For a region that produces the best-marketed, most image-conscious drink in the world, Champagne has paid remarkably little attention to its own image. The aristocratic Champenois have long known how to schmooze wealthy private and trade buyers, but they had very little time for the casual visitor.
That’s changed – and it changed because of something that happened 800 kilometres to the southwest.
The spectacular revitalisation of Bordeaux has changed wine tourism in France. Over the past 15 years, the region’s cellar doors have been flung open, new hotels and restaurants have mushroomed, the ambitious Cité du Vin museum now welcomes half a million visitors each year and the scrubbed-up city itself has won a hatful of tourist awards.
Champagne has taken note. Once more or less oblivious to the idea that champagne aficionados might actually want to see how and where their favourite tipple is made, the Champenois have woken up: wine tourism is booming, especially since the region was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2015.
Its proximity to Paris – Reims, the unofficial regional capital, is an hour and a half by road, or a mere 45 minutes on the high-speed TGV train – makes it an ideal trip for the curious and thirsty wine lover. The region’s gently rolling hills and straggling valleys might lack the grandeur of Saint-Émilion or the dramatic backdrops of the southern Rhône, but Champagne’s once-secret charms are starting to reveal themselves.
Not that visitors are entirely unknown here. The city of Reims, in particular, has always drawn tourists to its imposing high gothic cathedral with its Chagall stained glass windows. Worth visiting, too, is the Boulingrin market: derelict for decades, its vaulted, light-flooded interior has been beautifully restored, and now houses small producers from all over the region; just across the road, the Brasserie du Boulingrin is the perfect spot for lunch and a glass of bubbles.
Since last July, visitors to the region even have somewhere swanky to stay. Guests at the new Royal Champagne Hotel and Spa, the region’s first contemporary luxury hotel, just north of Épernay, can go boating along the Marne and hot air ballooning over the Montagne de Reims, as well as bicycling or horseriding through the vineyards. Dom Pérignon, the 17th century monk who pioneered champagne production, is interred in a pretty chapel in Hautvillers, a short trip from the hotel by car (or horse). Next year, a five-star Autograph Collection by Marriott hotel is also scheduled to welcome guests to luxury lodgings in Reims.
For visitors on a tighter budget, there are plenty of humbler places to stay, especially around Épernay. The historic town on the banks of the Marne lies at the heart of Champagne’s most prestigious vineyards: to the north, the Montagne de Reims is especially famous for its pinot noir and pinot meunier; while the string of villages in the Côte des Blancs, to the south, are renowned for the finest chardonnay.
Épernay is also home to some of the biggest names in bubbles. Many are located on the Avenue de Champagne, sometimes described as the richest street in the world, not because of the many imposing champagne houses that line it – impressive though they are – but for what lies beneath: the old Roman chalk quarries that, thanks to their constant temperature and humidity, are the perfect places to store millions of bottles of champagne.
Ruinart, Mercier and Moët & Chandon all offer tours and tastings. Mercier’s tour takes guests on a train through the cellars; Ruinart’s is the most expensive, but offers the best wines to taste – and will give you a good grounding in how champagne is made.
For a more bespoke experience, however, and to feel a deeper connection with the land, the farmers and their wines, you should visit a few lesser-known producers. They may not have the marketing budgets that the big houses enjoy, but many small producers punch well above their weight in terms of both quality and value.
The three main producers are the houses (some grand, like Krug and Dom Pérignon; some much smaller), the cooperatives (Nicolas Feuillatte, on the outskirts of Èpernay, is the biggest, with a thoroughly modern and hospitable visitor centre) and the ‘growers’ – farmers who make champagne from their own grapes.
Champagne Collet, in Ay, is the oldest cooperative, founded in 1921 as a farmers’ riposte to the almost feudal demands of the big champagne houses. Its museum, Cité du Champagne, is definitely worth an hour or two of your time. Compared with Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin it’s a minnow, but it’s a splendid place to learn about the history of champagne: they make jolly nice fizz, too.
The trendiest producers – although they may not look it – are the growers. While not all their wines are top quality, there are many great growers’ wines, often keenly priced. While the strength of the big brands is consistency, growers tend to make more distinctive wines: they are also at the vanguard of a movement towards organic and biodynamic farming, a party to which champagne has arrived rather late. It is a trend that has found favour with sommeliers, too: increasingly, growers’ wines are listed in smart restaurants all over the world.
Growers’ houses are also, happily, some of the most fruitful places to visit. Plan your route, contact a few addresses in advance, and you will soon find yourself nosing around converted garages and outbuildings, seeing the techniques of Champagne at their most charmingly small-scale, then sampling a flute or two among the vines or in the grower’s kitchen.
Or you can just take pot luck: as you meander on back roads through the sprawling vineyards and the sleepy villages, you will spot dozens of signs offering vente et dégustation (sales and tasting). These are the places where you might find a few bottles to squirrel away in the boot of your car: much classier, instead of serving your friends a champagne that everyone knows, to serve them one that nobody has heard of.
One piece of advice, though: don’t expect to find many cellars open between noon and 2:30pm. In common with farmers and winemakers all over France, everything stops for lunch, and so should you.
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How to read a label
On a champagne bottle, you will find two letters before a number: NM (négociant-manipulant) indicates that the house buys in grapes to make its wines – like Ruinart and Mercier – while CM (coopérative-manipulant), denotes wines made by a cooperative of growers.
The trendiest designation is RM, récoltant-manipulant, meaning that the grower makes wine from their own vineyards. This sector not only produces the most distinctive champagnes, but is also where you are most likely to find organic and biodynamic wines.
Try while you fly
Cathay Pacific’s assistant manager for wine, beverage and dry store supplies, Ronald Khoo, says: ‘Onboard Cathay Pacific this month we’ve selected the award-winning 2002 Piper-Heidsieck Rare Millesime Brut in first class. There have only been eight vintages of this produced since 1976.
‘In business class, we’ve got three options, including a creamy Deutz Brut and a slightly punchier Piper Heidsieck Brut NV. Each champagne has its own appeal. For example, the Deutz Brut has a smooth blend of 1/3 chardonnay, 1/3 pinot noir and 1/3 pinot meunier grapes, with a pleasant sweetness. It’s a nice pre-take-off drink that can be easily enjoyed with or without food.’
For such quality offerings, Cathay Pacific was recently recognised by The Business Traveller Cellars in the Sky 2018 Awards – with accolades including Gold Medals for Best First Class Sparkling (jointly with Air France and Qantas) and Best Business Class Red and a Silver Medal for Best Overall Cellar.
Cathay Pacific flies to Paris from Hong Kong 10 times a week