The Sweet Spot: France's Champagne Region

by  Juliana Shallcross | Jul 11, 2018

One of the easiest trips to make from Paris is to the town of Reims, in the Champagne region, just about 100 miles east of the city. You’ll find rolling green hills of fragrant vineyards, quaint provincial buildings set against blue skies, and perfectly chilled glasses of straight-from-the-source champagne.

Champagne, the official home to the eponymous sparkling wine that’s used at celebrations and boozy brunches around the world (remember: only bubbly that comes from grapes cultivated in Champagne can use the name) is comprised of a few sub-regions and each is home to a slew of champagne houses. The two most popular cities in the region are Reims and Epernay, where most of the recognizable houses of champagne (Veuve Clicquot, Mumm, Ruinart, and Möet & Chandon) can be found. But beyond sipping bubbly, Champagne is also a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, largely because of its specialized agricultural product but also because of its history, which dates back to the 14th century. The city's cathedral, Notre-Dame de Reims, was the coronation site for all French monarchs. A history lesson with your champagne? Sounds like a good way to spend a day.

The Perfect Time to Visit

Aim for May to October, though summer is a particularly good time to visit the Champagne region. The fall harvest begins in late September and that’s when the champagne houses are at their busiest, both on the production side and the tourism side. If you head to Champagne in August, you’ll find respite from the heat in the cool champagne cellars, called "crayères." Another excellent time to go is just after the harvest is finished but the fall colors are still in effect.

The Cheapest Option

You’ll definitely save on lodging if you head to this region in winter, but you’ll pay the price in another way. Many champagne houses are closed and the weather is dreary during this time of year.

Getting There

The fastest way to get to Champagne from Paris is by train. Tickets cost about 17 euros ($20 USD) from Gare de l’Est and the trip takes about 45 minutes. If you’re renting a car, the drive takes about two hours. In Reims, you can take public transportation throughout the city and out to the vineyards using the Citura bus, tram, and even self-driving electric shuttle services. Each trip costs 1.60 euros ($1.90 USD). If you’re aiming to truly travel like royalty, there are helicopter excursions that will whiz you from Paris to Reims for the day to enjoy lunch and tastings. Expect these to start at about 200 euros ($235 USD) per person, with a minimum of four or five passengers per trip.

The Smart Place to Stay

The most affordable options can be found in the Reims city center and near its famous cathedral, where you’ll find familiar hotel brands like Mercure, Ibis, and Novotel offering clean, basic rooms for well under $200 per night in all but peak season.

An option at the edge of Reims is Chateau de Rilly in Chigny-les-Roses, a castle hotel just off the road from the vineyards. If you can’t stay overnight, try its restaurant, which is open for lunch. Sit out on the back terrace, overlooking a beautiful fountain and garden, and enjoy traditional French cuisine. Room rates start around $200 per night.

For an excellent splurge, book one of the 20 rooms at the Domaine Les Crayères, a Relais & Chateau hotel located within a historic chateau. With exuberant floral décor and lovely grounds, this is the place to stay for luxurious French style that’s perfectly apropos to the area. (Your room key, even, is a real key.) The restaurant, Le Parc, has two Michelin Stars and serves 300 different types of champagne. Rates start around $400 per night.

What to See and Do

Upon arriving in Reims, your first stop should be the the Notre-Dame Cathedral, an 800-year-old Gothic masterpiece. After that, head out to the vineyards. Book your champagne-tasting tours and vineyard visits ahead of time. Popular houses like Veuve and Mumm fill up quickly, and there some cellars you shouldn’t miss.

Maison Champagne Taittinger: Below the old Saint Nicaise Abbey, dating back to the 13th century, Gallo-Roman chalk vaults now store bottles of Taittinger champagne approaching maturity (by law, 15 months after bottling). You can book a cellar tour of Taittinger, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, online. Tours start at 17 Euros ($20 USD) and are done in English and French and include a tasting. Or, you can tour the cellar and pass on the tasting for 8 euros ($10 USD). 

Maison Ruinart: With some of the tallest chalk quarries in Champagne, Ruinart was designated a historic monument in 1931. The two-hour tour of the cellars cost 70 euros ($83 USD) and includes a guided tasting of two cuvees of your choice. Want to preview the cellar before you go? Ruinart has an app that will give you a 360-degree tour.

Veuve Clicquot: Simple cellar tours with a tasting of the Yellow Label cuvee start at 25 euros ($30 USD). For 120 euros ($141 USD), you’ll get more time at the champagne house, a tour of the vineyards, a cheese tasting after the cellar tour, and vintage cuvee tasting. 

Armand de Brignac: Better known by its playful nickname, Ace of Spades, this champagne is actually crafted by a small team that’s overseen by 10th- and 11th-generation wine-makers from the Cattier family. Their cellar, in Chigny-les-Roses, is one of the oldest and deepest in France. Once reserved only for VIPs like Jay-Z and Beyonce, who bought the company in 2014, ADB now opens its cellars for private tours.

Some Tips for Champagne Tasting

  • Think of this as a refined champagne experience. You won't be popping bottles or spraying champagne, and you most definitely won't be swigging the drink from a narrow flute. Instead, champagne is best tasted from a white wine glass, which allows more of the flavors to be released.
  • Even on the hottest day, the cellars will be cold. Wear layers. Also, the chalk walls may leave white marks on your clothes, so lighter colors are better.
  • When it comes to tasting, always abide by these three steps: swirl, sniff, and sip to identify the flavors.

Must-Have Souvenirs

Of course, you should take home some champagne, straight from the source. But also, you'll want to take home some Biscuit Roses—perfect for dipping in your champagne—from Maison Fossier. If you need a tasting break, you can also visit the Fossier factory in Reims.

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