‘I spent the bank holiday in the Champagne region of France‘ is not a phrase you can say in the office without sounding rather elaborate and fancy. But I did, and it was so enjoyable that I’ve already booked to go back next Easter.
Living in the south-east of London (if you can call zone 2 that…), getting to the Channel Tunnel and over to Calais is quite truly a doddle (plus it’s great for dog owners like me). It’s simple again to go straight down the single, quiet French toll road to Reims, and find yourself in the heart of champagne history.
We stayed in an AirBnB in the little village of Saint Imoges, about two-thirds of the way south of Reims and towards Epernay. It was a great base, with both champagne avenues (both literally and figuratively) less than twenty minutes away.
While we were blessed with glorious sunshine, it was the of course the golden bubbly drink that drew me to explore the region. Here’s some of my favourite activities:
- Visiting a champagne house
From Moët & Chandon to Taittinger or Veuve Clicquot, the kings and queens of the champagne world have their castles in Reims and Epernay. There’s also a tonne of other houses, some that frequent fizz drinkers will recognise and others that are lesser known. One – Mercier – even has a train you can ride to visit the underground cellars!
We visited Taittinger, but I’m sure the process is fairly similar among the big houses and the cellars just as long. Taittinger have 14km under the city of Reims alone.
Walking Epernay’s Champagne Avenue is also a must, if not to say you’ve walked down the most expensive avenue in the world (because of all of the champagne resting underground). It’s also a reminder of the opulence and wealth coming from these worldwide brands that started in a small French vineyard.
- Exploring the vineyards and wine caves
Speaking of vineyards, to truly experience the champagne region (and any wine region to be honest), it’s important to go to the heart of the grape-picking. Luckily, there are so many villages dotted around containing a multitude of small and large champagne-makers. To name a few: Ay (home of Bollinger), Hautvillers (where Dom Pérignon lived), Rilly-la-Montagne, and Sermiers.
Many allow for drop-in wine tasting, and I found most charged around €8 while others allowed me to taste a third of a glass for free – enough to decide whether I wanted a bottle.
What’s great about touring all of these smaller independent wineries is that we have ended up with a real mix of bottles, each with a memory of speaking to the owner or seeing the vines.
- Emptying supermarket shelves
Is there anything more British than going to France to bring back a few crates of wine? While that feeling you get when the cashier realises you have 15 of the same bottle is slightly embarrassing, I like to think of it as a nod to the great talents of our European neighbours. Put simply, they are world-class wine makers and we are typically not.
I tend to spend the days accumulating to this moment tasting bottles within my price range, in order to decide what I want to bring back. I was lucky this time to find a range of sparkling wine in brut, rose and demi-sec that is made in Champagne but without the hefty price-tag. Fingers crossed it’s still so affordable when I go back in 11 months.
We also visited some great wine caves, which are essentially an independent shop selling bottles from all around the region. The one at the junction to Saint Imoges off the D951 was fab – we easily spent an hour there.
- Basking in cafe culture
Cafe culture is, in my opinion, the main differentiator between Europe and the U.K. The Champagne-Ardenne has cafe aplenty, like the square at the foot of Reims Cathedral or the roundabout at the start of Epernay’s Champagne Avenue. I highly recommend the local champagne and cheese/charcuterie boards.
So is there more to Champagne than bubbles? Of course, but it’s the lifeblood of the region and it’s certainly not a bad thing.