Who doesn’t like some bubbly every now and then? As Winston Churchill said: “I could not live without Champagne. In victory I deserve it. In defeat I need it.”
France’s Champagne region — in the northeastern “Grand Est” part of the country — is a vacation destination onto itself. This part of France boasts bucolic countryside, with rolling hills, grandiose French architecture– and plenty of vineyards. Legally, the world’s only “champagne” comes from this region — counterparts from elsewhere have to take other names (Prosecco, Cremant, Cava, sparking wine, etc). As a result, if you owned property here it would be tough to justify growing anything else other than champagne grapes– are you really gonna waste that geographically specialized farmland growing potatoes?
I made several trips to this region between 2018 and 2020– and hope to explore more of it in the coming year. A few highlights follow below.
Reims is the unofficial capital of the Champagne region and is packed with history. Reims is also a great base for exploring the rest of the Champagne region, if you’d like to go for a series of day trips.
The Reims Cathedral de Notre Dame is world famous, with its Gothic design and beautiful stained glass windows. It was the coronation site of many French kings for about 1,000 years — and its most recent iteration was build in the 13th century (following the destruction of its 5th century predecessor). When I was there, an exhibit showed how it was heavily damaged again in WWI and painstakingly renovated afterwards.
While in town, it’s also possible to take a tour of the Veuve Clicquot Champagne House, as well as Krug — two high-end options. (Note: I’ve been told that Veuve Clicqout is quite strict on its tour times — so don’t be late!) Place Drouet-d’Erlon is a scenic plaza at the heart of the old city and is surrounded by great restaurants and cafes. The Place Royale is another not-to-be-missed feature of Reims.
I ate at Brasserie de la Poste, which was an awesome choice. I had a croute– basically a pie filled with sausage and cheese — which was heavy and delicious. Also, they brew their own beer, just in case you need a change from drinking champagne : ) A friend has recommended Le Crypto as a solid restaurant choice — so it’s on my list!
Épernay is another essential city when visiting the region. It hosts plenty of big-name champagne houses, as well as some smaller ones– which are also great! The city has many examples of classical French architecture and smaller walking streets. Arguably, the most famous champagne house is Moet et Chandon, which also features the famous vintage (Millésimé) version, Dom Perignon — named after the French monk who is famous for having improved the Champagne-making process. (Note — I never made it to the Moet house as it seemed a bit too touristy and crowded– but I will go one of these days and report back on my impressions!)
One champagne house I do recommend visiting is De Castellane — it’s a mid-large-size producer that offers small group tours of the cellars for a much better price than the big-name companies. Going into their cellar tour is like going into the Upside Down — there is a parallel underground city beneath Épernay dedicated solely to Champagne preservation and storage. The subterranean cellars form part of an elaborate underground city of tunnels and roads divided among various companies. The tour features carvings from past generations in the soft soapstone in the walls, as well as collectors-edition vintages (bottles from specific, particularly good years with long-term aging potential). The guide explained how the Champagne tunnels were used during the wars to protect civilians against air raids and bombing runs. The populations turned the tunnels into an underground city, with functioning beds, hospitals, and schools. The tour also includes a climb up the large tower, which offers great views over the city.
Pro Tip: The vintage / Millésimé champagne at De Castellane is only a couple Euros more than the standard version — it’s a small price increase to get great quality Champagne with aging potential.
In addition to all the bubbly, don’t miss the Cathedral, which is quite spectacular!
In the southern part of the Champagne region is Troyes, a very scenic city that should be on everyone’s list! As you might expect, it has a beautiful cathedral and plenty of fancy mansions / palaces (Hotels Particuliers). The old city gives Troyes its charm, with a large plaza surrounded by narrow streets lined with half-timbered houses (the style in the picture below). There are numerous bakeries, shops, cafes, and restaurants to fill a day (and your stomach!) We picked up some outstanding chocolate at Maison Caffet, which I recommend — and this is coming come someone who lives in Brussels : )
The restaurants were starting to wrap up lunch service when Mrs. Yakpacker and I decided to get a bite to eat, but we managed to grab a savory crepe and champagne at Le Chat Noir, which was fabulous. Even though it was technically a burger joint, sitting on the cobblestone patio surrounded by the old-timbered buildings provided a real Continental European atmosphere.
While the big cities and producers draw the bulk of attention, my absolute favorite part of the Champagne region is its small towns — with the thousands of family-owned Champagne houses dotted throughout the region’s rolling hills of vineyards.
After visiting this tomb, be sure to walk around the city and note the various colorful wrought iron signs scattered outside the city’s buildings. It’s also worth popping into many of the small Champagne houses – but for some places, it’s best to call ahead and make sure they’re open. They’ll often let you taste the full range of what they have to offer for free. Two of my favorite spots in Hautvillers are Joesph Desruets and Jean Patigny (et Fils). Patigny is a micro-producer with bottles ranging from 13 Euro its standard brut version and approximately 16 for its fancier vintage versions — a real bargain! It also has a small, cozy tasting room of approximately two tables, and is basically inside someone’s house– sitting alongside a beautiful field of vineyards
Saving the best for last, my favorite place in the Champagne region is the small town of Rilly-la-Montagne, surrounded by fields of vineyards just south of Reims. Many of the Champagne houses here are small and family-owned, so be sure to call ahead. Also, ask to see their cellars if you’re interested, as many owners will be happy to show you their caves and production process.
In July 2019, I went here with some friends to a champagne festival: “Les Secrets du Petit Bonhomme” (the secrets of the little guy). All of the town’s champagne cellars opened up (many served food), and for 20 Euro, you got a champagne tasting coup and 14 tastings around town! In practice, only a few of the places actually stamped my book to indicated I’d received a tasting, and most owners would give several generously-sized tastings for as long as we stayed. Wandering around this scenic town and trying several varieties of champagne was a really exceptional experience. The festival was so successful that they rescheduled it for 2020, but COVID has pushed it to mid-July 2021. Anyways, if you can make this festival, I strongly recommend it!
While there are numerous great champagne houses in town, a few that I particularly enjoyed (great price and quality / variety) are: Jeangout Didier, J&H Fagot (which has a pleasant picnic area alongside its vineyards), Herbert Stéphane (with its nice inner-courtyard pool), and Brugnon Philippe (famous for sabrage… more about that below). Perhaps the biggest producer in town is Michel Fagot, which offers cellar tours and has a nice outdoor patio with snacks and champagne, overlooking their vineyards.
You can either stay in Reims and drive (or take the train in) — or you can stay in Rilly. One upscale option is the Chateau Rilly palace — which looks amazing and features a Michelin star restaurant. Another great-looking option across the street is Les Bulles Dorées which looks more modern / artsy. (While I haven’t stayed at each, they’re on my list for whenever I can get down there again). A budget option is to stay at one of my favorite small producers, Jeangout Didier. I can’t vouch for the rooms, but their champagne is fabulous — and well-priced!
While in Champagne… learn sabrage!
For those interested in learning the pretty awesome art of sabrage — opening a bottle of champagne with a sword — head to Brugnon Philippe. You have to schedule in advance, but it’s 15 Euro per trainee — and you get both the lesson and the bottle of champagne to drink — so it’s best to pack snacks to enjoy a picnic after your course! I went back here in March 2020 with Yakpacker Sr. and took the course. The owner gave us a tour of his cellars, explained the process of sabrage, and then let me slash open a bottle. It was surprisingly easy — and is a much cooler way to open champagne than by just popping the cork : )
Other Sites of Interest
Heading east through the scenic Orient Forest Regional Nature Park, there is a Napoleon Museum in the small town of Brienne-le-Château, which is on the grounds of the former boarding school where Napoleon studied as a youth and engaged in a famous snowball fight.
If you’d like to enjoy your Champagne up in a chic treehouse, it’s possible to do that at Perching Bar (I haven’t been, but a friend recommended it).
Finally, a restaurant that I wholeheartedly recommend is Le Garde Champetre, Ferme/Restaurant – we stumbled upon this gem randomly and made it just in time for lunch. It’s a beautiful gourmet restaurant on the grounds of an old railway station with creative, multi-course meals using food harvested from its surrounding gardens / farm.
Something for Next Time: Next time I go back to Champagne, I’m going to try out some of the things that I didn’t get to do before, namely: 1) Visit Perchingbar, 2) stay in / eat at the Chateau Rilly, and 3) finally tour one or two of the big-name Champagne companies — just to know what that experience is like!