It takes less than two hours to drive from Paris to Champagne, which makes the French region of the bubbly a perfect long weekend adventure. Once you’ve seen the Parisian sights and if you want to catch a glimpse of another part of the country, a region that is both rural and enchanting, just head east on the A4.
Your first stop might very well be Reims, the headquarters of Champagne in the modern world and the ancient site of the French monarchy’s coronations since 13th century. The cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims is a fantastic visit. While you’re inside, imagine the very young Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI as they walked naively up the nave to be unknowingly crowned the last French Monarchs of the ancient regime. The connections between the French monarchy and Reims go even further. It was, after all, the archbishop of Reims who presided over the royal marriages and said the benediction for their first night together.
Champagne, the wine, has been a favorite drink of the French for almost half-a-millennium. Popular culture would have us believe that the French Benedictine monk, Pierre Pérignon later promoted to Dom, was the creator of the sparkling version of white wine. Although the most expensive and exclusive cuvée of Moët & Chandon was named after him, his contribution to champagne was more of a perfecting process rather than invention.
The drink was invented by other monks in the region in the 15th & 16th centuries. Originally, wine from Champagne was red and flat, much like that of Bordeaux or Bourgogne, as the region of Champagne is mostly planted with Pinot Noir grapes. In its infancy, what we now know as champagne the monks called “making mousse out of wine ” or “mousse wine.” Although there are fragmented stories of mousse wine dating to the mid-1600s, it was not until 1710 that the account books in the region of Champagne distinguished between “wine” and “mousse wine.” Of course, that doesn’t mean that people didn’t already know about champagne before the 1700s. Given that so little was written down at the time, and that this type of wine was so new, not many people would have had access to the information. It is funny to imagine, however, that during the reign of Marie-Antoinette, who is so closely linked to extravagance in our modern imaginations – cakes and champagne chief among her weaknesses – that her drink of choice was in fact quite new to the world. Perhaps something like Red Bull or Latté in present day.
Now, back to our long weekend. After a day in Reims visiting the charming ancient town, having lunch at the Café de France, of course tasting one of their large selection of champagnes, stop by the Musée de la Reddition, the former headquarters of the Allied Forces in WWII where the unconditional surrender of the Germans was signed. You might want to take a stroll over to some of the best known champagne houses based in Reims: Veuve Clicquot, Pommery, Krug and Tattinger. Most offer tours of their cellars but you need to book in advance and there is usually a charge. Should you wish to stay the night, there are a number of Bed & Breakfasts in Reims as well as the swanky Chateau les Crayères. With over 400 bottles of champagne to choose from and a two-star Michelin restaurant, you might not want to drive after dinner.
Next morning, you may think of having a mimosa with breakfast, but the French are a little funny about mixing other liquids with their wine. I tried to serve mimosa at the brunch the day after my wedding but the idea was rejected outright – simply sacrilege in France! So, perhaps be on the safe side and go for a glass of champagne straight-up and a glass of orange juice on the side.
After breakfast, head down the Route de Champagne (D6) toward Epernay. This is the real home of champagne. On the way, you will pass other smaller towns like Verzenay and Bouzy. If you see a sign for a dégustation, feel free to stop and take a look around the chateau. Everyone except the poor designated driver could even have a mid-morning sample of that particular vineyard’s cuvée.
Once you’ve come to Epernay, you have arrived in the center of the world of champagne. You will notice smaller chateaux at every turn while you wind your way through the lovely narrow streets. This part of France is a picture perfect example of what North Americans think France is supposed to resemble. It heightens our senses and caresses our imagination.
Park your car and walk a bit. Stroll down the Avenue de Champagne, home of champagne giants like Moët & Chandon, Perrier-Jouët, Comtesse Lafond, Nicolas Feuillatte, Castellane and Mercier, among others. These huge chateaux offer guided tours (book in advance) through their extensive underground cellars which curve and snake over 50 miles under the city. Some of the smaller chateau will give you a more personal experience, if you prefer that sort of interaction. Much less commercial and practically one-on-one, a degustation at one of the off-beat champagne houses is good fun and you’ll be able to buy something you can’t get back home!
This area of France is scattered with chateaux that have been transformed into hotels and B&B. Right in Epernay is the Hotel Jean Moët & Spa, if you’d like to treat yourself. Otherwise, for your second evening in Champagne you might like to try Chateau d’Etoges or Les Avises.
On your final day in the region, be sure to visit the village de Hautvillier, just a short drive from Epernay, where you can meander along the vineyards and visit the grave of Dom Pérignon. On your way back to Paris, you might also want to check out Charly sur Marne and Chateau-Thierry.
If you’d rather not drive in an unknown country, there are day tours to Champagne from Paris. One such tour is run by the wine tasting company Ô Chateau.
Some excellent lesser-known champagne you might want to keep an eye out for, all for less than 15€ (and where to find them) include:
- E. Barnaut – Brut Blanc de Noirs (Reims mountain)
- Larmandier-Bernier – Né d’une terre de Vertus (Epernay)
- Raymond Boulard – Brut Réserve (Valley Marne)
- Paul Déthune – Brut Grand Cru (Reims mountain)
- Jean Vesselle – Brut Oeil de Perdrix (Reims mountain)
- André Clouet – Brut Rosé (Reims mountain)
And just to leave you with a bit of savoir-faire for reading champagne labels:
- The name Champagne should be clear and visible with the initials AOC (appellation d’origin controlée).
- The name of the chateau or vineyard should be clearly indicated. If it says a company like RL#LO3456, it’s a bad sign.
- The professional categories are important. Along the side or very bottom of the label you will should see either RM, NM and SR. These are French designations that tell you the makers of the champagne know what they are doing.