Underneath the town of Epernay, carved into the chalk rock, lie 100 kilometres of wine cellars. These dark and dusty caves are the temporary home of millions of bottles of champagne, waiting for their corks to be popped.
We arrived from Paris in the middle of a rainy afternoon. On the way to our bnb on Avenue de Champagne, famously referred to as the world’s most drinkable address, we passed the stately houses of Moet & Chandon, Mercier, Perrier-Jouet and Pol Roger.
After we settled in, we headed out in search of what we had come for – champagne! Our first stop was C. Comme. This wine bar/shop is set over two levels. Upstairs is a bar where you can taste the champagne; downstairs is the cave where you can shop for wines from 41 small producers. The knowledgable barman was keen to tell us all about the champagnes we were drinking. He recommended good value bottles to buy based on what we had liked best during the tasting.
In the evening we had an excellent dinner at La Table Korbus where locals tuck into beautifully presented plates of foie gras, saddle of rabbit, veal sweetbreads and succulent lamb. At this bustling neighbourhood restaurant you can bring along your own bottles of champagne and they’ll serve it for you without charging a corkage fee.
It was difficult to know which champagne tour to choose, as each of the houses offers one. Moet & Chandon is the glitziest but charges a hefty 23 euros per person. We had read good things about Castellane and turned up for the tour at 10.30 the next morning. The one-hour tour takes you from the production area where you see the wine at various stages of the production process, to the underground labyrinth of caves where the champagne is fermented and stored. The final step shows the golden liquid being bottled, labeled and corked, ready for global distribution. At the end of the tour, after working up a thirst, you get a complimentary glass of the house brut and can pay to taste others.
We then headed to the nearby city of Reims, dominated by its gothic cathedral, which has seen 24 kings of France crowned under its glittering panes. While we had gone to Epernay to quench our thirst, we moved on to Reims hungry for lunch. We tried to get a table at a tiny seafood restaurant, Le Bocal, known for Michelin star quality without the associated price tag. We were out of luck. They don’t take drop-ins and a reservation is a must. Just next door, La Table des Halles was busy with a working-lunch crowd and had a tempting menu. We ordered scallops and salmon marinated in orange juice as a starter, followed by melt-in-your-mouth suckling pig as a main course. We followed the lead of the other lunchers and washed down with, you guessed it, champagne.
We spent the last couple of hours before taking the train back to Paris in the innovatively designed champagne shop, Les Tresors de Champagne, which offers champagnes from 28 small producers who have clubbed together to promote their artisan wines. Information about the proprietors of each vineyard is displayed on the wall, and a map of the region sprawled out on the floor. From the ceiling hang hundreds of bottles describing the wines of each producer.
We learned a lot (including how ignorant we were before) while sampling glass after glass of champagne. Most champagnes are made from one or more of three types of grape: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pino Meunier. A champagne made with only Chardonnay grapes is very light. Pure Pinot Noirs are fruitier and stronger. Pinot Meunier is often added less for its taste than to help with the ageing process. We learned about vintages: the best wines made from the best grapes in the best years; and about the wine making process itself. To ensure a clear and pure wine, each bottle is gradually tipped downwards so that any sediment collects in the bottle neck. The neck is then frozen. The sediment freezes and is forced out by the pressure of the bubbles in the wine. This process has been refined over hundreds of years.
We left Champagne light in the head and wallet, with bags clinking on the last train back to Paris.
The TGV takes you from Gare de l’Est to the heart of the Champagne region, making it an easy day trip or overnight stay. If you rent a car you can tour the vineyards themselves, most of which offer tastings and tours. However, you can experience a lot (and drink a lot) in the towns of Riems and Epernay, and avoid the inevitable fight over who gets to be designated driver.