Welcome to the effervescent world of Champagne, where every sip is a celebration and every bottle holds the promise of delight. Nestled in the northeastern corner of France, Champagne is a region renowned throughout the world for its sparkling wine. In this article, I invite you to join me on an enchanting journey through Champagne’s vineyards and maisons, where history, culture, and the art of winemaking intertwine.
The Champagne region covers a large area, and if you have a limited time to visit I recommend going armed with some pre-knowledge. Certainly, when it came to deciding where you want to visit, which houses to tour and wines to taste, a little background goes a long way. Now, if you’re already a Champagne connoisseur or you are going to spend several days exploring the region and tasting a whole bunch of different wines, then you can use this as a refresher or skip to the travel advice. Let’s pop the cork and get started!
Table of contents
- Champagne: A Brief History and Cultural Significance
- What makes Champagne, Champagne?
- Exploring the Champagne Region: Must-Visit Cities and Vineyards
- Champagne Tasting 101: Understanding the Different Types and Styles
- Champagne Tours and Experiences: Getting to and around Champagne
- Champagne self-drive sample itinerary
- The best time to visit Champagne
- Planning Your Trip to Champagne: Practical Tips and Recommendations
- Is visiting Champagne worth it for non-drinkers?
Champagne: A Brief History and Cultural Significance
Just like chocolate, it took centuries to develop the technology and techniques that lead to the production of Champagne as we know it today. You can learn an astounding amount about history and technology through the lens of your Champagne flute. The story of Champagne is long and fascinating, so I’m going to hit on some key moments that are relevant to planning your trip.
5th-century – In the beginning, there were vineyards
The first vineyards were planted in the region now known as Champagne, in Roman times, at least as far back as 5th-century and probably even earlier. The area was initially dubbed Campania after the region in Italy.
10th-century – Kings, coronations and cold weather
Hugh Capet, King of the Franks, was coronated at Reims cathedral. His celebratory coronation banquet was lubricated with local wines and sparked an interest in Champagne. At this stage the beverage was lightly-coloured from pale pink to grey, and any accidental bubbles were considered a flaw.
You probably know that all wine goes through a fermentation process where yeast turns the sugars in alcohol. One of the unique things about Champagne is that undergoes two rounds of fermentation. The first produces the alcohol and the second produces the bubbles.
The cold conditions of the Champagne region were what led to this second fermentation process. The grapes are harvested in late-summer, processed, bottled and left to age. The yeast would hibernate over winter and when they woke up in spring, they’d start consuming the remaining sugars in the bottle. This was the bane of vintners, as it would often cause an exploding bottles. At this time glass made in France was wood-fired and not strong enough to withstand the pressure of bubble-making. Hence Champagne got the nickname le vin du diable or the devi’s wine.
13th-century – The influencers and the business
Despite its imperfections Champagne (the drink) was making a name for itself in the 13th-century. Thanks to the patronage of monarchs and aristocrats, combined with the location of the region at a major crossroads between two trade routes. Merchants form England, Spain and Italy began importing the wine.
15th-century – Champagne V Burgundy
The people of Champagne were envious of the full-bodied, reds wines of their southern neighbours in Burgundy. Though they tried to produce a red wine of their own, the Champagne region did not provide the right conditions. Champagne experiences cold winters and short summers which don’t allow for the types of grapes or length of ripening required. So, they finally decided to stay in their own lane and perfect a wine of their own.
17th-century – To carbonate, or not to carbonate?
In England, people liked the bubbles. Christopher Merrett, an English scientist who was interested in glass-making, was the first to officially document observations he made about carbonation in 1662. This enabled the English to start producing bubbles on purpose. Serendipitously, the English had switched to coal-fired glass which held strong against the devilish second fermentation.
Meanwhile in France, there was a Benedictine monk—you’ve probably heard of him—Dom Pérignon. He was transferred to the Abbey of Hautvillers in 1668. There he became the cellarer, making him responsible for supply of food and drink to the monastery. Although Dom Pérignon, is widely credited with outright invention of Champagne, that’s mostly marketing hype. He was not a fan of bubbles. However, he did make important advances in Champagne production including the invention of a grape press that improved wine clarity and produced white wine from black grapes. No more pinkish or grey Champagne!
18th-century – Champagne houses
Through the 18th-century wine merchants retailed through shops in Reims, Épernay and Aÿ. Champagne Maisons (houses) were established to fulfill the growing demand. These include names you still know today like Moët & Chandon, Louis Roederer, Veuve Clicquot and Taittinger.
A few important innovations also happened in this century. First, riddling racks or pupitres were invented. This allowing Champagne bottles to be stored in an inverted position so sediment (mostly dead yeast), gathered at the bottle opening.
In 1837, pharmacist Jean-Baptiste François from Châlons-en-Champagne developed a formula for how much sugar should be added to create the right amount of effervescence. This more accurate “dosage” made champagne more consistent from bottle to bottle. Following this, Adolphe Jaquesson invented the muselet, the wire cage used to prevent the corks from popping.
Lastly, in 1884 Armand Walfard invented the cold disgorging method to remove sediment from the bottle. Sediment had been difficult to remove without also losing a lot of wine with it. Cold disgorging involves freezing the neck of the bottle, where the sediment has settled. Internal pressure then naturally pushes the frozen sediment out of the bottle.
Many of the laws and regulations around Champagne production were instituted during the early 20th-century. In 2015, the Champagne Hillsides, Houses and Cellars were enscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage List. The enscribed property encompasses three components: the historic vineyards of Hautvillers, Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Saint-Nicaise Hill in Reims, along with the Avenue de Champagne and Fort Chabrol in Epernay. These were chosen to illustrate the Champagne production process vine to sale of the finished product.
What makes Champagne, Champagne?
There are a whole lot of strict regulations governing the production process and criteria that qualify Champagne to be labelled and sold as such. For instance, grapes can only be pressed to a certain degree and bottles have to be aged a minimum of 15-months. The one you’ve probably heard most about though, is the Geographical Indication (GI). In a nutshell, any wine labelled “Champagne” must be exclusively produced from grapes grown, harvested and made into wine within the Champagne region of France.
Exploring the Champagne Region: Must-Visit Cities and Vineyards
The Champagne region is located about 150-km (roughly 90-miles) east of Paris. The region as defined by French law, covering 34,000-ha (about 84,015-ac) and encompasses almost 320 villages. That region is divided into five main growing areas as follows.
Montagne de Reims
This region is situated between the Marne and Vesle Rivers near the city of Reims, and mostly planted with Pinot Noir with some Chardonnay.
Reims is the region’s largest city and where you’ll find maisons such as Champagne Pommery, Taittinger, Ruinart, Veuve Cliquot, Krug and G.H. Martel. You should also make time for a visit to the Cathedral that played such a roll in endearing Champagne to French monarchs and it is quite impressive in its own right. Reims is the easiest location to access via train from Paris—less than an hour ride on the fast train (TGV).
Vallée de la Marne
Following the Marne River further south, Vallée de le Marne includes the towns of Epernay, Aÿ and Hautvillers. Here Pinot Meunier vines dominate with a little Pinot Noir too. Epernay is where you’ll find Champagne Avenue, lined with the heritage architecture and the maisons of Moët & Chandon, Mercier, Pol Roger, Perrier-Jouët and Lanson. Around Hautvillers you’ll find the monastery and burial site of Dom Pérignon and some lovely hilltop views of the surrounding vineyards. Nearby Aÿ is another cute village that has been rated Grand Cru (meaning the terroir for wine grape growing is top notch). Champagne houses like Bollinger, Ayala, Deutz, Henri Giraud and Collet are based in or close to Aÿ.
Côte des Blancs
Just a few kilometres from Epernay, located perpendicular to the Marne Valley on a southwest-northeast axis is the Côte des Blacs. This area grows mostly Chardonnay, with some Pinot Noir at its southernmost reach.
Côte de Sézanne
Like its neighbouring Côte des Blancs, this region continues south growing mostly Chardonnay grapes but with a slightly lower acidity.
Côte des Bar
Situated in the most southerly part of the region, Côte des Bar is mostly planted with Pinot Noir. Colombey-Les-Deux-Eglises, Voigny, Colombé-la-Fosse-Arrientieres, Les Riceys, Essoyes and Mussy-sur-Seine are among the scenic villages of this growing region.
If you are taking a day trip from Paris or a one-night stay, you’ll find the cities of Reims and commune of Épernay to be your most convenient and accessible locations to visit. There you’ll have a bunch of big names and boutique brands at your fingertips, plus you can experience the vineyards and limestone cellars (crayères in French) without travelling too far.
Champagne Tasting 101: Understanding the Different Types and Styles
The French have firmly codified Champagne and the production process, which makes it easier to know exactly what you are getting. However, it takes some time to understand what all the different terms mean. Here are the basics that are useful to know before you plan your trip.
The grapes and blends
Champagne is generally composed of a blend of three grapes, Chardonnay, Pinor Noir and Pinot Meunier. There are a few more grapes authorized to be in Champagne, but are less common: Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.
The proportion of each grape renders different characteristics. Pinot Noir brings the body and punch, with aromas of red fruits and flowers such as rose and violet. Chardonnay imparts a freshness, with white floral notes such as jasmine, citrus acidity and minerality, it also helps the wine age well. Meunier rounds out the flavour with the aromas of yellow fruits.
There are also champagnes that are made with only one type of grape, or one colour grape. You might hear these referred to as blanc de blanc and blanc de noir.
Blanc de blanc Champagnes are entirely made from white grapes, generally chardonnay. These Champagnes are light, dry and sunny. Most of the Blanc de Blancs are produced in the south of Epernay, on the Côte des Blancs. Blanc de blancs are ideal with soups and seafood.
Blanc de Noirs are are made of red grapes only i.e. Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. The wine is still white in colour, thanks to Dom Pérignon. However, they have more weight and complexity with rounded stone fruit flavours. They pair well with meats and cheeses.
Champagne Tours and Experiences: Getting to and around Champagne
There are various pros and cons to a self-drive visit to Champagne versus a tour. Either way you are going to need transport. It’s easy to get as far as Reims from Paris by train. However, travelling out into the vineyards and charming villages of Champagne, requires something with wheels. Let’s look at day tours versus self-drive.
A tour is especially convenient if you only have a day, and you need an expert to shuttle you around the highlights in a timely manner. Tours are advantageous if you’re not keen on driving yourself. They also guarantee you have a designated driver. Most tours are structured as half and full days and depart both Paris and Reims.
If you’re comfortable getting yourself to Reims, you could potentially save few dollars when compared with a tour departing Paris. Not all maisons hold tastings in English, therefore another tour advantage is having an English-speaking guide who can explain or at least interpret.
Tip: Try and get a small bus tour, rather than a larger one. This way you’re more likely to visit villages and family vineyards, rather than just the big guys. Plus, you won’t get lost in a sea of other tourists.
Self-driving is also an option, although it is better if you have more than one day to spend. We spent 48-hours in Champagne and were able to cover a lot of ground in our rental vehicle. We enjoyed the freedom to explore backroads and small villages, and stay out until sunset. A disadvantage is that though our maison tour was in English, the tasting was mostly conducted in French and we missed out on important information about the wine we were drinking. Also, one of us had to drive which capped our tasting.
The best of both
If you’d prefer not to drive, consider a train to Reims to see the sights and maisons there. You can get around the city self-guided, by public transport and on foot. Then spend the night and take a day tour from Reims out to Epernay, Hautvillers and Aÿ for a look at the broader region.
Champagne self-drive sample itinerary
This is based on our tried and tested itinerary over 48-hours in Champagne. Day one, drive to the southern portion of the region via Sézanne (the town) and explore the region of Côte de Sézanne and Côte des Blancs, including an afternoon maison tour and tasting in Epernay. Visit Dom Pérignon’s grave in Hautvillers and overnight in Épernay or a village among the vineyards.
Day two, continue driving north through Montagne de Reims into the city of Reims. Visit Reims Cathedral and enjoy an early afternoon tour and tasting around one of the Maisons before returning to Paris.
The best time to visit Champagne
Broadly speaking, the best time to visit Champagne is between May and October. Through the winter, prices are cheaper but many Champagne houses close to tourism for the season. Instead opt for the warmer, growing and harvesting months. Remember, agriculture is at the mercy of the weather, so the conditions will vary year to year.
May can still produce a late frost, so aim for the later part of the month. By late June the vines will be covered in thick foliage.
July is the warmest month, with the least rainfall and longest daylight hours for exploring. Through August, the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes turn red and the Chardonnay becomes golden.
A typical harvest occurs anywhere between late-August through early-October. We travelled in late-September the year we visited and most of the grapes were already harvested but the vines were still green. In October, the vines will change into their glorious, golden Autumn colours.
Planning Your Trip to Champagne: Practical Tips and Recommendations
A few notes to help plan your trip and enhance your visit to Champagne:
- Book your Champagne tasting well in advance. Don’t be like us and think because it’s a Tuesday in late-September,there will be a walk-up spot for you. Uh-uh. This is especially so post-pandemic, as much of the hospitality industry is still understaffed.
- The fast train (TGV) from Paris Gare de l’Est takes 45-minutes to reach Reims, and will cost under USD20.
- Driving from Paris to Reims takes about 2-hours. Drivers need to also be prepared to pay for street parking in Reims and Épernay. Maisons generally offer free parking to visitors.
- Where good wine goes, good food usually follows. Book yourself at least one fancy meal while you’re in Champagne. We enjoyed a Michelin-star lunch at Le Foch in Reims.
- Book your dinner in advance. It was really difficult to find places to eat when we got in late after exploring. Though restaurants seemed to be open, they were often not taking walk-ins or new customers after a certain hour. I can’t stress this enough for the small villages with limited dining options.
Is visiting Champagne worth it for non-drinkers?
In a word, yes! There is plenty to see and do around the Champagne region without drinking a drop. Any history-lover, aesthete or foodie will appreciate the bucolic vineyards, picturesque villages, history and tradition of the region. Not to mention there is plenty of great food to tickle the tastebuds.
If you made it to the end of the post, congratulations! Break out the bubbly, because this has been quite the chronicle. I do hope all this fascinating history of bubbly and practical guide to visiting Champagne help you enjoy your trip just that little bit more. For more day trips from Paris – see this list of ideas.
Peace, love & bubbly,