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Exploring the Vineyards and Wineries of Champagne – Wine Tourism in France:
Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!
Table of Contents
Introduction to Champagne and the Champagne Region
The British love for all things bubbly is undisputed. We are still the largest export market for champagne by volume (although we are second to the Americans by price). So a trip to Champagne to learn more seemed like an excellent idea. We arrived just after harvest which was very early this year – the grapes left on the vines are surplus…and 2018 does look like being a remarkable year.
But, whatever the time of year, it would have been churlish to turn down an invitation to visit from the Comité Champagne, the trade association that represents the interests of independent Champagne producers (vignerons) and Champagne Houses. Whilst I’ve been before, champagne is a subject I could spend my whole life studying and still have more to learn. It’s a beautiful region of France and so special that the “Champagne hillsides, houses and cellars” have been UNESCO listed since 4 July 2015.
The production of wine which can be called champagne is highly regulated, just like every appellation in France. In the case of champagne, the regulation is further complicated by an infrastructure which is almost feudal in nature and which has created the unique patchwork of vineyard plots on which champagne vines are grown. Land is passed on through families, divided between siblings so that what exists now are tiny plots of vines in every Crus.
The basic geography of the production area was defined and delimited by law on 22nd July 1927. 34,000 hectares of vineyards are spread across 320 villages, known as ‘crus’. Each cru is ranked to determine the value of the grapes produced there for champagne. Just 17 rank as ‘Grand Crus’ and a further 42 as ‘Premiers Crus’. Originally the ranking, known as the Échelle des Crus was quite rigorous, but today it is more of an aid to determining prices. And, you’ll sometimes see 100% Grand Crus or Premiers Crus on champagne labels too, particularly from the major champagne producer.
Most champagnes are made by blending grapes from a number of plots to create a house style. That is maintained by using reserve wines – from previous vintages – and by carefully adjusting the balance of the grapes used. The whole thing is controlled by the ‘Chef de Cellar ’ or Cellar Master who works in very much the same way as an executive chef in a restaurant – adjusting how the basic champagne is made to create the perfect cuvée or blend using the wines before the second fermentation. It’s incredibly complicated – the grapes from each plot of land are made into a still wine and kept separately until the time comes to blend. So, the Cellar Master and his team can start by tasting a thousand or so single crus.
There are seven grapes which can be used to make champagne, but for the most part, you will find just three used in various quantities. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Blanc de Blanc is made from 100% Chardonnay while Blanc de Noir can be made from the two black grapes permitted within the appellation, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
The majority of champagnes are made from a blend of all three of the classic grapes though. Despite the fact that two of the grapes are black grapes, champagne is always white or rosé. That means the grapes have to be pressed very very gently so that the skins do not bleed into the wine. In the case of Rosé champagne, most champagne producers follow a method of blending. the ‘pink’ comes from adding about 15% of red wine made from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier (or a blend of the two) into the assemblage before the second fermentation. That’s markedly different to the rosé wine of Provence for example, which is made by just pressing red wine grapes enough to get a ‘bleed’ into the white juice. There are one or two exceptions, like Laurent Perrier, where rosé champagne is made using the saignée method though.
Vintage champagne is not always produced. Why? Well, vintage champagne is made with just grapes from that year – so you can’t adjust the blend by using reserve wines. For that reason, it is only produced in exceptional years – the grapes have to be perfect in the first place.
Champagne is produced by a method which dates back somewhere between the fifteenth and sixteenth century.. Essentially, classic white wines are blended to create a cuvée which is then bottled and allowed to ferment for a second time. This second fermentation is what gives champagne its bubbles. The newly sparkling wine is allowed to rest ‘on lees’ (in the bottle, on the sediment created by the yeasts that have created the bubbles) for at least 15 months (or 3 years for a vintage champagne) before being degorged – the process which is used to remove the yeast sediment – and sweetened with sugar, then stoppered with a traditional cork and wire cage.
Other sparkling wines often follow the same process – usually called ‘method traditionelle’ but the period of resting the wine on lees is often a lot shorter. And there are sparkling wines like Prosecco which use a completely different technique to produce a bubbly wine.
I started my journey at the Maison de Champagne in Épernay, where we were invited to try some champagne in the professional tasting room used by the Comité Champagne. In the refined environment, with no distractions like food, variation in temperature, sounds or smell, the differences were very clear. The Blanc de Blanc Brut we tried was from Épernay. Aged for just 2 years it tasted fresh and light with notes of apple and citrus. Made from just Chardonnay grapes it was the sort of thing I’d enjoy as an aperitif. Our Blanc de Noir was 15% Pinot Noir and 85% Pinot Meunier, so made entirely from black grapes. It was softer and yeasty, far more aromatic and for me, would have made a good pairing with fish or poultry. Our final champagne was a blend of all three of the main champagne grapes and was an excellent reminder why many champagne producers do use all three grapes.
We learnt that each grape brings unique qualities to the blend. At its most simplistic level, Chardonnay is for elegance, Pinot Noir for structure and Pinot Meunier for a fruitiness. But of course, there’s a lot more to it than that!
And, real life isn’t about tasting champagne in this kind of sterile environment. All of this was just for starters. The fun bit comes from tasting different champagnes and meeting the makers. In my experience, it’s only when you have the chance to taste champagnes made from different blends, from different houses and with different ageing on lees that you begin to appreciate what you are drinking. And the best place to do that is in the Champagne region itself!
Exploring the Champagne Region
The Champagne region is predominantly limestone – if you drive around as we did, you’ll find gently undulating hills covered with vines. Different parts of the region focus on different grapes. As the name suggests, for example, the Côte des Blancs, a chalky part of the region, is predominantly Chardonnay, while to the south, the Côte des Bar has a marl soil (more clay) and is predominantly Pinot Noir.
We spent most of our time on this trip in the area known as the Montagne de Reims which is home to 9 of the Grand Crus (there are 6 in the Côte des Blancs and two in the Valle de la Marne.) Not a bad place to base yourself if you want to explore the region! Most of the names we know in the UK are from Champagne houses based in or around Reims or Épernay. But, there are plenty more to explore too. If you are planning on driving or cycling around the region, the Comité Champagne has an excellent set of routes to follow – and their website lists the champagne houses and vineyards you can visit on each route together with links to guides who can help you!
One place you shouldn’t miss is Hautvillers, which is known as the ‘Cradle of Champagne’. It’s home to the Benedictine abbey of Hautvillers where a monk called Dom Pérignon is sometimes credited with having discovered the champagne wine-making process in the 18th Century. You can see his tomb in the chancel of the pretty church of Saint-Sindulphe.
History has blurred the role that Dom Pérignon actually had in the creation of champagne. It’s now generally accepted that champagne existed before Dom Pérignon, but that the monk was responsible for researching and improving the method of making champagne to such an extent that his developments created something close to the wine we drink today. It is, however, certain that there’s no connection with the champagne house of Dom Pérignon and the monk himself. Just a clever bit of marketing.
You can walk around the vineyards surrounding the village – spot the little signs labelling the plots. This is a Premier Crus village and apart from the vineyards themselves you’ll find charming bars where you can sample different champagnes and pretty chambres d’hôtes where you can stay in the heart of Champagne country.
And of course, you can visit the champagne houses in the region.
Not all champagne growers make their own champagne with the grapes. Many sell their grapes to the major Champagne houses, often with a relationship that goes back decades. Others work on a co-operative basis. Nicolas Feuillatte is the largest co-operative and probably the best known in the UK. But, there’s a group of champagne growers who do use only their own grapes to make champagne and they are known as Récoltant manipulant – their champagne will carry the initials RM on the bottle.
If you like, these are the artisan champagne makers. While they still rely on reserve wines to shape the champagne each year, they don’t use grapes from outside their own plots of land. And many of them farm relatively small areas. We went along to Champagne Lacourte Godbillon in Ecueil to meet Mme Geraldine Lacourte and learn more about how she manages her 8 hectares of land. It’s fascinating.
Out in the vineyards I saw for the first time the complexity of farming. She inherited her land from her parents and took over everything which they farmed. The generation before though had resulted in the land being split. As a result, she has some tiny parcels of land – everything was divided down the middle because to do anything else might have compromised the quality of one inheritance or the other. As Lacourte Godbillon is aiming for Organic and biodynamic certification, that gives a unique set of problems. Geraldine explained you have to get on well with your neighbours – to persuade them not to spray the row of vines closest to yours for example.
Despite a relatively small parcel of land, Champagne Lacourte Godbillon produces 9 cuvées. Each one is distinctive. We tasted through a range of them and somehow I ended up buying a bottle to take home of the ‘Mi-Pentes’ which as the name suggests is based on 100% Pinot Noir grapes harvested from the ‘middle slopes’. The addition of 30% reserve grapes and an ageing on lees for a minimum of 24 months made this a beautifully easy to drink mouthful, which I’m saving for a special occasion.
Of course, what makes grower champagnes special is the passion of the people who make it. When your team is made up of husband, wife and perhaps a couple of others, when your entire income for the year depends on the success of the harvest and when you are following in the footsteps of your parents and grandparents, not because you have to do so but because you want to, the result is something special.
Champagne Houses in the Region
The appeal of the grower champagnes is very much about what is happening now. By comparison, the fascination of the Champagne Houses for me is the history and heritage. How each one got to be great. On previous visits, I’ve been to Perrier-Jouët and Mumm, both owned by Pernod Ricard yet both managed in a completely different style and both with their own unique heritage. This time I paid an all too brief visit to Veuve Clicquot, where we learnt a little bit about the history of the house and visited the cellars.
The Veuve Clicquot story is one of a remarkable woman. Her husband’s family owned a small wine-making business at Bouzy in champagne. When he died, just seven years after they had married, leaving Madame Clicquot a widow, she convinced her father-in-law to let her manage the business. She wasn’t the kind of woman to sit back and let others do the running – and her own innovation was to invent the method of remuage or riddling (turning the bottles at an angle to encourage the lees to settle in the neck of the bottle before removing the sediment and adding a dosage of still wine and sugar. That created a crystal-clear champagne – and the same method is still used today.
The Veuve Clicquot brand, under her leadership, was also responsible for popularising champagne across high society in Europe.
I was fascinated, as I always am, by the labyrinth of cellars. Those at Veuve Clicquot are white limestone or crayères. Originally carved out by quarrymen from the early middle ages onward, they were acquired by Veuve Clicquot in 1909. Vaults were added to the first network of medieval tunnels in order to increase their storage capacity, thus making a 24-km underground network: the largest network of tunnels of all the champagne companies in Reims.
The Quarrymen, then the cellar workers, had a tradition of leaving their mark by carving graffiti, with different patterns, on the walls.
The cellars were used to provide shelter for the people of Reims during the first and second world wars, so there’s yet more graffiti through the ages. Today if you work for Veuve Clicquot for over 40 years, you can have your own crayère as a tribute!
It’s spectacular – a true underground palace.
Just as fascinating was the modern-day face of Veuve Clicquot – championing women entrepreneurs. Out in the Grand Crus vineyards of Veuve Cliquot, just in front of the Manoir de Verzy, we sampled some of the Veuve Clicquot range and learnt about the awards, which started in 1972 and championing women around the world who are worthy heirs of ‘la Grande Dame de Champagne’.
If you are honoured enough to be selected (and over 300 have been), of course, there’s a ceremony and an award. Rather charmingly each winner is given their own vine, which is labelled for them. Arranged in rows by country it’s a fascinating place to explore.
The Manoir de Verzy has been owned by Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin since the end of the 19th century was the former home of the vineyard managers.
It is now used as a base for guests of the House, including the award winners. Now we all have something to aspire to!
As I mentioned, I’ve visited the Champagne region before. Last time, the trip focussed on two houses – Mumm and Perrier-Jouët. So if you are fascinated by these ancient Champagne houses like me, do check out the earlier posts for more about Champagne production and the caves at Mumm and about the fascinating love-story at the heart of Perrier-Jouët.
Where to Stay in the Champagne Region
If you are planning on travelling around the champagne growing region you have a number of choices. Reims itself is a charming city with a stunning Cathedral.
I’ve never had enough time to do more than take a quick walk through the streets to the Cathedral itself, despite staying at Hôtel de la Paix which is conveniently located in the heart of the city about five minutes from the Station.
The hotel public areas and the rooms are contemporary in style, with some of the better rooms furnished with semi-private balcony areas looking out from the old rear façade. It is at the top end of four-star facilities with large, well-equipped rooms, though for me it lacked the polished service of a five-star hotel.
We also enjoyed lunch and a short tour of the Relais and Chateau Royal Champagne Hôtel & Spa in Champillon. If you are looking for a luxurious stay while you are visiting the champagne region and are planning to spend time eating and resting in the hotel itself this would be a perfect option.
Stunning views and an excellent restaurant together with beautifully furnished rooms make the newly refurbished Royal Champagne Hôtel & Spa the ultimate choice if you are happy to stay in the country rather than in a city location.
And, we found a charming chambres d’hôtes in HautVillers at La Chevalée / Champagne Pierre Fedyk where guests have a superb view of the vineyards.
The proprietor told us that she hires e-bikes to guests who are keen to explore more of the countryside and also is often the choice of the French and English riding community. She can provide boxes and housing for visiting horses in addition to three en-suite rooms. And, the proprietor’s family grow champagne grapes which are then processed by the Nicolas Feuillatte co-operative to make Pierre Fedyk Champagne.
For an authentic Champagne experience, it sounds like an excellent option, at a price that is around a quarter of the rates at the Royal Champagne Hôtel & Spa.
How to get to the Champagne Region
It’s remarkably easy to get to the Champagne region from London. Eurostar from London to Paris, a short five-minute hike from Gare du Nord to Gare de l’Est, then another fast train ride of less than an hour to the charming city of Reims, the unofficial capital of the Champagne region which around 150km from Paris. That makes it a perfect short trip from London if you are keen to learn more by visiting Champagne itself.
You’ll find much more about Champagne on the Comité Champagne website
Thinking of going? Why not pin this post for later
Disclosure: I was a guest of the Comité Champagne for this trip. All content is editorially given.