After our Loire Valley day, we set off for a day trip to the Champagne region. I highly recommend this to anyone visiting France. It was just lovely and very informative!
There are two main cities in the Champagne region: Reims and Épernay. Most of the big champagne producers are located in those cities. However, the entire region is completely filled with small, local champagne producers as well. In fact, while the bigger champagne houses are more well-known as brands internationally, the majority of champagne in the world comes from the thousands of local producers and is produced and consumed in France. I definitely thought that the local champagne was more delicious (hands down, it was not even a close comparison to me), and it was cheaper! But more on that later.
So we have two big cities with mostly big producers who export most of their champagne, and we have about 320 little villages with thousands of small-scale vignerons (winemakers) who, combined, produce the majority of champagne. Add in the beautiful Marne river and rolling hills covered in vineyards, and you have a picture of what the Champagne region is like. We had a car, which was advantageous because it allowed us to get off the beaten path.
We started our day in Épernay, one of the two big cities I mentioned before. Our first stop was a tour at Mercier, a very famous large champagne house. It cost €11 per person for a tour with a tasting of one glass at the end of the tour, all the way up to about €19 for a tasting of three glasses. We just had one, since we didn’t want to wast too much time, money, and effort on the big producers. The tour of Mercier was like a trip to Disneyland. Mercier was famous for his promotional gimmicks, and the company still follows that philosophy. The visit started with a very well-done video and a descent down the glass elevator with scenes about the company in the walls all the way down. Then we entered the huge beautiful caves. Wear a jacket! It’s about 10°C in the caves. We got onto Disneyland-style laser guided trams and toured around the caves, learning all about the production of champagne, the history of Mercier, and the features of the caves all along the way. Champagne is aged in caves because production requires humidity, darkness, and cool temperatures, which are all present in the caves. The caves themselves are massive, spanning 18 kilometers with high ceilings and carved chalk walls. It’s very impressive. Mercier also had a gigantic wine vat on display. It was constructed by Eugène Mercier (the founder) between 1870 and 1881 and could hold the equivalent of 200,000 bottles of champagne. He put on quite a show dragging it all the way to Paris for the World’s Fair in 1900, and according to them it was the second largest attraction of the fair (behind the Eiffel Tower).
I highly recommend at least one visit to a big producer in the region so that you’ll have a good idea of how champagne is made and you’ll get to see the huge impressive cellars. We were happy with our visit to Mercier in Épernay. I’ve also heard that Moët & Chandon and De Castellane in Épernay are good, as well as Mumm, Pommery, and especially Taittinger in Reims. Once you get the big visit out of the way, the fun and adventures can begin.
After we left Mercier, we got into the car and onto the Champagne Route (Route Touristique du Champagne). There are five routes that take you through vineyards and past rivers, incredible views, charming villages, and beautiful churches/monasteries/chateaux. What more could you ask for? Most importantly, the champagne route takes you past local champagne producers, many of whom have their houses open to the public. You just have to look for the “point d’accueil” (welcome point) signs outside of them.
We were hardly out of Épernay, in the town of Chouilly, when we stopped at Pierre Legras (28, rue de Saint Chamand, 51530 Chouilly, France). I wandered in and asked if we could have a tour, and the owner told me of course. She spoke English, and she showed us their small modern cellar (although it can hold up to 1 million bottles!) and machinery. She also told us all about their process and gave us a much more intimate tour, answering all of our questions along the way. After the tour, we went back to the office where she and her husband gave us tastings of their champagnes and time flew by while we talked for a couple of hours. It was such a nice visit! We tried a lot of incredible champagne and had such a nice afternoon visiting with them and learning all about the lifestyle of a small champagne producer. Of course, we also learned all about their champagnes. We bought about 5 bottles of champagne from them (some of the best champagne I’ve ever had and my favorite bottle was only €15,25!). I really enjoyed the visit to the small producer; it was just so much more personalized and interesting. They even invited us back the next day to see them disgorge a batch of champagne! This is one of the final steps in the process of making champagne. It occurs after they’ve gotten all the sediment (lees = dead yeast) into the neck, and there is a lot of pressure in the bottle. They immerse the neck in a bath of -20°C liquid to freeze the sediment. They remove the cap and, because of the pressure in the bottle, the frozen part with the sediment in it pops out. Then they add the desired dose of sugar and cork it. We really wanted to come and see it, but we were too worn out to drive all the way back again the next day.
If you have the chance, I strongly recommend a visit to Pierre Legras. They were so knowledgeable and hospitable, and their champagnes were excellent.
I had a couple of other small producers on the list for us to see, namely Thierry Rodez in Ambonnay, Tornay and Beaufort in Bouzy. Another thing that sounded great (but didn’t work for the cold rainy weather) is Domi Moreau’s vineyard tours on bicycle (or minibus, for the wimps out there). However, we were at Pierre Legras for such a long time that the business day was over by the end! Oops! It was worth it though, to spend the afternoon with such a nice couple drinking their great champagnes. The rest of the stuff I’ll do another time, since I’ll definitely be back.
After we left Pierre Legras, we drove along the Champagne Route to Reims, the other big city in Champagne. It was a very cool town, with a healthy mix of old and new. The cathedral was beautiful, and although it was closed when we were there, you can take an audio-guided tour that is supposed to be great. My roommate thinks that the Reims cathedral is better than Notre-Dame de Paris. I disagree, since its pristine condition is mostly due to the fact that it’s been heavily restored after being damaged in the Hundred Years’ War and again after WWI. But the cathedral is very beautiful and historically important (in spite of the heavy restorations, it’s still a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
We had dinner in Reims and then headed home, on what turned out to be a much longer drive than any of us expected. Some roads were closed and then we got lost, and it took 4 hours to get back. But that didn’t ruin what a great day we had in Champagne region. I’d love to come back for an entire weekend when the weather is good. A picnic on the river, bicycle ride through the vineyards, and lots of visits to discover new small champagne producers in this beautiful setting sounds very romantic.