WINE COUNTRY - CHAMPAGNE

 

A Printable, Downloadable, PDF version of this itinerary is available for purchase.  Includes Places to Stay in proximity.

ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:

Champagne is a small wine district dedicated to the production of the effervescent liquid that we associate with happy occasions and celebrations. The name “champagne” can be used only for the wines produced by this region’s vineyards. Its capital is Reims, a not-very-attractive city due to being almost razed in World War I, but many of its buildings and its fine old Gothic cathedral have been restored. Below the city is a honeycomb of champagne cellars. Nearby lies the most important town for champagne, Épernay, where the mighty mansions of the producers alternate with their maisons (the term for their offices, warehouses, cellars, and factories). The vineyards are south of Reims, along the valley of the Marne. It is not particularly beautiful countryside, just gentle slopes facing towards the sun, interspersed with workaday villages that offer opportunities for sampling, but few tourist facilities such as cafés, restaurants, or shops.

Recommended Pacing: Our Champagne itinerary covers a very small geographic area. We suggest you spend two or three nights in the region. Any of the properties we recommend in the region would serve as a convenient base from which to explore and sample the bounty of Champagne.

Unlike wines from Burgundy, the quality of champagne is not derived solely from the area but also from the manufacturing process. It is the dose of sugar or “bead” that makes the bubbles, and the smaller the bead, the better the champagne. The essence of champagne is the blending of several different grapes; a branded wine, it is known by the maker and not by the vineyard. There are three distinct zones in the 55,000 acres in Champagne: the Montagne de Reims, the Vallée de la Marne, and Côte des Blancs. This itinerary visits the champagne houses in Reims and Épernay and drives round the Mountain of Reims and along the Valley of the Marne before returning you to Paris.

This journey begins in Reims, once the capital of France (4th to 9th centuries) and now one of the capitals of the Champagne district. The Nôtre Dame Cathedral dates from the 12th century and is where the kings of France used to be crowned (follow signs for Centre Ville). Begun in 1211, it is one of the oldest examples of Gothic architecture in France, and while it suffered heavy damage in World War I, it was beautifully restored in 1938. Traffic around the cathedral is terribly congested.

You may want to save your cellar tours until Épernay, but if you like to visit a house in each city, several invite you to come by without appointment. While the basic procedures and methods used to produce champagne are similar, the grand names for champagne all have their own history and interesting stories to tell. Tours are available in English and take about an hour. Except in July and August the houses are usually closed between 11:30 am and 2 pm.

Mumm Champagne Cellar, 34 Rue de Champ de Mar, offers a film, guided tour of the cellars, and tasting. (Closed weekends in winter, tel: 03.26.49.59.70.)

Pommery Champagne Cellar, 5 Place du Général Gourard, offers a film, guided tour of the cellars, and tasting. (Closed Christmas to New Years, tel: 03.26.61.62.56.)

Taittinger Champagne Cellar, 9 Place Saint-Nicaise, offers a film, guided tour of the cellars, and tasting. (Open all year, tel: 03.26.85.84.33.)

Leave Reims south in the direction of Épernay (N51). After leaving the suburbs and light industrial areas behind, when you’re among the fields and vineyards, take the first left turn signposted Route du Champagne, which charts a very pleasant horseshoe-shaped drive around the Montagne de Reims to Épernay. Above, the vineyards end in woodlands and below, they cascade to the vast plain, the scene of so much fighting during World War I.

The first small village you come to on the D26 is Villers Allerand, which leads you to Rilly la Montagne, a larger village which offers the opportunity for a stroll and a drink in a café as well as the chance to sip champagne. As you drive along, look for the peculiar-looking tractors with their high bodies and wheels set at a width that enables them to pass through the rows of vines and meander down the little lanes.

As the route nears Mailly Champagne and Verzy, you pass some of the most superior vineyards for the production of champagne grapes. The picturesque windmill found between the two villages was used as an observation post during World War I.

The wine route rounds the mountain at Verzy where a short detour up into the woodlands brings you to Faux de Verzy, an unusual forest of gnarled, stunted, and twisted beech trees hundreds of years old. Return to Verzy and continue along the D26, turning south through Villers Marmery, Trépail, and Ambonnay to Bouzy, a community famous not only for its champagne grapes but also for its red wine. At Bouzy the wine route splits and our route follows signposts into nearby Épernay.

Traffic is much less of a problem in Épernay than Reims. While much of the damage has been repaired, there are still several scars from the severe bombing that Épernay suffered in World War I. Follow signposts for Centre Ville and particularly Office de Tourisme, which brings you to your destination in this sprawling town, the Rue de Champagne, a long street lined with the maisons and mansions of the premier champagne producers Möet et Chandon, Perrier Jouët, Charbaut, De Venoge Pol Roger, and Mercier.

Try to allow time to take both the Möet et Chandon and Mercier cellar tours. Möet et Chandon Champagne Cellar, founded in 1743, is across the street from the tourist office. They offer a very sophisticated tour of their visitors’ center (where Napoleon’s hat is displayed), a walk through one of the largest champagne cellars in the world, and an excellent explanation on how champagne is made. (Open all year, tel: 03.26.51.20.00.)

Just as the Rue de Champagne leaves behind its grand mansions, you come to Mercier Champagne Cellar‘s modern visitors’ center where the world’s largest wine cask sits center stage. Holding the equivalent of 200,000 bottles of champagne, it was made to advertise Mercier at the World Trade Fair in Paris in 1889 and proved as great an attraction as the Eiffel Tower. Houses that interrupted its progress to Paris had to be razed. Mercier’s tour gives you an upbeat movie history of Mercier champagne, then whisks you down to the galleries in a glass-sided elevator past a diorama of the founders ballooning over their estate. An electric train weaves you through the vast cellars past some interesting carvings and boundless bottles of bubbly. (Closed Tues and Wed, Nov to Mar, tel: 03.26.51.22.22.)

Leaving Épernay, follow signposts for Reims until you see the Route de Champagne signpost to both the left and right. Turn left to Ay and follow the route along the Vallée de la Marne to Hautvillers, the prettiest of Champagne’s villages with its spic-and-span homes and broad swatch of cobbles decorating the center of its streets. It was in the village basilica that Dom Perignon performed his miracle and discovered how to make still wine sparkling by the méthode champenoise. He also introduced the use of cork stoppers (tied down to stop them from popping out as pressure built up in the bottles) and blended different wines from around the region to form a wine with a superior character than that produced by a single vineyard. The abbey is now owned by Möet et Chandon and contains a private museum. However, you can enjoy the lovely view of the valley from the abbey terrace.

From Hautvillers, descend through the vineyards to Cumièrs, a workaday village known for its red wine, and on to Damery with its pretty 12th- and 16th-century church. Climbing through vineyards, you have lovely views across the River Marne to the villages and vineyards strung along the opposite bank.

Pass through Venteul and Arty and on to the more attractive village of Fleury, which offers tasting in the large building decorated with murals. As you climb through pretty countryside to Belval, vineyards give way to fields. Passing through woodland, you come to La Neuville aux Larris with its enormous champagne bottle sitting next to the church, and return to the River Marne at Châtillon-sur-Marne. A huge statue overlooking the river proclaims this village as the birthplace of Pope Urban II.

At Verneuil cross the river and continue on the N3 into Dormans, which saw fierce fighting in World War I and was badly damaged. Set in a large green park, the Chapelle de la Reconnaissance (Chapel of Gratitude) commemorates those killed in the battles of the Marne in 1914 and 1918 and offers splendid views over the valley. You can quickly return to Épernay on the N3 or continue to Paris via Château Thierry, set on the River Marne against a lovely wooded backdrop. The English claimed the town as theirs in 1421 then Joan of Arc recaptured it for France. The gates through which she entered the city still stand-Porte Saint Pierre. Napoleon defended the city against Russian and Prussian troops in 1814.

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