The bubbly stuff is the reason most people visit Champagne, drawn to the vineyards and cellars of the region’s capital, the cathedral city of Reims. Some of the most extravagant champagne houses are here, the caves beneath them notable for their vaulted ceilings and kilometres of bottles. Épernay, a smaller town set in the scenic heart of the region, is dominated by an avenue of champagne maisons, where visitors can float from one to another like the bubbles they’re drinking.
The cultivation of vines here was already well established in Roman times, when Reims was the capital of the Roman province of Belgae (Belgium), and by the seventeenth century still wines from the region had gained a considerable reputation. Contrary to popular myth, however, it was not Dom Pérignon, cellar master of the Abbaye de Hautvillers near Épernay, who “invented” champagne. He was probably responsible for the innovation of mixing grapes from different vineyards, but the wine’s well-known tendency to re-ferment within the bottle was not controllable until eighteenth-century glass-moulding techniques produced vessels strong enough to contain the natural effervescence.
The region’s other major attraction is Troyes, some way to the southwest, a town of cobbled streets, half-timbered houses and cut-price shopping. Further south still, the small, far-flung towns of Chaumont and Langres also merit a stop.
Many people miss out the Ardennes in the far north on the Belgian border, which is a mistake: it’s a breathtakingly wild landscape offering nature-lovers a tempting array of hiking, cycling and boating opportunities. The region’s main town, Charleville-Mézières, is thrust into the limelight every three years by an international puppet festival but is worth a visit at other times for its lovely seventeenth-century palace.Read More
Champagne: the facts
Champagne: the facts
Nowhere else in the world are you allowed to make a drink called champagne, though many people do, calling it “champan”, “shampanskoye” and all manner of variants. You can blend grape juice harvested from chalk-soil vineyards, double-ferment it, store the result for years at the requisite constant temperature and high humidity in sweating underground caves, turn and tilt the bottles little by little to clear the sediment, add some vintage liqueur, and finally produce a bubbling golden (or pink) liquid; but according to international law you may refer to it only as “méthode champenoise”. The jealously guarded monopoly helps keep the region’s sparkling wines in the luxury class, although the locals will tell you the difference comes from the squid fossils in the chalk, the lay of the land and its climate, the evolution of the grapes, the regulated pruning methods and the legally enforced quantity of juice pressed.
Three authorized grape varieties are used: chardonnay, the only white grape, grown best on the Côte des Blancs and contributing a light and elegant element; pinot noir, grown mainly on the Montagne de Reims slopes, giving body and long life; and pinot meunier, cultivated primarily in the Marne valley, adding flowery aromas.
The vineyards are owned either by maisons, who produce the grande marque champagne, or by small cultivators called vignerons, who sell the grapes to the maisons. The vignerons also make their own champagne and will happily offer you a glass and sell you a bottle at two-thirds the price of a grande marque (ask at any tourist office in the Champagne region for a list of addresses). The difference between the two comes down to capital. The maisons can afford to blend grapes from up to sixty different vineyards and to tie up their investment while their champagne matures for several years longer than the legal minimum (one year for non-vintage, three years vintage). So the wine they produce is undoubtedly superior.
If you could visit the head offices of Cartier or Dior, you’d probably find the atmosphere similar to that of the champagne maisons, whose palaces are divided between Épernay and Reims. Visits to the handful that organize regular tours are not free, and most require appointments, but don’t be put off – their staff all speak English and a generous dégustation is thrown in. Their audiovisuals and (cold) cellar tours are on the whole very informative, and do more than merely plug brand names. Local tourist offices can provide full lists of addresses and times of visits.
If you want to work on the harvest, contact any of the maisons direct or Pôle Employ Vendanges (t 03 177 86 39 49, w pole-emploi.fr)