in the form of a magnificent Gothic cathedral. But bombing during World War I means there’s also a strong Art Deco element as parts were rebuilt in the 1920s. In the front line again during World War II, Reims is the place where the Germans originally signed documents that ended the conflict in Europe and the Allied HQ (now the Surrender Museum), where this took place, is preserved as it was on May 7, 1945.
The splendid 800-year-old Gothic Notre Dame Cathedral is a joy to visit compared to its namesake in Paris where you might queue for hours and then shuffle around with a thousand others. Reims cathedral is where French kings were crowned, and along with its magnificent rose windows is a Marc Chagall stained-glass window and another depicting the eponymous monk Dom Perignon.
But it’s the charismatic bubbly stuff that most visitors want to discover and taste. Reims is home to some of the great Champagne houses including Veuve Clicquot, Mumm, Pommery and Taittinger. It’s good to know that champagne is relatively cheap in Champagne, less than a glass of cheap plonk in London or Perth and expect to pick up a bottle for around $25.
All the big champagne houses run cellar visits and this is the best way to get an introduction to champagne production. Most of the cavernous underground cellars originated when the Romans excavated the limestone for building material. The cellars at Veuve Clicquot have 24km of galleries with cathedral-sized caverns where millions of bottles of bubbly champagne are stored.
Only three grape varieties are used to make champagne and Veuve Clicquot’s house blend is 35 per cent chardonnay 55 per cent pinot noir and 10 per cent meunier grapes. The 3000 champagne producers (brands) use variations of this core blend and together with the ageing process, the location the grapes are grown in and the weather all account for the variations in taste.
Most grapes are grown on the rolling chalk hills around and to the south of Reims but the northern Champagne-Ardennes region, bordering Belgium and Luxembourg, is quite different — deep forests, rivers, palaces, castles — and a great area for sports and nature lovers.
The medieval city of Sedan and its huge castle is a place for history buffs interested in ancient and more modern battles. For a real sense of history you can stay in the castle for less than $150 a night. The purpose built trans-Ardennes cycle path crosses 80km of the region and also extends into Belgium and walkers can hike some of the 2900km of forest, river and mountain trails. The adventurous can zip-line across the river Meuse, go canoeing or take a leisurely meander on a barge.
Apart from its famous Ardennes pate, pig’s trotters are a highlight here and it’s a surprise to see people drinking more beer with meals than champagne.
The three major champagne grape-growing areas are around Reims, around Epernay and further south in the Cote des Bar. Contrary to what local signage might suggest there is no specific champagne route, as in a scenic drive, because there are thousands of growers so it’s more of a meander through vineyards, stopping off at any number of producers in your chosen area. Without transport the best option is to focus on the city-based champagne houses or book an organised tour through your hotel or the local tourist board. There are small group tours or for a real French experience take a personal guided tour in a classic Citroen 2CV or a more eco-friendly guided cycle exploration.
The town of Epernay is the epicentre for champagne, surrounded by champagne growers and through its heart runs the Avenue de Champagne, lined with the very grandest champagne houses. If you don’t fancy traipsing around another wine cellar, the perfect place for further “study” is C Comme Champagne on Rue Jean Moet, which is probably the best champagne bar in the world. It’s nothing like the overpriced big city champagne bars, it’s a bar that lives and breathes champagne and serves nothing else. Here champagne connoisseur Frederic pours dozens of different champagnes by the glass or the bottle — he knows every local grower and entertainingly chats about the virtues of each.
Frederic serves plates of cheese, smoked salmon, caviar, foie gras and pate for perfect pairing with the different champagnes. Downstairs the cellar is crammed with 350 different champagnes from 45 growers, so you can also buy your favourite bubbles.
A few miles from Epernay, on a hillside, sits the pretty village of Hautvillers, worth visiting for itself but on a champagne trail it’s a must as the “cradle of champagne”. This is where Benedictine monk Dom Perignon perfected the methode champenoise. A small tourist office in the village provides maps for exploring the highlights or they can arrange guided tours.
The church of the Abbey welcomes visitors with haunting Gregorian chants and Dom Perignon’s tomb has pride of place at the foot of the altar beneath a black marble stone.
To get the most from visiting the Champagne region requires more planning than a visit to Paris but it’s well worth the effort. Stunning countryside, historic castles, World War sites, villages, fabulous food and the world’s ultimate luxury tipple all await those prepared to make the effort.
Top picture: The Champagne Tourist Route. Picture: Peter Lynch