There’s no question that Épernay, 26km south of Reims, is a single-industry town. But it’s beautifully situated below rolling, vine-covered hills, and the industry in question – champagne production – is a compelling reason for a visit. The town contains some of the most famous champagne maisons as well as several smaller houses so start at the appropriately named avenue de Champagne, running east from place de la République. Dubbed “the most drinkable street in the world” by Winston Churchill, it’s worth strolling along for its imposing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century champagne maisons. You can tour some of the maisons, and many others welcome visitors to taste and buy. The town makes a sensible base for exploring the surrounding villages and vineyards.
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Moët et Chandon
Moët et ChandonThe largest, and probably the most famous maison, though neither the most beautiful nor necessarily the most interesting to tour, is Moët et Chandon, one of the keystones of the LVMH (Louis Vuitton, Moët and Hennessy) empire which owns Mercier, Veuve Clicquot, Dior perfumes and other luxury brands. The house is also the creator of the iconic Dom Pérignon label. The tour is rather generic, beginning with a mawkish video, followed by a walk through the cellars adorned with mementos of Napoleon (a good friend of the original M. Moët), and concluding with a tasting of their truly excellent champagne.
MercierMercier runs a fairly rewarding tour around its cellars in an electric train. Nowadays the wine producer is known for being at the lower end of the champagne market in terms of price, demonstrating that M. Mercier was achieved his ultimate goal: he founded the house, aged 20, in 1858 with a plan to make champagne more accessible to the French people. In 1889 he carted a giant barrel that held 200,000 bottles’ worth to the Paris Exhibition – only to be upstaged by the Eiffel Tower. The barrel is on display in the lobby.
CastellaneCastellane provides Épernay with its chief landmark: a pastel edifice resembling a kind of Neoclassical water tower. Along with the cellars, the visit shows off the working assembly lines that fill the champagne bottles, and the huge vats that hold the grape juice prior to fermentation. After the tour you can wander the little museum and climb the tower for a great view of the surrounding vineyards.