Champagne is an exclusive drink, in all senses of the word, what with its upmarket associations and the fact that it can be made only from the grapes grown in the Champagne region of northern France. The centre of champagne production is Épernay, a town that’s made much of its association with the fizzy stuff, and where all the maisons of the well-known brands are lined up along the appropriately named Avenue de Champagne.
All of these champagne houses offer tours and tastings, and one of the best places to indulge is at the maison of Moët et Chandon, arguably the best-known brand in the world. The splendid, cathedral-like cellars afford suitable dignity to this most regal of drinks, while the multilingual guides divulge the complexities of blending different grapes and vintages to maintain a consistency of flavour from one year to the next. During the tasting, an enthusiastic sommelier explains the subtleties of flavour in the different cuvées, and although the whole experience can feel rather impersonal, it’s nonetheless an essential part of any visit to the region.
For an altogether more exclusive experience, head 15km or so north of Épernay to the village of Bligny. Here, the eighteenth-century Château de Bligny is the only one in France still producing its own champagne and, if you call ahead, you can arrange a private tour. Driving through the wrought-iron gates and up the scrunchy gravel driveway, a sense of understated class strikes you immediately, and things only get classier as you’re taken through the tastefully furnished rooms and vaulted cellars, and shown the family’s cherished champagne flute collection. A tasting of several prize-winning vintages, taken in the opulent drawing room, is of course included, and as you savour your second glass, you’ll doubtless conclude that there’s no better place to get a flavour of the heady world of champagne than the home ground of this “drink of kings”.
The tourist office in Épernay (www.ot-epernay.fr) has information on touring the town’s champagne houses.