Surely you know you’ve arrived somewhere special, even for France, when the shelves of petrol stations along the road are filled with bottles of champagne; on a Sunday morning, the café terraces are buzzing with people a glass of champagne rather than a beer or a coffee; the chocolates in the windows of chocolatiers are shaped like corks; and the streets have names like “Avenue de Champagne”. Welcome to Champagne.
There are over 100 champagne houses and thousands of small champagne producers in this region. The exact number is hard to come by since, theoretically, anyone could produce a label of champagne as long as the grapes come from within the region’s borders. There is a union of champagne winegrowers, very strict rules to follow and a fierce civic pride for the cellars, houses and wine hills inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Whether you’re in historic Reims (the region’s capital) or 20 minutes down the road in little Epernay, sparkling wine is the cornerstone of Champagne.
Personally, I can’t remember a time when champagne wasn’t my favorite drink, or when I didn’t look for a good champagne bar while traveling, so when I was living in Paris and I Was only 45 minutes by train from Champagne, I reveled in the chance to visit some of the famous houses.
Here is a selection of Champagne houses that I loved to visit, each for specific reasons. Cheers.
1. Moet Chandon, Epernay
“Come quickly, I’m drinking the stars,” Dom Pérignon told his colleagues when he tasted a sparkling glass of champagne for the first time. Apparently.
A statue of Dom Pérignon stands in front of the house of Moët Chandon (by the way, the “t” in Moet is pronounced, not silent) because this large château on the avenue de Champagne brings together the properties of Moët Chandon and Dom Pérignon. The most exclusive and expensive, Dom Pérignon is also owned by Moët Chandon, which in turn is part of the world’s largest luxury group, Louis-Vuitton-Moët-Hennessey.
Moët Chandon is the largest and probably the best known champagne house in the world. Founded in 1743, the house knows how to sell itself. The entrance is stunning and inside the staff are immaculately dressed in bespoke suits with small Louis Vuitton bags and oh so French silk scarves. The experience is exclusive and every visitor feels special to be allowed to enter the sacred halls and caves. The tour takes you downstairs into the some 17 miles of underground tunnels, explaining the processes, showing dusty, locked caves that hold some truly special Dom Pérignon vintages, and allowing you to get a feel for the seemingly man-made corridors endless, with brick arches holding back the world above you.
After the visit, depending on the package you have booked, you either get a group tasting or, like me, a special tasting with your own sommelier in the gardens of the big house. The sommelier explains the different champagne glasses, how to pour it and offers a variety of vintages to try.
2. Veuve Clicquot, Reims
Probably the most famous champagne house in Reims is Veuve Clicquot. Champagne maker Madame Clicquot Ponsardin (known as Veuve Clicquot) hails from Reims and has a long history with the city. When travelling, you can easily spot a Veuve Clicquot display in airport duty-free shops. Their marketing gimmicks are superb, always offering a little something with your bottle, be it the famous beacons, small carrying cases or those orange umbrellas. But never say Veuve Clicquot’s color is orange because, as I’ve been told from time to time, and repeatedly, it’s a specific yellow, not orange. Indeed a copyrighted yellow, or so my guide insisted.
Yellow or orange, I love this Champagne.
Here in Reims, the caves are different from those in Épernay, as they are hewn out of chalk and limestone and are much more atmospheric than the caves in Épernay. These caves were used during the World Wars to house local residents, and there are many graffiti and carvings left as historical evidence. The walls speak of their history, and the Champagne stored along the tunnels is almost secondary.
The story is fascinating, the tasting too. It takes place outside in the small garden with a Veuve Clicquot caravan, parasols, etc. And then there’s the shop, filled with must-have yellow souvenirs, all so much fun. I came home with a huge umbrella, a sign for Paris, a book about the Veuve Clicquot and many other little trinkets – plus a few bottles, of course. Come prepared with a large empty bag!
3. Taittinger, Reims
The fact that the population evacuated to the cellars of Champagne houses in times of conflict and war, leaving behind works of art and graffiti carved into the soft clay rock, adds poignant interest when exploration of the Taittinger caves. The caves have entire walls covered in striped rock art, horses with faces names and dates. There are even remnants of an ancient underground abbey, and I have to admit I probably spent more time looking for those old wall decorations than watching champagne bottles age in the chalk cellars.
Taittinger is one of the most popular champagne houses in France, and the tours are organized like clockwork, but no less interesting than the slightly more bespoke ones, and the champagne is really very drinkable. One of the highlights for photographers, which caused a bit of a traffic jam on the way out, is the old Instagram-enabled spiral staircase leading from the caves. To get you in the mood, you can take a virtual tour before booking.
4. Champagne De Castellane, Epernay
Champagne de Castellane in Épernay, a stone’s throw from the small train station, stands out in many ways, but above all for its pretty red and cream brick tower. It reminds me a bit of St. Pancras station in London; it may be the Victorian interior, but see what you think. What sets this Champagne tour apart from others, despite being one of the cheapest Champagnes, is that it not only offers a museum with exhibits of old tools, bottles, labels and all kinds of interesting and historical pieces related to Champagne. , but you will also get an insight into the modern bottling and labeling part of the Champagne process. Other houses skip this part and focus on the brewing process.
You may also notice, if you look closely, that Castellane makes champagne for English food store Marks & Spencer under their own label.
5. Perrier-Jouet, Epernay
The visit to Perrier-Jouët, the luxurious champagne house on the avenue de Champagne was my favorite, as I had the chance to get a glimpse of the Belle Epoque (Art Nouveau) house and the art installations hidden in the caves, which few visitors have. to have. The house recently opened its doors for the first time to the public for tours.
Perrier-Jouët (again, as with Moet, the “t” is pronounced) is known for its Art Nouveau style, with bottles decorated with Japanese pink anemones designed by Emile Gallé. And the house continues the tradition in a stunningly restored guest building that looks like a time capsule, decorated in perfect Art Nouveau style. Here, famous and wealthy champagne drinkers from all over the world can stay, by invitation only. How much you have to spend on champagne per year to be invited, I can only guess.
In the cellars, not only can you see the lovely bottles maturing, but you can see caves filled with spectacular, bespoke art installations commissioned by and made just for Perrier-Jouët. They are hidden from the world. Google “Wasted time by Glithero” to see one of the magical installations (unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to take a photo), then imagine it revealing itself when the normally locked doors open and those glittering curls shimmer at the bottom of La Grotte Pure magic Add a glass of vintage Perrier-Jouët and your day won’t get any better.
- Obviously, drinking a lot of champagne and driving don’t mix. No more than drinking a lot of champagne and taking the train back to Paris. So stay a night or two and make it the perfect few days – dedicated champagne days.
- If you find yourself in Epernay, stay at the charming Hotel Jean Moët just off the Avenue de Champagne. It’s entirely champagne-themed, with rooms named after the size of the champagne bottle and the name displayed on a capsule (those collectible metal discs on top of the champagne cork).
- In Reims, head to the fabulous Domaine Les Crayeres, with its superb restaurant and magnificent setting.
During your stay in France, remember to: