Champagne is closer than you think!
When you think of Champagne, it conjures up an image of decadence and luxury. You might be very surprised (for you folk who live in London) that Champagne does not come from anywhere particularly exotic. In fact, it's produced and in a rather chilly and grey part of Northern France just over 2 and a half hours from Calais. Fancy a fizzy long weekend? This could be right up your street (or Avenue).
The Champagne region is in in the Northern part of France just east of Paris.
From London, you can either take the train to Paris and change for a connection to Reims or you can drive. To take your car is an absolute doddle - the toll motorways are surprisingly quiet and a decent satnav ensures you won't get lost. It also means you can bring more liquid souvenirs home with you - at least until the full wrath of Brexit takes its toll (we clearly didn't think this through).
Driving from Calais to Epernay takes about 3 hours if you are law abiding with Reims being a little closer.
Fancy a gastronomic stopover?
Well then rather than rush from your ferry / train to hit the road in France, have a stopover in Calais. Thanks to all the publicity about the refugee camp, things are very quiet and the locals are suffering as a result. However, most of this negative publicity is unwarranted and potentially deters you from starting your weekend with a gastronomic feast that is exceptionally good value.
Le Channel near the Port in Calais offers a range of fantastic tasting menus that are priced from €18 to €59 coupled with an excellent wine list (predominately French as you would expect) that is well priced. We never miss an opportunity to stop here and always enjoy our visit; expect a very warm welcome from the friendly waiting staff.
Where to stay
Your main options for staying in the Champagne region are Reims, which is the capital City of Champagne with lots of bars and restaurants and a stunning Gothic Notre Dame Cathedral which is one of 3 UNESCO sites in the area.
If Reims is the City of Champagne, Epernay is the heart. Much smaller than Reims, Epernay is more of a small town with the not to be missed Avenue de Champagne as its centrepiece.
Ideally, your trip would be split between both locations that are about 20 mins drive (or train journey) apart, though personally we spend more time in Epernay just because of its small town feel and the beauty of the Avenue de Champagne.
Champagne houses to visit
What you will find is that once you've done one tour, there will be a lot of similarities with others as they will all give you an introduction to how Champagne is made blah blah blah. If there is a Champagne that you are a particular fan of, then I would recommend trying to visit them. However, not all Champagne houses accept visitors and many require a booking in advance so do your research so you're not disappointed.
If there is only one Champagne house tour you do, make it the Mercier tour in Epernay and would recommend the vintage tasting option. Booking generally not required but worth popping down early in the day just in case.
Mercier is one of the best selling Champagnes in France. Founded in 1858 by Eugene Mercier who was a marketing genius going to extraordinary lengths to promote his wines. On your visit, learn more about the giant wine barrel he had made for the 1889 Paris exhibition which required 24 white Oxen to tow to Paris, stealing some of the Eiffel Towers' thunder!
When you're done at Mercier, hop across the road to Castellane.
Founded in 1890 by Vicomte Florens de Castellene the water tower dominates the Epernay skyline. The tasting room looks a little tired and canteen-like but the Champagnes is quite special; they tend to be light and refreshing but with excellent fruit, structure and length. The main reason for visiting here, if you are daft enough, is to climb the 237 steps to the top to admire the stunning view of the region. Best not have too many glasses of bubbly before attempting.
If you're around Reims, the setting in Veuve Cliquot is one of the prettiest and gives you a wonderful feeling of the size of the underground cellars that wind under Reims.
While the wines are equally amazing (assuming you also like bigger, bolder Champagne with more of a dark fruit complexity), the tasting is unfortunately very limited as it is comprised of just a single glass of their standard yellow label.
One of our favourite large Champagne house brands is Ruinart, the oldest Maison de Champagne.
While the tour itself is informative and the setting picturesque, the wines are the real selling point. Their Champagnes are rich and elegant with interesting complexity and the tour offers you a sample of their premium Dom Ruinart Champagne.
For a more complete list of Champagne houses in the region, check out: http://www.champagne.fr/en/homepage
Whatever you do, make sure that you also manage to visit or taste some of the smaller 'grower; champagnes. These can be fantastic value for money as they don't have to fund huge Formula 1 marketing budgets.
There are a lot of small Champagne houses, particularly when you go to the outlying villages. But you can even come across grower Champagnes in Epernay.
C. Comme Champagne on Rue Gambetta is a smart hybrid champagne-bar in Epernay with a shop and an informative wine-cellar, and it specialises in serving up champagne from family-run properties.
The look is all whitewashed walls and retro-’70s orange sofas, exposed stone and chrome furnishings evoking a bucolic Bond movie set. The champagne, you’ll be relieved to hear, is neither shaken nor stirred.
With more than 250 types of bubbly waiting to fizz on your palate, it’s hard to know where to start. Thankfully, the bar does the hard work for you, by saluting a handful of viticulturists each week with a tasting of five champagnes, served with nibbles and explanations, for just c£15.
All that and you can sample the downstairs cellar: wander and see what takes your fancy, then order the champers (from c£31 a bottle) to be brought to your table.
Bottles to take away cost 90p more than on the estates themselves; buy a crate of six, and prices are the same (from c£12). Decadence on a shoestring has never been so much fun.
On Rue Gambetta in Epernay is C Comme champagne bar where you can chose from the offerings of lots of local producers. We recently enjoyed some very elegant wines from Maxine Blin that we picked up there on our last trip. The wine bar also sells local fizz by the glass.
Local Champagnes can also be sampled at Le Banc just off the central square.
A drive into the hills to Hautvillers just outside Epernay is an absolute must. Park the car and walk around the narrow streets where the houses have ornamental decorations showing what the residents do for a living. Find the old church on the hill where Dom Perignon is buried by the altar. Pop into some of the cellar doors offering local fare. Have fabulous local fare at Restaurant de l'Abbay (booking recommended).
The Cathedral at Reims is not to be missed. A UNESCO Heritage Site, the church was completed in 1275 and is where the French kings were crowned.