Champagne – on the trail of the of the most festive beverage in the world
A journey through the Champagne
Champagne (French champagne) is a sparkling wine made from grapes that are harvested under strict rules in the Champagne wine region of France – this is how the definition reads on Wikipedia, but where exactly is Champagne and what makes the grapes of this region so special?
To reach the Champagne region, we had to drive for about 2.5 hours from Luxembourg, the perfect distance for a short getaway. The production area has approximately 34,000 hectares in five departments: Marne, Aube, Aisne, Haute-Marne and Seine-et-Marne, with the cities of Reims and Épernay. The main growing areas are Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, the Côte des Blancs and the Côte des Bar. As you can see on our map, the regions are very extensive, which also reflects the different types of soil.
The following grapes are used for the production of champagne: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. The mix of these grape varieties determines the character of the champagne afterwards. The dark grapes (Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir) are pressed white. Those grapes are responsible for the power and body in the champagne, while the white grape (Chardonnay) provides the breed and freshness. How do we know that? Well, if you read a bit further, you will notice that we have been to a lot of wine tastings while in the champagne, and the people like to talk about the production of their champagne.
The champagne production
While the men might have been busy drinking the champagne, two women, Madame Veuve Clicquot and Madame Pommery, revolutionized together with the monk Dom Perignion, the perfection of champagne. Sounds funny, but true. If you look at the history of champagne, there were always extraordinary women, who revolutionized champagne, either through their inventions or their sense of business.
Madame Veuve Chlicquot: invented in 1806 the riddling and disgorging.
Madame Pommery: invented the “brut nature” in 1874, until then the sparkling wines were sweet and were used exclusively for dessert.
Several prestigious champagne houses are run by women like Vitalie Taittinger or Nathalie Vranken, today, which is amazing to hear in terms of women power, because it seems like the French knew very early that women are a fantastic choice for leading positions :)
Champagne is a sparkling wine that is only produced in a small growing area and is subject to strict manufacturing regulations.
One of the biggest differences to winemaking is that about 80% of the produced champagne is made by assemblage: This is the art of blending which combines white wines with some reserve wines to create the base wine for Champagne; Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay to maintain the typical character of each champagne brand. Due to the fact that different types / years of wine are blended together, there is no year marked on the bottle.
If the champagne is from a single vintage, it is called Millésime.
The second fermentation takes place after the assemblage and the wine is added to liqueur de tirage (yeast and sugar). There are 2 ways to get the yeast sugar mixture into the bottleneck afterwards.
Method 1 (older method) pupitres de remuage
The Champagne bottle is placed upside down in a holder with a 75-degree angle. Each day, the riddler gives the bottle a 1/8th of a turn whilst keeping it upside down. This procedure forces the dead yeast cells float into the bottleneck where they are subsequently removed.
Method 2 gyropalettes
The bottles are placed in so-called gyro-palettes, those pallets riddels the bottles then automatically. In terms of quality, we were assured that both procedures are absolutely equivalent.
The disgorgement is the final step in the production of Champagne (that’s where the bubbles are created as well). The Champagne bottle is kept upside down while the neck is frozen in an ice-salt bath. This procedure results in the formation of a plug of frozen wine containing the dead yeast cells. Finally, the bottle cap is removed and the pressure of the carbon dioxide gas in the bottle forces the plug of frozen wine out (“disgorging”) leaving behind clear Champagne. By doing so, a little bit of wine gets spilled out of the bottle.
To compensate the loss of liquid, a mixture of white wine, brandy and sugar (Liqueur de tirage) is added to adjust the sweetness level of the wine and to top up the bottle. This procedure decides whether the Champagne will be Brut Nature (12g/L sugar), Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Dry, Semi Dry or Doux.
Our route: Epernay, Hautvillers, Cramant, Avize, Mesnil, Rilly la Montagne & Reims
All in all, we were on the road for 4 days and we wanted to experience the culture of champagne and its region as authentically as possible. We aimed for small family wineries instead of the big ones and decided to only visit two of the big champagne houses – Mercier in Épernay and Pommery in Reims. We must mention at that this point, that we did not inform ourselves in advance about potential wineries or about the champagne itself, the vineyards were 100% spontaneously selected. Sounds strange, but we actually rang the bell at random houses without getting in touch first – because our friends have told us that this is the best way to get the true champagne experience…and they were so right!
We started our journey in Épernay. Épernay is a 2 hours’ drive from Paris and together with Reims, it is the heart of Champagne region. Our highlight was the beautiful Avenue de Champagne, were most of the big houses like Moët Chandon, Mercier and Boizel are located.
9 Rue Jean Thévenin, 51200 Épernay
Our Chambre d ‘hôte (B & B) was located in the center of Épernay and we can absolutely recommend this place. The nice lady greeted us with a glass of champagne and a small aperitif (that’s how the French call their appetizers). Large rooms, cleanliness and an excellent breakfast in the morning (served in the room by the hostess in person) were the perfect start in the day for exploring the Champagne vineyards.
68 Avenue de Champagne, 51200 Épernay
Mercier’s champagne is one of France’s top-selling champagnes. If you enter the building of Mercier which is located on the Avenue de Champagne, you will immediately notice the huge wine barrel. More than 20 ox pairs moved this barrel to Paris for the 1889 World’s Fair, and Mercier’s “Le Foudre” was only surpassed by the Eiffel Tower.
The tour of the winery starts in the cellars, before starting the actual tour in their train, visitors need to take an elevator down for 30 meters. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of bottles of champagne, we learned a lot about the history (audioguide) and the frescoes in the cellar. One thing that impressed us was the fact that Mercier moved parts of the champagne production to Luxembourg at the end of the 19th century, which makes our little country part of his great empire.
The price of the tour + tasting of 3 glasses of champagne was € 28.
Vignobles Michel Gonet
37 Avenue de Champagne, 51200 Epernay
Located on the stunning Avenue de Champagne is the winery of Michel Gonet, a location that convinced by its beautiful garden. For 15 € we got 3 glasses of their champagne, including a champagne that convinced by its light whiskey taste. This little castle is the perfect spot for a break.
The small village of Hautvillers is less than 10 minutes away from Épernay and is known as the cradle of champagne. It was actually the monk Dom Pérignon, who transformed the first wine into champagne in the 17th century in the Benedictine abbey of Hautvillers.
Today, this village is characterized by small cellars and great viewpoints, including a beautiful picnic spot. Our tip: grab a blanket, baguette, cheese and a bottle of champagne and enjoy the view on top of the vineyards.
The next day, our trip continued in direction Côte de Blancs. The Côte de Blancs were named after their white chalk-lime-soils, on which grows almost exclusively the white grape Chardonnay, which is one of the three main grape varieties of Champagne.
540 rue du Général de Gaulle, 51530 Cramant
We have discovered this vineyard by coincidence, we stopped because we really wanted to take a picture of the huge champagne bottle. We decided to pay this champagne house a visit since we are already there, and lucky us, he was home.
The champagne range of Lancelot-Royer includes Cuvées Réserve and Grand Crus. Made from 100% Chardonnay grapes, they convinces with its lightness and freshness. The price per bottle is between 17.35 € and 29.60 €. The tasting and tour of the winery was free for us, as we couldn’t resist to buy a few bottles of course.
Avize is the village after Crament on the Champagne Street. The abandoned-looking village has more to offer than one might expect, so make sure you plan a stop there.
Le Brun Servenay
14 place Léon Bourgeois, 51190 Avize
A visit to Le Brun Servenay is an absolute must in Avize! The small tasting room looks really nice and in addition to champagne, this winery also sells its own champagne flutes. Their Extra brut Cuvée Chardonnay Millésime 2006, which you can buy for reasonable 30,50 €, was awarded in the Hachette des vins Guide with a heart, against competitors of large houses like Krug, whose bottles you are certainly not able to buy for 30.50 €.
Our favourite champagne was the Grand Cru Cuvée “Melody and C.” from 100% Chardonnay, for 19,70 €. We also recommend trying the Rosé Champagne, which is delightful!
Although the nice lady was expecting another group (who has made an appointment and didn’t show up spontaneously like we did), she took a lot of time to properly explaining the champagne to us and showing us their products, so thumbs up for this tasting, it was excellent and we had more than 5 glasses of amazing champagne!
67 rue Ernest Vallé, 51190 Avize
Honestly, this tasting was one of the best. Not just because of the tasty champagne, but it was exactly what we originally wanted. We found while strolling through Avize, we luckily decided to ring the bell. An old man opened the door and when we asked him if he had time for a tasting, he replied (with his mouth full) that he is eating at the moment, but we could come back in half an hour. At first we were a bit queasy, but when knocked half an hour later, he invited us directly into his living room. Yes, the entire tasting took place in his private living room. He proudly showed us his grandfather’s bottles, photos of his dogs and his own wines. We tasted an excellent Blanc de Blancs Cuvée from 2003, which was sold for about 28 € and other Réserves and his rosé. The tasting per bottle usually costs 12 €, but as soon as you buy something, it is included in the price. It was by far the best tasting experience ever!
Veuve J. Lanaud
3 place Léon Bourgeois, 51190 Avize
This champagne house is very tourist friendly. Not that the others are not, but the flyers in the entrance are as well in English and the nice lady explained that she welcomes a lot of international clientele. The tasting is advertised by a blackboard in front of the house, which is rare, because no other winery does that normally in Avize.
The Cuvée (66% Chardonnay, 17% Pinot Noir and 17% Meunier), for 17.90 € tasted great and the young lady knew what she was talking about. Lanaud also offers special champagne (limited editions) such as the Cuvée Marie Joséphine for 31 €. The tasting costs 15 € per person, but is free if you purchase 3 bottles per person. We benefited from that offer:)
In case the champagnes make you hungry, we strongly recommend “Le Recommandé” in Avize.
This brasserie is located in the building of the old post office and is worth a visit. This place offers craft beer and delicious appetizers at reasonable prices in addition to their champagne variations from the region. The highlight is by far the toilet – stepping out of the closet is the motto :)
We continued our trip via Oger to Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. We also planned to drive to Vertus, but unfortunately we ran out of time since most cellars are only open until 17:00.
Launois père et fils
2 Avenue Eugène Guillaume, 51190 Le Mesnil-sur-Oger
The location is worth a visit. The winery is located in a castle, the tasting takes place on huge Rennessaince couches. Unfortunately convinced of the champagne, in our opinion the freshness and the “fruitiness” was missing. We can recommend one champage though, the Rose Valentine, from 100% Pinot noir. The tasting was free of charge, although we only bought a bottle for € 19.75. So go there for the “ambience” but not for the wine!
Rilly la Montagne
Located in the Montagne de Reims, Rilly la Montagne is the perfect point of departure to visit Reims. Rilly is known for its premier crus. Premier Cru is the name of the first crop.
Like the name itself explains, the second, third, fourth and fifth crops is ranked after the premier cru, so the quality of this champagne is extremely high. The village is very beautiful and we kind of had the impression (compared to the other villages visited) that we were in the Monaco of champagne, because there were so many excellent champagne cellar at every corner.
32 Rue de Reims, 51500 Rilley la Montagne
Our accommodation was located in the champagne house of Didier Herbert, in the heart of the vineyards, and consisted of 4 rooms.
The rooms are very chic furnished and the communal living room included a built-in wine cabinet, filled with in-house champagne. We benefited from the beautiful garden and chilled there one afternoon with a good bottle of Brut Rosé Premier Cru.
The prices per night are a bit higher compared to other accommodations in this area but at least the wonderful breakfast with champagne is included in the price.
The tasting takes place in the accommodation itself, a bottle of Brut 1er Cru is very affordable at 16 € and tastes great. Make sure you dry all of their champagne, since it’s very high quality wine.
3 rue de la Liberté, 51500 Rilly la Montagne
As we strolled through the village, we discovered a house with a pink logo – of course we had to ring the doorbell immediately and ask for a tasting.
The owner opened the door and for a reasonable price of15 € we could taste 3 excellent champagnes: the Brut Tradition, the Brut Millésime 2012 and the Brut Sélection. Unfortunately, a free tasting is only possible with a purchase of 30+ (!!) bottles. The owner explained us an interesting fact: a champagne in a magnum bottle tastes always better than the exact same champagne in a normal bottle. There are 11 different bottle sizes available, so we highly recommend trying a magnum champagne.
Our last stop was Reims, the other heart of the Champagne region.
At first we thought that a full day in Reims would not be enough to explore the city, but fortunately one day was enough. Our first stop was the Avenue de Champagne, where we passed the houses Veuve Clicquot and Mumm in order to go directly to Pommery.
Maison de Champagne Vranken-Pommery
5 place du Général Gouraud, 51100 Reims
The Pommery champagne house was mentioned at the beginning of our article – Pommery has a very interesting history: Pommery exports a large part of its champagne to England, as Pommery is one of the most common brands of champagne in England. It was also Madame Pommery, who made the first “brut”, and thus ushered in a new era in champagne production.
The tour at Pommery is a bit more expensive than the one at Mercier at € 23 (a glass for tasting), but we strongly advise you to visit this champagne house too, as the guided tour (by walking) is absolutely amazing and so worth the money.
In addition to champagne, Pommery has a huge art collection in their wine cellar.
A trip to Champagne is worth the money!
Even if we exaggerated it with our purchases maybe a little bit, you won’t get such an excellent price / quality ratio anywhere else than in the champagne region directly. It’s not just the price, which makes it so attractive to buy the champagne in the Champagne, it’s also the selling concept of the wineries and champagne houses which provides excellent value added services (tour, tasting etc..) at the end of the day. One of our biggest plus was the fact that we were both able to speak French, otherwise it is almost impossible to have the same experience (especially with smaller winemakers) because not everyone speaks English, and especially not the elder ones. The large houses offer guided tours in various languages, and English is widely spoken in cafes and restaurants, but it is kinda difficult to just ring the doorbell and ask for a tasting without knowing a word in French. Nevertheless, whether you are a champagne lover – speak French or not, we would highly recommend a trip to this indescribably idyllic area, because everyone has to visit this beautiful spot on earth.
In terms of LGBTQ friendliness we cannot say much about it as we were not in a gay bar (and focused on champagne during this trip). We behaved quite obviously as a couple and nobody seems to care at all – that’s how it should be :)