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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
from Tattinger, the 24km
chalk caves at Veuve Clicquot were first excavated during Roman times. The pioneering matriarch of the
house, Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, took over the family Champagne business at
the age of 27, after her husband passed away in 1805. As one of the few
businesswomen of the time, she developed the bottle’s signature gold label and exported
her wines to royal courts all over world. (Veuve Clicquot remains more popular
abroad than in France.) She also invented “riddling”, a process many Champagne
producers still use to remove sediment and improve wine clarity. Choose from
various guided packages (by appointment only), ranging from 45 minutes to 2.5 hours,
followed by tastings. Also be sure to stop by the souvenir shop, swathed in the
brand’s signature golden colour, for the best selection of souvenirs of any Champagne
Best bottle to buy: La Grande Dame is drier
— and pricier — than the brand’s most popular bottle, Brut Yellow Label. But it
is full-bodied, with incredibly fine bubbles and a smooth, creamy finish.
GH Mumm and Cie
is now the third-largest producer of bubbly in the world. And while it might
not have the most stunning cellar, GH Mumm and Cie is the most convenient in
Reims, since it is a 14-minute walk from the train station and 21-minute walk from
the cathedral. Visits begin with a 10-minute film about how Champagne is made, then
a guide leads though a labyrinth of tunnels and cellars, pointing out that the estate
houses about 25 million bottles. A small museum in the cellar showcases antique
tools, machinery and casks that were traditionally used in the Champagne-making
process. The tour ends with three tastings.
Best bottle to buy: Brut Cordon Rouge, a non-vintage Champagne,
undergoes a longer-than-usual aging process, allowing its vanilla, roasted nuts
and bread flavours to deepen.