“Come quickly – I’m tasting stars!” Dom Pérignon, the Benedictine monk wrongly credited with inventing champagne, was definitely onto something. A few days in the Champagne region, just east of Paris will confirm this for you.
Wine has been produced in the Champagne region of north-eastern France for centuries; however, the wine we now know and love as Champagne was not produced until the late 17th century. It was during this time that winemakers (who had been trying hard to develop techniques which would improve their wines’ flavour and reduce their effervescence) stopped despairing over their “frothy” wine and embraced the bubbles. Thank goodness because this was the start of the Champagne-producing industry we know today!
If you’re interested in finding out more about Champagne production, you should definitely put the Champagne region on the top of your “must visit in France” list. Reims, one of two main commercial centres for Champagne production, is a quick and easy train trip from Paris’ Gare de l’Est (around 45 minutes) but if you really want to get out and explore, you’re best to rent a car on arrival in Reims. If you prefer to rent the car in Paris, know that the Gare de Lyon is close to the Péripherique, making for a relatively easy exit from Paris onto the motorway. It’s a good idea to make sure you have at least two authorized drivers who can take turns being the designated driver during your travels around Champagne country, so make sure you organize that when you pick up the car.
Visiting the Champagne houses around Reims and Epernay does necessitate some planning and I recommend you make enquiries about each establishment’s opening hours in advance by phone, don’t just trust the websites. Many of the houses require advance bookings or only have tours leaving at specific times and, especially over the summer, they close for a number of hours over the lunch period. There are only a few places where you do not have to take a tour, so by the end of a few of them, you will most likely be able to recite some of the information by heart!
Most tours begin with a presentation of the house itself (many fancy video advertorials), followed by a visit to the cellars where the Champagne-making process is explained in detail. In the cellars, the temperature runs around 12˚C so make sure to bring a sweater! The “tastings” referred to at the end of each tour are not tastings proper where you compare different Champagnes (there are houses which offer this but you’ll pay extra) – they are full-sized glasses of Champagne (hence the need for a designated driver). After a day visiting Champagne houses, never mind tasting the stars, you might be seeing a few too!
For something a bit different, you might want to consider heading a little further afield to seek out the lesser-known Rosé des Riceys. Les Riceys, the only village in Champagne to have three A.O.C. labels (Champagne, Coteaux Champenois and Rosé de Riceys) is located in the Aube département in the Champagne region. This area produces the famous rosé wine, made from a single grape variety – Pinot Noir – and is one of the few rosé wines that can age. Considered one of the best rosés in France and said to be the preferred wine of Le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV, it’s definitely worth checking out and makes a nice change from champagne!
For a list of champagne houses check out the Reims Tourism website.
For more information on Les Riceys, check out the Vignerons Les Riceys website.
PS: for a “match made in heaven” festive dessert, Champagne & Chouquette recipe can’t be beat!