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This sleepy town on the left bank of the Marne River is no beauty. In fact heavy bombing in both world wars left Epernay positively scarred with ugly 1960’s replacement flats and factories. However it keeps excellent company in the east of town on the Avenue de Champagne - one of Epernay’s few intact streets, filled with intricately sculpted champagne palaces that look like 18th and 19th-century follies. This is where you’ll find the big champagne houses of Mercier, Moët & Chandon and Castellane, whose chalky cellars contain the liquid cash that paid for the lavish architecture overhead. Epernay might have only one sixth of the population of Reims, but it produces almost as much champagne, and it is thought that if all the houses on the avenue were to lay their tunnels out end to end, they would measure more than 300km. Epernay is a 15-minute train ride from Reims or an hour from Paris.
Click here for information from Epernay's Tourist Office website, or visit 7 av. de Champagne, Epernay (03.26.53.33.00).
The history of Mercier champagne (68 ave de Champagne. 03-26-51-22-22) is easily the most fascinating one in the region: A rags-to riches tale involving universal exhibitions, hot-air balloons, the world’s first ever filmed advert (made by the Frères Lumières themselves) and the world’s largest champagne barrel, still on display when you enter the building today. The visit starts inside a panoramic lift that descends 30m underground into a vast network of tunnels. From here laser-guided train takes you through endless passages (once used for an underground car race) where over 15 million bottles lie fermenting. Look out for the highly protected “glacière” (cave) that contains Mercier’s best vintages from 1923 onwards. The visit ends as all champagne tours should with a glass of bubbly.
In Moët et Chandon, just up the road (20 av. de Champagne, 03.26.51.20.20), you feel the wealth bounce out of every nook and cranny. Founded by Jean Remy Moët in 1743, the champagne was favoured by Napoleon, who, legend has it, used to lug cases of the stuff around to drink before battle. If you survive the mental indigestion brought on by the initial video presentation you have earned the right to partake in the fascinating tour around the 28km of spooky tunnels, followed by a glass of Moët et Chandon’s finest.
Another great tour is at De Castellane (63 ave de Champagne, 03.26.51.19.11), where as well as a guided tour of the cellars, your ticket includes a trip into the ultra-modern assembly rooms where labels are put onto the bottles and wine ferments in gargantuan stainless steel barrels. Perhaps even more fascinating is how the barrels are cleaned: An agile, thin man has to climb inside the infinitely tiny opening on the front. It’s hard to imagine, but apparently nobody has ever got stuck inside. A highlight of the visit is a sweaty climb to the top of De Castellane’s emblematic tower. The 66m-tall tower is an exact copy of Paris’s Gare de Lyon clock-tower (also designed by the architect Marius Toudoire) and offers an excellent panorama over Epernay and onto the surrounding vineyards.