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)

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

France features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

An expert’s guide: the best area to stay in Paris

An expert’s guide: the best area to stay in Paris

All the clichés about Paris are true – stylish, romantic, glamorous and utterly compelling – yet it retains surprises that continue to delight even the mos…

26 Sep 2016 • Rough Guides Editors insert_drive_file Article
7 reasons why Lyon should be your next European weekend break

7 reasons why Lyon should be your next European weekend break

The ingredients for a great European weekend break are simple. You’ll need a walkable city centre, a handful of excellent restaurants, some cool bars, afforda…

26 Aug 2016 • Eleanor Aldridge insert_drive_file Article
22 incredible pictures of Corsica

22 incredible pictures of Corsica

Just off the south of France, and closer to the coast of Italy, the small, mountainous island of Corsica lies in wait for the three million tourists that visit …

14 Jul 2016 • Rough Guides Editors insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month