VISITING THE CHAMPAGNE REGION
For those visiting for the first time and learning the “Méthode Champenoise”, Reims would make an ideal base. There are lodgings to suit all budgets from the grand: Château Les Crayères, to the inexpensive: Hotel Azur, the conveniently placed Best Western de la Paix and Holiday Inn along with some boutique bed and breakfasts "chambres d'hôtes", such as Les Telliers. These days, some super apartments can be found via Airbnb. Using the city as a base, you can walk to many of the Champagne houses based in this historic old city. The majority of the houses here are the larger commercial ones but do offer good tours at a fee. The visit will conclude with a tasting of at least one cuvée, which will generally be the standard non-vintage brut. Here you will find Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, Ruinart, Taittinger, Lanson, Mumm, Pommery, Charles de Cazanove and Chanoine to name but a few. The Ruinart tour is excellent, due both to the good quality champagnes and some of the best gallo-roman chalk cellars "crayères" in the city. It is advisable to book in advance via the house website to ensure you do not miss out. Also in Reims is the prestigious Krug. If you are lucky enough to be accepted for a tour it is well worth it and of course the champagnes are fantastic.
Reims is an easy and small city to get about. Most of the champagne houses are in walking distance and there is also a newly constructed tram system in the city centre. The main train station is just a five minute walk from the shops and hotels too. Worth a visit is the Cathedral Nôtre Dame where a number of French kings were crowned and the adjacent Palais du Tau - the Archbishop's residence. The Tourist Office is in the street directly opposite the cathedral along with a number of champagne shops. In front of the cathedral, to the right is a great champagne shop that specialises in smaller producers, particularly those designated "Récoltant-Manipulant" called ‘Cave des Sacres’. Invariably we end up here before returning home to pick up a few bottles that we have been unable to source whilst on our trip. In the road (Rue Rockefeller) directly opposite the cathedral is another good little shop called ‘Les Délices Champenoises’ which is well stocked with grower/producer and some of the more interesting houses. The larger shop next door stocks the larger houses and a lot of prestige cuvées but we always find their prices higher than elsewhere. Les Caves du Forum at 10, Rue Courmeaux is another shop specialising in quality smaller producers. They have a superb collection and a visit here is not to be missed. Also in the Place du Forum is the recently relocated La Vinocave who have also opened a tasting bar on site. Behind the cathedral at 1 Cours Anatole is Le Vintage where you can find some excellent champagnes. You will also find many shops selling Biscuits Rosé. These little pink biscuits are famous in the area and lovely with a glass of champagne. The most well-known producer is Fossier who can also be found in the town. If you feel the need for other types of shopping, there is a Galleries Lafayette and a good number of cosmetic shops who always provide complimentary samples with each purchase.
There are some real top-end restaurants like Le Foch, Racine and such as the ones at hotels: Château les Crayères and L'Assiette Champenoise as well as Le Millénaire. Many of the touristy themed restaurants around Place Drouet d'Erlon can be overpriced and disappointing. For this reason we now tend to head to the Forum or Boulingrin areas. The Boulingrin area near the market place has some decent bars and bistros. Brasserie Le Boulingrin retains the old bistro vibe, Au Petit Comptoir is a little more upmarket but both are very good. Nearby is the fish restaurant Le Bocal, located at the back of a fishmonger which has an excellent champagne list with quality domaines represented and at reasonable prices and of course, some pretty tasty seafood. Perhaps the pick of the places here is Aux 3 P'tits Bouchons, a little champagne/wine bar that serves tasty light meals and an excellent array of World class small producers. Bar Le Clos is well-worth a visit and has an eclectic rear yard. Also in the Boulingrin area is a shop with tasting bar for the Club Tresors association - those producers whom create "Special Club" champagnes in their range. The Place du Forum area is a lovely spot to get away from the main touristy hub with lots of independent eateries, artisan boulangers and the superb cheese shop: La Cave aux Fromages. This is also the area where you will find the restaurant Racine and shop Les Caves du Forum. Opposite the latter is a wonderful delicatessen with a few tables for enjoying fine charcuterie and some of the best domaine champagnes: Au Bon Manger guarantees you a very warm welcome. Sitting here with an array of excellent cheeses paired with top quality champagne is always on our menu! Also in the Forum area is a great wine bar called.....Le Wine Bar which is run by the champagne shop Le Vintage. Another shop, La Vinocave has relaocated from the Place Drouet d'Erlon to the Forum and are also serving champagne by the glass. Between the Boulingrin and Forum areas, you will find Sacré Burger, a gourmet burger restaurant that also happens to have a top champagne list. With food in mind, the local delicacy in Champagne is andouilettes, which is tripe sausages, if you are brave enough to try them!
Just on the edge of the city centre is the attractive new football stadium, home to Stade de Reims who currently play in the top tier of French football, having been recently promoted following years in the doldrums. They lost to Real Madrid in the inaugural European Cup final in 1956 and then again in 1959. If you are interested in motor-racing there is an historic circuit just outside the village of Gueux (approximately 10 km west of Reims). This is known as the Circuit de Reims-Gueux and it hosted 12 hour endurance races as well as 14 Formula 1 Grand Prix on its street course. Famous names to win races on this renown fast circuit were: Juan Manuel Fangio, Graham Hill, Alberto Ascari, Mike Hawthorn, Jack Brabham, Jim Clark and Stirling Moss. The home straight is complete with grandstands and pit garages which are slowly being brought back to life by a local society. All the old advertisements have been re-painted giving it a great retro feel. The best part is that the start/finish straight is still the main road from the Route Nationale to the village and it even forms part of the Route Touristique du Champagne!
Moving south from Reims is the capital of the champagne region; Épernay. It is also a very good base as there are a number of larger commercial houses open to the public. These houses include Moët et Chandon, Mercier, De Castellane, Boizel, de Venoge, Esterlin, André Bergère and Paul-Etienne Saint Germain. The town is also home to a few excellent artisan producers such as: Janisson-Baradon, Leclerc-Briant, R&L Legras and Collard-Picard (the latter two are tasting rooms and boutiques only).
The main street, the famous Avenue de Champagne which is home to most of the houses listed above as well as Pol Roger and Perrier-Jouët has undergone an extensive restoration in recent years with the region striving to gain UNESCO status, which was finally achieved in July 2015. This has given the Avenue a real high class feel and really is the Champs-Elysées of Champagne. There are some lovely boutique hotels and chambres d'hôtes such as Le Clos Raymi, right behind Moët et Chandon, Villa Eugène at the top of the Avenue de Champagne next to Mercier, Champagne Leclerc-Briant's excellent Le 25bis, Champagne de Venoge, Hotel Jean Moët & Spa, Champagne André Bergère and Parva Domus.
Épernay is much smaller and quieter than Reims with far less hotels and restaurants. Le Progres and La Banque on the roundabout at Place de la Republique is a good spot for a cheaper bite. That said, there are still a number of very good restaurants: Les Berceaux, Bistro 7, La Grillade Gourmande, La Table Kobus and Le Theâtre. There are also a few tasting bars dotted around town such as C. Comme at Hotel Jean Moët & Spa and Les Fines Bulles.
Just behind Le Progres in Rue Flodoard is a fantastic little champagne shop: Salvatori; once run by the charming old lady Madame Salvatori. At 1, Avenue Paul Chandon is probably the best Champagne shop in the World - Le 520. It is a "whos who" of quality domaines! Every Saturday sees Le 520 host a producer offering tastings.
Épernay is also a good base if you are planning on discovering the main areas by car. The Montagne de Reims, Petite Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne and Côte des Blancs can all be reached quickly and easily. It is here that you find the real Champagne, both in the land and also the people. Here lovely little villages can be found amidst the rolling hills of vineyards where superb quality champagne houses wait to be discovered by intrepid travellers. It is still possible to buy delicious champagnes from as little as €20 per bottle made by friendly, warm and generous people. There are so many great champagne houses to discover, many of which we will try to review on the site.
For those wishing to stay in the heart of Champagne, finding a chambres d'hôtes in one of the villages such as: Ambonnay, Bouzy, Chigny-les-Roses, Rilly-la-Montagne, Cramant, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger or Avize would ensure a productive stay as each is home to a number of top quality and well-priced champagne houses that will keep you happily busy for some time. Whilst it is advisable to book in advance, we have frequently arrived un-announced and been warmly welcomed, such is the generous nature of many of the Champenois. Whilst these producers tend not to charge you for a visit, it is regarded as good manners to purchase a bottle or three. More often than not you will find it several euros cheaper per bottle when bought at source.
Champagne is a great place to visit at all times of the year. The blossoming vines of spring are beautiful as is the ripeness of summer and the turning leaves of autumn. Seeing the vineyards ablaze with braziers on a frosty winter’s evening is a beguiling sight.
August is holiday time so many of the houses will be shut. Also, the smaller houses will generally close during harvest time in September as it is all hands to the pump. With mother nature more unpredictable than ever, you cannot be quite so sure as to predict the harvest as 2020 proved, the earliest ever on record. Just before Christmas is also a lovely time to visit and there is a small Christmas market in Reims. Just remember, the main Christmas celebrations are on 24th December with many houses closing on 23rd.