Champagne is the nearest French wine region to Britain. It’s less than 250 miles from London, that’s around four hours driving and a quick hop across the Channel. You could be there, sitting at a table outside the Café du Palais in the centre of Reims sipping champagne, in less time than it takes to put an IKEA wardrobe together. It’s closer and quicker to get to by car than Paris is.
With champagne selling in the UK supermarkets for little more than £12 a bottle, sometimes less, the idea of travelling to the region to bring back a few cases may not seem to stack up. But such cheap fizz rarely excites. To find champagne worthy of the name or to source stock at the major houses bought up from their own deep, cool chalk cellars where all the wine matures in perfect conditions – the right temperature and humidity – you have to go there.
The three main centres of Reims, Epernay and Troyes have plenty to offer the wine loving visitor. In Reims and Epernay there are impressive tours of some of the major houses spectacular cellars. All three towns offer visitors the chance to buy unusual cuvées, growers’ champagnes and older vintages not usually seen outside France, plus plenty of high quality restaurants. Troyes, around 100 km south of Reims with its beautiful well-preserved historical heart of medieval streets, half-timbered houses and elegant public buildings, has more than just champagne to offer visitors.
There are other notable attractions in Reims too. The most obvious, but none the less impressive, is the huge 13th century gothic Notre Dame Cathedral (+33  3 26 47 81 79) where 25 Kings of France were crowned, with its spectacular stained glass windows, old and modern. Be sure to look at the south-facing window depicting scenes from the viticultural year made by Jacques Simon in 1954.
Just across the cobbled Place du Cardinal-Luςon is the Palais du Tau, which houses many of the Cathedral’s treasures, and where post coronation banquets were held. Much of the city centre is pedestrianised and can easily be explored on foot from here. Make time for a visit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts that houses 27 paintings by Corot, as well as fine examples of Gauguin, Courbet, Monet, Matisse and Renoir’s work. It’s only a couple of blocks to the west at number 8 Rue Chanzy (+33  3 26 35 36 00).
While in Reims you’ll also obviously want to visit a cellar or two. When the Romans originally dug out these crayères in their search for building materials — carving out great blocks of chalk that amazingly were hauled out of the narrow necks to the pits by ropes — they were outside the main town of Reims. The oldest cellars still run in line to the southern side of the city grouped around the Place du Général Gouraud, and this is where you will find the houses of Pommery, Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart. The other side of the city GH Mumm has a cellar tour that’s well worth trying.
The most spectacular cellars to visit are arguably at Pommery, where once you have climbed down the 116 steps that lead there, you can clearly see the huge conical shaped chalk pits which were excavated by the Romans. As a bonus here there are also dramatic giant carvings, made by Gustave Navlet in the 1880s, which are literally hewn out of the soft, chalky walls of the crayères.
While visiting the major houses dotted around the city you’ll find some wines not exported, to buy growers’ champagnes, which if you find the right addresses offer some of the top wines and best deals in Champagne, you really have to leave the confines of the city and head out into the vineyard. You could easily visit several in a leisurely morning or afternoon tour. Here you are buying wine directly from the people who make it. There is no better way of learning about champagne.
CELLAR VISITS IN REIMS
Pommery, 5 Place du Général Gouraud (+33  3 26 61 62 56); firstname.lastname@example.org Open all week, 10am-5pm. A range of tours lasting between 1.5 and 2 hours.
Taittinger, 9 Place Saint-Nicaise (+33  3 26 85 84 33). Open all week March-November, 9.30am-1pm, 2pm-5.30pm.
G.H. Mumm, 34 Rue du Champ de Mars (+33 3 26 49 59 70); www.mumm.com Open all week March-October, 9-11am, 2-5pm.
For more information on visiting the region the following websites are useful.
The site of the head office of Le Comité interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne , otherwise known as the CIVC which is based in Epernay at : 5, Rue Henri Martin, 51200 Epernay, Tel: +33 (0)3 26 51 19 30. The CIVC has 13 offices outside France in champagne’s main markets around the world (UK, USA, Germany, Belgium, Japan, Italy, Holland, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Russia, India and China).
Reims tourist office (close to the cathedral): 2 rue Guillaume de Machault, Reims, Tel: +33 (0)8 92 70 13 51
Epernay tourist office: 7 Avenue de Champagne, Epernay, Tel: +33 (0)3 26 53 33 00.
Troyes tourist office (for the City): 16 Boulevard Carnot, Troyes, Tel: +33 (0)3 25 82 62 70
Troyes regional tourist office (covers the vineyard area to the south-east of the City): Rue Mignard, Troyes, Tel: +33 (0)3 25 73 36 88
website of the Comité Départemental de Tourisme
website of the Union des Maisons de Champagne the organisation to which most of the négociant houses belong
The Syndicat Général des Vignerons, the main union for growers in Champagne.
In the Maisons de Champagne website this link www.champagne.fr/fr/les-maisons-de-champagne.aspx gets you to a list of 31 négociant houses large and small that offer visits with their contact details and visiting hours.
For something out of the ordinary some growers organize special “Jour de vendange” trips during the harvest typically in mid-September. Get the chance to pick and press grapes and also try the champagnes made by some small producers. Complete lists of wine growers, offering these grape-harvest days, are available from the Aube (Tel: + 33 (0)3 25 42 50 00) and Marne Tourist Boards (Tel: + 33 (0)3 26 68 37 52).
The site of the head office of Le Comité interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne, otherwise known as the CIVC which is based in Epernay at: 5, Rue Henri Martin, 51200 Epernay, Tel: +33 (0)3 26 51 19 30. The CIVC has 13 offices outside France in champagne’s main markets around the world (UK, USA, Germany, Belgium, Japan, Italy, Holland, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Russia, India and China).
These regional offices are a good source of information:
The London office is:
Champagne Information Bureau,
247-249 Cromwell Road,
London SW5 9GA, Tel: 020 7244 1930