A cellar-by-cellar tour of Reims
The cellar at the Vranken Pommery estate in Reims is 116 steps below ground. (Maridel Reyes)
They say wine never tastes better than when you are sipping it in the vineyard where it was grown. And if you are a fan of bubbly, the best sparkling wine in the world can be found in the Champagne region of northeast France, where only bottles produced here can legally carry the region’s name.
There, among the rolling green fields, stately houses and chilly cellars of Reims and Épernay, wine-making traditions and standards have hardly changed since the late 1920s, when strict rules were established to regulate where Champagne grapes could be grown and how the wines were fermented. Plus, picking up a bottle or two is about one-third cheaper than buying Champagne outside of France.
Steeped in both Gothic and Art Deco architecture, Reims is about a 145 km, 45-minute express train ride on the TGV from Paris, and its frequent daily service makes it a more convenient day trip for oenophiles than neighbouring Épernay. The city’s year-old tram system also passes conveniently through the city centre, stopping at the railway station, the local university, a few lesser-known Champagne houses and other local attractions, such as the 800-year-old Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral, a Unesco World Heritage Site, where 33 kings of France were crowned — and royals from all over Europe would toast to the new king with a glass of bubbly.
During a Champagne tour, you will most likely tour the cellar instead of the vineyard where the grapes are grown. All wine estates produce Champagne in roughly the same way, and most cellars look similar — massive rooms deep in the ground that are cool, damp, dark and dusty.
For a deeper immersion into Reims’ Champagne houses, hop in a cab and travel the 1.3km south to Vranken Pommery, which is within walking distance of two other notable Champagne houses — Tattinger and Veuve Cliquot. These three, plus GH Mumm and Cie, produce some of the world’s most renowned bubbles. They also possess the most colourful histories in town and have best vintages to sample. Their wine producing facilities are all open for tours and tastings.
Madame Louise Pommery built the Vranken Pommery estate in 1868. A patron of the arts, she commissioned murals of people making and drinking Champagne, and had them carved into the chalk cellars of her wine estate. During one of the daily tours (reservations recommended), descend 116 steps into the cellar to find contemporary art exhibits sitting alongside the bottles of bubbly being stored there to age. A past exhibition called La Fabrique Sonare (The Sound Factory) was the estate’s first show focused entirely on sound. In it, rumbling, whistling, whirling and throbbing noises came from various robotic contraptions set on a track made of champagne racks. In the half-light, the machines cast long shadows on the cellar walls. The tour ends with a tasting session.
Best bottle to buy: Pommery Brut Royale is a light and lively dry Champagne with a fruity finish.
A 10-minute walk (900m) from Vranken Pommery, history junkies flock to the third oldest Champagne house in the world, Tattinger. The Gothic-style estate sits atop cavernous 4th-century Roman stone quarries, which were once used as the crypt of a 13th-century abbey. The tour begins 17m under the earth, in a cellar where monks used to store wine. Back above ground, check out a model of the abbey and the church, which were both destroyed during the French Revolution. The tour, which includes one glass of brut Champagne, is the most straightforward of the bunch, though it ends at a soaring chalk cave that once sheltered locals from the Nazis and is today filled with thousands of aging Champagne bottles.
Best bottle to buy: Taittinger’s Brut Millesime is intensely fruity with notes of citrus and honey and a long finish.