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Champagne is synonymous with celebrations and elegance. It is a libation enjoyed by the rich and famous, and shared with friends during life’s best moments. That iconic “pop” and the following bubbles have been known to create happiness and stimulate the senses to usher in a moment of elation. For all the fanfare associated with one single beverage, it’s hard to believe that the birthplace of bubbly is far from the glamour of a nightclub. In fact, the region of Champagne-Ardenne, France is very much a humble agricultural area with a deep history spanning centuries, many of them wrought with war.
In Champagne, the cellar masters are chemists, engineers, and fortune tellers. The act of perfectly blending three grapes into a silky, effervescent, delicious creation that maintains the same quality and consistency year-after-year despite the circumstances of mother nature is nothing short of magic. To meet them and to see their process in person could be compared to a spiritual pilgrimage for many Winetravelers, as the region of Champagne contains just as much miracle as science.
There are several beautiful towns around the Champagne region, but if you are visiting for the first time, or desire more options for after-tasting activities, it’s best to stay in the main city of Reims (pronounced Rans in French). The other option for a two-day trip would be to split your time between Reims and the nearby village of Épernay. Reims is a much larger city, with a bustling nightlife full of the energy of 20-somethings and home to three Michelin Star restaurants. Épernay offers more of a traditional-style French countryside village feel.
Two-Days in Champagne
If you only have two days to visit the region, here are two suggestions. Either base out of Reims and visit the Houses around that city for the two days or split your time between Reims and Épernay and use one day for visits in Reims and one day for visits in Épernay. However, I would not try to schedule visits for both places in the same day to avoid spending a lot of time traveling between the two cities.
Getting to Reims, France
The easiest way to get to Reims is to fly into Paris and simply take a 45-minute train ride to the Gare de Reims station in the city center or to the Champagne-Ardenne station directly from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, or one of the main stations in Paris. If you choose to ride straight into Reims, you may have to change trains at Champagne-Ardenne, which is about 20-minutes outside the city center. The other option is to fly into Paris and rent a car for a two-hour car ride over to Reims. However, traffic in and out of Paris can be tricky, so two hours is never a guarantee.
Winetraveler Tip: Make sure to book your train tickets in advance, especially if you are leaving Reims to go back to Paris to catch a flight. Reims is a commuter city for Paris, meaning that the trains can get busy at certain times, and seats are not always guaranteed. If you must get to either place on a schedule, it’s best to book your tickets in advance. You can book your tickets on the SNCF website.
Where to Stay in Champagne
For American travelers who prefer the comfort of familiar brands, there is a Holiday Inn and a Best Western Premier that are affordable, quality accommodations right in the city center of Reims and walking distance to restaurants and bars. The city of Reims has many hotels throughout, but it’s best to decide what part of town you want to stay in based on scheduled visits or nightlife options, and book well in advance. See a more complete list of hotel options in Champagne here.
Winetraveler Tip: Check the calendar for French holidays when booking your trip to Champagne. The French travel heavily during their scheduled holidays, so hotels and attractions can book up quickly. If you plan to travel to the region during a French holiday, make sure you make reservations for your hotel, trains, and any restaurants or attractions well in advance. It’s more difficult to have a spontaneous French vacation during these times, as it’s not a French custom to make exceptions to “fit you in” if you don’t have a reservation.
Getting Around Champagne
Getting around the Champagne region can require a bit of strategy, depending on if you simply want to stay in Reims or Épernay, or if you want to venture out to some of the Champagne Houses that are further outside the city. Taxis are an easy option, and Uber does operate in Reims. However, you may also want to consider getting a driver for the day if you plan on leaving the city limits. Some of the Champagne visits are in more remote places where it will take some time for a taxi or Uber to reach you. Make sure you plan to have someone call in advance for your ride, especially if you don’t speak French because many drivers do not speak English.
Where to Eat
Reims and Épernay both offer fantastic dining options. As mentioned, Reims is home to three Michelin Star restaurants, Restaurant Le Foch, Racine, and Le Millénaire, for those looking for a world-class dinner. There are more casual dining options all in one place along the Place Drouet-d’Erlon, which is a long pedestrian street lined with cafés, bars, and bistros.
In Épernay, you must schedule a meal at La Grillade Gourmande, open for lunch and dinner. Chef Christophe Bernard puts together daily menus containing creative renditions of French favorites and international cuisine. Dine “bistro-style” next to an old brick oven where you can watch sous chefs prepare the meat dishes over an open flame. It’s a friendly, upscale dining experience that provides the perfect fuel for your afternoon Champagne tastings.
Keep in mind that across France, there are very strict dining hours. Most restaurants are only open for a few hours for lunch before they close for the afternoon and reopen for dinner around seven in the evening. When you plan your tasting and meals, make sure that you are leaving room to have lunch between about noon and two o’clock, as most restaurants close around three for the afternoon.
Winetraveler Tip: In France, breakfast is not a main meal. Usually, restaurants will offer a very basic breakfast option of a pastry, coffee, juice, and maybe some bread and butter. If you want more for breakfast before your tasting, you may have to hunt a little harder for a warm meal or be specific with the hotel staff about what you want. One restaurant in Reims on the Place Drouet-d’Erlon offers more diverse breakfasts options such as omelets, potatoes, and Croque Monsieurs. Look for the Lion de Belfort restaurant on the corner of Place Drouet-d’Erlon and Rue Buirette for a more substantial first meal.
The Historical Sites of Reims
You can get a taste of the region in two days by spending your time wisely. In between tastings or in the evenings, take a moment to soak in the history of the region. The area was destroyed during World War I and rebuilt shortly after, giving it a touch of art deco finesse, which can be seen at the Carnegie Library, which was built through the generous donations of American steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie. Joan of Arc liberated the Notre Dame de Reims Cathedral during the Hundred Years’ War, which allowed Kings to be coronated there. The site of the German surrender after World War II is in Reims, and the actual room where it happened is a museum for visitors called Musée de la Reddition. Throughout French history, the region of Champagne was an instrumental and strategic location, and you can get a better understanding of the rise and fall of France over many years by simply walking the streets of Reims.
Tasting Champagne in Champagne
The excitement you’ll feel about being in Champagne may cause you to be over-ambitious about visiting as many places as you can, but remember quality over quantity, and know that your visits will likely take longer than you expect. Realistically, if you want to do a tour and tasting at each appointment, you should expect to do one visit before lunch, and one or two stops after. Champagne is about enjoyment, but if you schedule too many appointments, you’ll find yourself rushing around.
Winetraveler Tip: If you’re used to wine tasting in the U.S., it’s important to note that most Champagne Houses require you to make a reservation before you visit. Unlike areas like Napa, where it is easier to bounce around from one winery to the next at your leisure, Champagne is a bit more formal, which will require you to do some pre-planning with regards to where you would like to taste. Additionally, if you want a tour in a language other than French or English, check the website or ask ahead of time to ensure that House offers tours in your preferred language.
Tasting in Reims
Many of the big Champagne names are headquartered in Reims, and some of them are even located closer together, making two afternoon visits a possibility. In Reims, you can visit some of the following Houses:
Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin: The number one selling Champagne in the U.S. is based in Reims and accepts appointments by reservation only. Contact them via their website to arrange for a visit.
Champagne Pommery: Reservations are suggested to visit this neo-gothic Champagne castle built by Madame Pommery in the 1800s. Pommery’s caves are impressive, boasting 18km of an underground network. You should do the full tour and tasting and learn more about the history behind the woman who founded this House.
Champagne Taittinger: Another popular label, Champagne Taittinger offers one-hour tours followed by a tasting at scheduled times throughout the day. Reservations are required for groups, but it’s always a good idea to call ahead and make sure the tour is not booked.
Ruinart: Ruinart is the oldest Champagne House founded in 1729. Expect to spend two plus hours on a tour and tasting here, and you must make a reservation.
GH MUMM: GH MUMM offers tours every day from March through October, and Wednesdays through Sundays throughout the rest of the year. At the end of your tour, you can visit the Champagne Trade Museum. Make sure to make your reservation ahead of time, as tours are only at certain times.
Louis Roederer: Louis Roederer has stayed an independent family-owned business throughout its existence and prides itself on its Grand Cru juice. Contact them for tour information and reservations.
Tasting Champagne in Épernay
Épernay is known to many as the “Capital of Champagne” with many high-end producers calling it home. While visiting, you may want to check out L’Avenue de Champagne, a one-kilometer long street that derives its name from the many Champagne producers that are headquartered here or whose proprietors have private homes along the avenue. Producers that have properties you can visit on this magnificent street include Moët & Chandon, Perrier-Jouët, Boizel, de Venoge, Pol Roger, and Mercier. If you choose to base your visit on L’Avenue de Champagne, you can visit several of these locations in a single day, provided that that you make reservations with plenty of time to enjoy the tour and tasting at each before moving on to the next.
Smaller Producers & Others
Champagne is a diverse region with producers of all sizes from small family owned operations, like Champagne Apollonis by Michel Loriot, which has a small basement operation in the tiny village of Festigny, to the large cooperative Nicolas Fiuellatte, (learn how to visit here) which pumps out 15-20 million bottles a year in their massive state-of-the-art facility near Épernay. Not all Champagne Houses are open to the public and accept visitors, but if there is one you want to visit, it’s always a good idea to contact them directly beforehand to see if a tour is possible.
In order to see all that the Champagne region has to offer, you would have to spend much more than two days. However, in this amount of time, you can have an enchanted experience in one of the most iconic wine regions and the only place in the world that produces true Champagne.