There’s always a little thrill for me when I purchase a bottle of champagne. Champagne, of course, only comes from one particular region of France. All those other bubbly drinks can only aspire to the appellation. The reason that buying champagne is so special is that many times champagne comes emblazoned with the village name, Epernay, a place that evokes for me the spirit of youth and happiness and the laughter of friends. And a little misdirection as well, which has led to plenty of story re-telling over the years among my closest friends.
The story that has been endlessly told is not even particularly amusing. It’s one of those, “you had to be there” kind that doesn’t translate well to travel articles. It mostly has to do with me not being able to read maps, forcing my traveling companions to trudge up hills carrying 40-pound backpacks in the wrong direction. Yet the memories it evokes are nearly as satisfying as the champagne. Nearly.
The Champagne Region
The most northerly of France’s wine regions, in Roman times this area was known as Campania (“plain”) for its role as an agricultural region, which it remains to this day. For more than three centuries the region has been at the heart of wine-making. Most date the history of champagne back to the 17th century and a monk named Dom Pierre Perignon (sound familiar?). This monk is famed for his discovery and perfection of the process of double fermentation, which injected the sparkle into still wine.
Today, in accordance with French law, only sparkling wine from this particular region can be called “champagne,” although the French are slowly expanding the controlled area to accommodate the high demand for this wonderful beverage.
Epernay and Champagne
The small(ish) village of Epernay considers itself the de facto “capital of champagne.” Even if it’s not, it is surely the best place to go for degustation (tasting sessions). Many of the world’s most celebrated champagne houses can be found there, all clustered along or around the Avenue de Champagne. Here is the street for wine lovers. Most of the champagne houses sponsor tours and tastings, as well as offering their bubbly for sale. Among those worth visiting are the following.
Moet & Chandon – 20 Avenue de Champagne
No doubt, the most well known champagne to Americans exploring Epernay is likely to be Moet & Chandon. This champagne house offers frequent one-hour tours, which are among the most impressive in the area. The event begins with a short film, then travelers are led by a guide through the cellars. There is also a special Dom Perignon Tour, which is more expensive, but allows visitors to see special areas, including where Napoleon came and drank this important French beverage, as well as featuring samples of this fine champagne at the tour’s end.
De Castellane – 64 Avenue de Champagne
The 45 minute tours of De Casetellane include the champagne house’s museum. The highlight of visiting De Castellane is climbing its steep tower for panoramic views of Epernay from the top. The tour is an informative experience, however, with good explanations of champagne, as well as solid insight into the process of making the wine.
Mercier – 68-70 Avenue de Champagne
This is the most popular brand in France, and the tours at this champagne house are geared for larger groups and come with more spectacle, from its elevator ride down to the cellars and its laser-guided train tour. Eugene Mercier, its founder, was a real showman, and that spirit continues to infuse this champagne house.
Exploring Other Houses and the Champagne Route
In addition to the champagne houses described above, there are plenty of other champagne houses worth exploring, both in Epernay and in nearby Reims.
Being based in Epernay also lends itself to exploring the Champagne Route, which follows the vineyards used to create the bubbly, along pathways through charming Medieval villages. Two of four main areas are close to Epernay, Vallee de la Marne (west of Epernay) and Cotes des Blancs (south of Epernay). Following the Champagne Route allows travelers to see smaller vintners and experience the champagne process on a more intimate level.
One thing is clear, this part of France is all about wine-making. While there are plenty of charming landscapes and historic villages in the area, those who have little interest in champagne are likely to be bored here. For those who can’t get enough of this delicious wine, however, Epernay and the surrounding area are as close as one can get to paradise, even if you are not very good at directions. Trust me.
De Castellane website, www.castellane.com (in French, but photos should help English speakers and some information can be discerned even if you are not familiar with French)
Moet & Chandon website, www.moet.com