Champagne tours, my DIY Champagne region day trip didn’t go entirely to plan but turned out to be an unexpectedly brilliant way of exploring France’s Champagne region. It was great fun and I discovered so much that I will definitely be doing it again.
In this post I share with you what I learnt, my top 5 tips for creating your own Champagne region tour and the things I want to do next time I visit.
My Champagne region day trip, the original plan
The tour was really just a stop over on our drive through France heading back to England hence only having one full day. With so little time we could only touch the surface. My aim was to give some structure to our day without prescribing everything.
My husband and I were driving our own car so could go where the fancy took us and stop when and where we wanted. My aim was to make the most of the freedom this gave us.
The plan was to:
- Explore two of the main areas of the Champagne region. Montagne de Reims in the morning and Cote des Blancs in the afternoon.
- This would allow us to see the landscape of vines. In my experience this is one of the best ways to understand a wine. We would stop at some wineries set within their vines in each area as the fancy took us.
- Explore Epernay on our way to the Cote des Blancs.
- Finish with a visit to one of the big boy Champagne producers. I’d booked us a Champagne tour and tasting at Taittinger’s in Reims (where we were staying).
A plan is only as good as its implementation. I’d love to say that all went smoothly but that wouldn’t be entirely true. However the problems led to some great discoveries and lessons learnt.
Some of the lessons were due to the unique nature of the champagne region and the differences between it and other wine regions I have visited.
Discovering these differences was really exciting and gave me a much better understanding and appreciation of the wonderful world of champagne.
Uniquely Champagne, lessons worth learning
As we drove off the main the road and into the Montagne de Reims area in the morning sunshine there were vines as far as the eye could see, a sight that never fails to thrill me.
I can never believe that the vines for even the most famous of names are just there, no fences or barriers between you and this most precious of crops.
The Champagne producers put labels in the ground at the end of the rows showing which vines are theirs. We stopped by the roadside numerous times as we travelled around the area, studying the labels with names I was familiar with and many I was not.
Nothing can compare with that first stop. Looking at the label with “Taittinger” written on it I looked along the row of vines.
The Champagne we would be tasting in the afternoon started in these very rows.
You rarely get to experience such a direct connection between grape and wine particularly with large producers.
What a thrill!
These labels highlighted the first of the Champagne region’s differences we encountered. The vines in each of the different areas of Champagne are parcelled up into blocks. These blocks are owned by different Champagne producers and they need the labels to keep track of their blocks.
Why have so many different blocks of vines spread over the Champagne region?
Champagne is made from any or all of three primary grape varieties, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. To grow well they each have different requirements in terms of soil, sunlight etc particularly in a wine region as far north in France as Champagne.
The different areas of the Champagne region have properties which are better for one grape variety over another. For example the area we were in that morning, Montagne de Reims, is good for Pinot Noir. Whereas Cote des Blancs is better for Chardonnay.
To make the best Champagne and give the consistency of flavour most strive for, Champagne producers have multiple parcels of vines across the different areas so they can blend their Champagne from the different grape varieties.
The second element of my tour was going to plan. Seeing the landscape of vines was indeed increasing my understanding of Champagne and how it was made.
Weather challenges, hillsides can be your best friend
Champagne is one of the most northerly regions where top quality wines can be made. Weather is their greatest challenge. Grapes need enough sunlight at the right time, enough rain (also at the right time) but not too much and please no late frosts.
Putting your vines onto hillsides can help enormously. Champagne has lots of hills. They are not massively high but there are lots of them and they are steep. This means rain will run off and the soil will drain well.
Being on a slope also means vines have more chance of avoiding the catastrophic damage a late frost can have. And the best slopes make the most of the sunshine.
Driving through the landscape was fascinating and I found it really exciting. Not because it is spectacular (it isn’t).
But seeing how they pack vines into ever available space, the steeper the better, the different orientations of the vines on the different slopes to maximise exposure to that precious sunshine. I really appreciated how difficult it must be to produce quality grapes year after year in such a location. I had read about it in books when studying for my exams but nothing brings it alive like seeing it for yourself.
When productive land is limited don’t waste it on buildings.
From my first glimpse of Montagne de Reims I was struck by how little productive land there was. I know this was only one area within the Champagne region but how could such a historic and global commodity come from such a small area? My respect for Champagne producers and what they achieve was growing by the minute.
This limited space gives rise to the biggest difference between Champagne and the other wine producing areas I have visited. The wineries are not amongst the vines. They are in the villages or towns. That put paid to my plan of stopping off at lesser known producers as we drove around.
This wasn’t like Napa, Bordeaux or Marlborough in New Zealand. There would be no turning off the road as the whim took us. Driving down a road between the vines to the winery nestled amongst the vines. Enjoying a tour of the cellars before tasting some wine (obviously!) and perhaps (okay, often) buying.
With no wineries amongst the vines to stop off at we made the most of driving between the main villages on our route. Stopping at the famous windmill and the lighthouse we got great views of the vines. Stopping in the villages we discovered many wineries, some of them cleaning up after the very recent harvest.
The villages offered other excitements. With narrow streets to match many an Italian hillside town you need a keen sense of the width of your car and a bit of nerve to navigate them safely.
After a very enjoyable and relaxing time we headed to Epernay earlier than we had planned. Thank goodness we did.
One of my biggest failings when planning a trip is that I get excited about all the things we can do and try to pack too much in. That turned out to be the case on this trip too. Largely due to that most mundane of things, traffic.
We were fine in the morning as we toured around Montagne de Reims, the roads were lovely and quiet. It was Epernay that was our downfall.
Epernay is a pretty town with lovely narrow streets and the amazing Avenue de Champagne. Not surprisingly many people want to visit, in buses and cars, lots and lots of them.
We managed to fit in lunch and a quick walk up the Avenue de Champagne but we had to abandon our planned tour of Cote des Blancs in the afternoon and head back to Reims if we were to make it in time for our afternoon tour of Taittinger’s cellars.
Taittinger wine tour, history lesson and lots of gloss
When visiting the Champagne region you really do have to take a tour with one of the massive global names. If nothing else they make you realise the sheer scale of this industry (and it is an industry). I was a bit concerned it would only be frothy gloss but that turned out not to be the case.
It was great having seen the Taittinger vines in the morning to stand in the cool of their cellars looking at row upon row of the finished product. Millions of bottles! Nothing prepares you for the sight of so many bottles in every available space.
The tour didn’t teach much about how Champagne is made, there was a bit but it was no wine lesson. What was amazing (and worth the tour) was that their cellars date back to the Romans and are justifiably a World Heritage site.
Hand carved by the Romans for the chalk, used as the crypt for an Abbey destroyed during the French Revolution (old stairs still exist leading up to the non-existent Abbey) these were ideal wine cellars.
The temperature never varies and is exactly what champagne needs in the years it takes to mature.
Depending on how much you pay for the tour you get to taste between one and three glasses of Champagne at the end of the tour in the very glossy tasting room. The tastings are a good size and it was fun.
We had gone for the three glass option and it was well worth it as it included their delicious Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs. I confess we bought a bottle.
A good day
Although our day hadn’t gone to plan it was great fun and I enjoyed the contrast of immersing ourselves in the quiet landscape of vines in the Montagne de Reims followed by the hubbub of Epernay.
Walking up the Avenue de Champagne and seeing the number of large imposing buildings belonging to the biggest Champagne producers like Moet Chandon and Pol Roger was truly impressive.
The fact their production facilities remain in what to me seemed a small town I found astonishing. Watching a very large articulated lorry trying to turn in this narrow street through the imposing gates of Pol Roger (which were only just wide enough for it) was quite a sight.
The historic Taittinger cellars was a great place to finish as it really brought the history and longevity of the Champagne industry into focus.
And tasting some delicious Champagnes was also pretty good!
My top 5 tips for creating your own Champagne tour
- Give yourself time to drive around at least one of the champagne areas. Stop and look at the vines. Check out who they belong to, the steepness of the little slopes and the different orientations of the vines. This landscape isn’t spectacular, you need to get close to it to really appreciate how marvellous this region is.
- Explore either Reims or Epernay, ideally both. They are very different.
- Make the most of the opportunities to learn about Champagne producers you may never come across back home. This is surprisingly easy to do, as well as being lots of fun. Stopping for lunch or having an aperitif before dinner, champagnes from unfamiliar producers are freely available by the glass.
- Make the most of the Champagne shops in Epernay and Reims and their guided tastings. This is another great way to learn about lesser known producers.
- Do pre-book a tour(s) with the biggest names. They are very glossy and a bit corporate but are a fascinating insight into the history and scale of Champagne.
My plan for my next Champagne region day trip (or two)
- Explore the other areas of the Champagne region, starting with Cote des Blancs.
- Return to Epernay. Taking in some guided tastings in the shops of the lesser known Champagne producers and visiting more of the big boy producers. Moet Chandon and Pol Roger are top of my list.
- Learn more about the Champagne producers I never come across in the UK.
- Visit during harvest. Given how close you can get to the vines and how steep the slopes I suspect watching an intensive hand harvest is quite a sight
- Drink more Champagne!
Hope you find this post helpful. I’d love to hear about your Champagne tour experiences and tips.
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