There are fewer delightful escapes than spending a long holiday weekend traversing the Marne Valley and tasting bubbles with close friends. For the novice traveller to Champagne, here are a couple of tips from experience if you want to explore the countryside by car and avoid the crowds in Reims and Epernay.
Let me begin by pointing out everyone’s first time visit to Champagne should include a trip to one of the big cellars (Mumm, Pomeroy, Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart, Taittinger, Castellane, Perrier Jouet, Mercier, Moet-Chandon and Laurent Perrier to name a few …) in Reims and in/around Epernay respectively. While expensive, they help one understand the scale of the champagne business and the years of history associated with these well-known houses. Once you’ve done that, you can check the big towns off your list and go local.
Plan your travel (especially if you go on a long weekend or expect to do tasting on Sundays. (The French still take Sundays and public holidays very seriously so you’ll be lucky to find smaller houses open on Sunday mornings – if at all.) Avoid disappointment or frustration and check the website or call in advance. For a weekend trip, aim to go Fridays and Saturdays ideally – and leave Sundays up to exploring the bigger towns.
When travelling on weekends, book your dinner reservations in advance – especially in small towns. (Lunch you can probably get away with – but to be relaxed, book this too – especially on Sundays because the French are known for their excellent, cheap ‘formules du midi’ – usually consisting of a lunch including a first course appetizer (entrée), main course and dessert.) The same tip always applies to well-known restaurants in the big cities.
Have a ‘base’. I am personally a fan of staying in the local villages in the vast array of bed and breakfasts France has to offer. This is even better if you are on a vineyard, as the ‘vigneron’ or winemaker – will likely introduce you to his/her champagne which will no doubt quickly become a favourite! Do some advance research about which region to use as your base. Are you more of a ‘Côte des Blancs’ – 100% Chardonnay person or a Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier person? Check out this handy explanation and infographic from Wine Folly about the different regions and decide accordingly. I am personally a big fan of Côte des Blancs champagnes but honestly, I enjoy the experience of tasting it all.
Recommendations from recent visits (opening times are seasonal and subject to change):
– Wine bar Au 36 ($$) in Hautvillers (36 rue Dom Perignon, 51160 Hautvillers, France Tel: +33 3 26 51 58 37 – closed Mondays, open from 10.30 – 18.00.) Try the light tasting menu for lunch, check out their champagne store and enjoy this lovely village. Impressive views (and champagne) from Champagne G. Tribaut.
– Restaurant Le Vendangeoir ($$- $$$) in Vertus (25 Boulevard Carnot, 51130 Vertus, France Tel +33 3 26 53 84 99 – closed Mondays and Tuesdays.) This is a relatively new addition to Vertus with friendly staff and excellent food which is both creative in taste and presentation. Very friendly staff.
– Restaurant La Comedia ($-$$) in Vertus (2 rue de Chalons, 51130 Vertus, France Tel: +33 3 26 57 18 66 – closed Mondays and Wednesdays.) An interesting combination of Italian, French and pizza – family friendly and very good for price/quality.
– Restaurant La Grillade Gourmande ($$$) in Epernay (16 rue de Reims, 51200, Epernay, France Tel: +33 3 26 55 44 22 – closed Sundays and Mondays. This is a superb restaurant I’ve known for years – try the champagne lunch and you will not be disappointed. Always reserve in advance!
– Wine bar in a Treehouse – the Perching Bar in Verzy (Parc arboxygene | prés des faux de Verzy, 51380 Verzy, France Tel: +33 6 07 67 94 42 – open Friday – Saturday afternoons and evenings from 12.00 but subject to change.) – known as the ‘Treehouse of Champagne’ I can’t say I’ve been personally but I have heard a lot of good things about it. Be sure to call to check hours and book a time slot in advance.)
Among my personal favourite champagne houses:
– Champagne Jean Milan in Oger
– Champagne Michel Genet in Chouilly
– Champagne Mailly in Mailly (open on Sundays!)
Official Champagne tourism: http://www.tourisme-champagne-ardenne.com/
Bed & Breakfasts, Gites de la France: https://en.gites-de-france.com/
Tripadvisor of course! https://www.tripadvisor.com/ For the latest in restaurants and hotels/bed and breakfast reviews)
Booking.com (to check availability and compare prices)