Perhaps everyone knows about champagne: the barely audible fizz, the tiny sparkling bubbles, the clink of glasses, and the bliss when a bottle is opened. But have you ever wondered, where does the name of this drink come from? Rolling on the chalk plains and hills of northeastern France, the Champagne region has proudly given its name to the world’s most renowned sparkling wine.
Champagne has a long tradition of winemaking. The Romans were the first to cultivate grapes in the northeastern part of France in this hilly area. In the following centuries, wines were produced by the monks and they were used in various church rituals, including the coronation. However, the first bottle of sparkling wine wasn’t produced until the 17th century and champagne became a status symbol associated with luxury, nobility, and royalty.
Today, sparkling wines are produced globally. But only those that come from the specific geographic zone between Reims and Epernay can be labeled as champagne. The wines must also be made from at least one of these three grape varieties: black Pinot Noir, black Pinot Meunier, and white Chardonnay. From Veuve Clicquot to Taittinger, you can find most leading manufacturers of champagne around Reims – the de facto capital of the region. However, my favorite one lies about 25 kilometers south of that city, in the small town of Épernay.
Lying in the heart of the “champagne kingdom”, Épernay is home to many of the most famous champagne producers, including Moët & Chandon and Perrier-Jouët. The small town might look ordinary at first glance, but beneath its main street – the Avenue de Champagne, millions of champagne bottles are stored in endless long wine cellars.
As fans of Moët & Chandon, we were keen to visit their wine cellar as part of a guided tour. The tour must be booked in advance on their website, but the payment is made when you arrive. The tour began with a brief introduction to the Moët & Chandon mansion and the family’s history. Then, we were led to the wine cellar where our tour guide revealed the secrets behind the sophisticated processes – governed by the strictest of rules – that transform the world’s most pampered grapes into the fabled Moët & Chandon champagne. The tour ended with the wine tasting where one or two types of drinks will be served, depending on your choice when making payment.
Besides the world-famous bubbly, the Champagne region is also home to several architectural wonders. Most noteworthy is perhaps the Notre Dame de Reims. Constructed in the 13th century, the Gothic cathedral was a masterpiece of the Middle Age with two soaring towers dominating the skyline of Reims.
It has a magnificent façade carved with angels, saints, and colorful stainless glasses. Notre Dame de Reims played an important role in French history as various French kings were crowned here, including Charles VI and Charles VII. Badly damaged in the First World War, the cathedral has been painstakingly restored to its true glory.
Tips for visiting Champagne
- Just less than one hour by train from Paris, Champagne is ideal for a day trip.
- Most champagne manufacturers offer wine cellar visits, including the small ones. Check their respective websites for more information.
- Reims (old town) and Épernay are relatively small, and thus can be explored on foot. Alternatively, you can use the modern and extensive tram network in Reims. It costs around 4€ for a day ticket.