As you meander through the rolling hills that characterize the Routes du Champagne between Reims and Epernay (cities just an hour from Paris by train), dreaming of all the bubbly and wondering why on earth no-one ever told you about how beautiful this region could be, remember one thing: with champagne tasting it’s all about swallowing and inhaling through the mouth. There’s none of the smelling, swirling and spiting you get with wines, so go steady behind the wheel.
If you’re a passenger, an epicurean party awaits you, as this is realm of the Montagne de Reims and Côte des Blancs circuits, renowned for the quality of their champagnes, including several ‘Grand Crus’. The nearby Vallée de la Marne circuit (north-east of Epernay) is where you’ll find the best prices and some of the fruitiest champagnes, which are usually a blend of the three grape varieties Pinot Noir, Pinont Meunier and Chardonnay. The circuits are all well signposted from both Epernay and Reims town centres (D26 and D9 for Montagne de Reims; D9 for Côte des Blancs; Route de Reims for La Vallée de la Marne), and the Offices de Tourisme in both cities give you information. You can also download maps from www.tourisme-en-champagne.com.
The sheer number of champagne houses en route is astonishing so pop into any one that takes your fancy. These are our favourites:
Champagne Charlier ( 20km W of Epernay off the D24, follow signs to Châtillon 4 rue des Pervenches, 51700 Montigny-sous-Châtillon. 03.26.58.35.18). A flower clad domaine (over 5000 flowers best appreciated in the spring and summer) that uses traditional methods to grow, press and assemble its own champagnes. Charlier’s champagne are light and fruity (including some delicious party-pink rosés) and start at around €12.50 a bottle.
Tribaut (7km N of Epernay (D386) 88 rue d’Eguisheim, 51160 Hautvillers (03 26 59 40 57). A chocolate box village where Dom Perignon created champagne as we know it, panoramic views, friendly faces and an absolutely lip-smacking Grande Cuvée Spéciale (€19) as well as five other top-end champagnes are all reasons to stop here.
Champagne Milan (11km S of Epernay on D10. 6 rue d’Avize, 51190 Oger (03 26 57 50 09) If you fancy a day picking grapes during the vendanges (harvest) or a real grape-picking job, Milan is for you (enquire as of July). The production methods here haven’t changed since 1864 and the champagnes (all Grands Crus) are mostly woody with hints of lemon.
Champagne Ployez-Jacquemart (13km SE of Reims on the D9. 8 rue Astoin, 51500 Ludes (03.26.61.11.87) A great place to sleep off all the tasting (you can stay here), Ployez-Jacqumart’s champagnes are among the most prestigious of the smaller producers with a worldwide clientele. The pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes give their champagnes a dried fruit almost nutty bouquet.
Champagne Barnaut (1 place André Collard, 51150 Bouzy (03 26 57 01 54) One of the only houses to make red wines as well as champagnes and be equally good at both is this place, in the heart of the tiny village of Bouzy.
You will need a car to follow this route. To hire one from Paris or the train stations in Reims or Epernay, try Avis or Europcar.