Nestled in the heart of rural France lies Épernay, the epicentre of the Champagne region.
The rolling vineyards of the Champagne region of France are less than an hour and a half away from Paris by train. And, at the centre of it all, lies the charming town of Épernay, the perfect base for exploring the region’s historic champagne houses and sampling the finest of their fizz.
Given that a lot of the houses open their doors and start popping bottles well before midday, it’s rather important to line the stomach. An entire day of champagne tasting is, after all, a marathon, not a sprint. Swing by Les Gourmandises d’Amaelle to start the day right with an oven-warm pain au chocolat.
A Meeting With Moët & Chandon
Even if you’re not a total champagne expert, you’ll at least have heard of Moët & Chandon, and for €25 you can join a fascinating tour of the house’s impressive labyrinth of cellars.
Dug into white chalk stone, the vast underground maze spans 28km beneath Épernay and is home to a strictly confidential number of bottles, but it’s thought that there could be as many as 100 million bottles maturing down there.
The tour takes visitors through the entire champagne-making process, from cuvée selection to riddling to ‘le dégorgement’, the moment an ice plug shoots out of the bottle taking lees and sediment with it.
When the tour emerges from the cool, damp, depths of the cellars, you’ll be rewarded with a refreshing glass of Moët Impérial.
Turning right out of the Moët and Chandon building, you’ll see the Avenue de Champagne, otherwise known as ‘Le Faubourg de la Folie’ or ‘The Crazy Quarter’, stretching on for nearly a kilometre ahead of you.
Le Ballon Captif
Some of the biggest names in the bubbly business call the avenue home including Perrier-Jouët, Pol Roger and Mercier. Rambling along the immaculate streets, each building is just as grandiose as the next, often hidden behind elaborate wrought-iron gates, heightening the air of exclusivity.
But don’t expect to just stroll inside, knock on the door and receive a champagne tasting. It’s far better to pre-book your session to avoid disappointment.
Glancing to the sky, it’s difficult to miss one of Épernay’s most popular tourist attractions, Le Ballon Captif. At first, it looks like a hot air balloon hovering over the town, but not quite.
Rather, the balloon is tethered to the ground via a cable, which winches it 150m into the air and then back down again. It’s just a short trip of about 15 minutes, but the best part is that passengers are allowed to take a glass of champagne on board with them.
The views from the top are pretty special, with the vineyards on the hills in the distance looking particularly delightful in the autumn season. The whole experience costs €18 euros (including the glass of fizz), which, for a pretty unique experience, seems fairly reasonable.
Taking a short walk west towards the outskirts of town, the backroads become sleepier and more residential.
Loving Leclerc Briant
Tucked away in a quiet corner, you’ll find Leclerc Briant, a much smaller champagne house than the likes of Moët. During a guided tour of the property it quickly becomes clear that Leclerc Briant really takes pride in its biodynamic approach to champagne making.
And when it comes to sampling some of the product, your taste buds will understand why. A tour of the cellars, wine press and fermentation tanks costs €35 and concludes with a tasting of two champagnes from their Les Classiques range.
Before you leave, be sure to ask them about their Abyss cuvée. Essentially, it’s a bottle that has spent 15 months ageing 60m beneath the Atlantic Ocean.
The resulting flavour has tantalising notes of peach and green apple, served from a bottle still coated in barnacles and seaweed. If you can afford the stretch, a bottle will set you back nearly €200 (R3 200).
After a day of multiple tastings, you may feel like collapsing on a sofa with your feet up. Fortunately, there is a festive little bar in town called C. Comme which offers up an extensive wine list, cosy corners to unwind in and a jovial mix of locals and tourists.
A winter weekend in Champagne is best spent sharing a bottle of fizz nestled in front of a roaring fire. And in summer, there’s nowhere better to sip on a crisp glass of blanc de blanc than on a sun-drenched terrace somewhere along the Avenue de Champagne.
With 362 million bottles produced in Champagne during 2018, they’re sure to need some help drinking it all, whichever season you choose to visit.
When To Go
Harvest time (usually in September) is fascinating but hotels will be busy. If you’re looking for a quieter time to visit, then book between October and March.
Where To Stay
If you’re serious about visiting Champagne then where better to stay than the Avenue de Champagne itself? Leclerc Briant’s exclusive property, Le 25bis, boasts five stylish rooms right in the heart of the action.
Breakfast is served in an impressive dining room, and Le 25bis also houses a sophisticated wine shop where the entire range of LeClerc Briant champagnes can be tasted and purchased. Rooms start at R3 100 per night.
With only a handful of tables, this stylish and understated restaurant is the perfect place for a delicious date night. People come back here for the truffle ravioli starter and the braised lamb shank. 19 Rue de Reims, 51200 Epernay
For a slightly more casual, but no less delicious meal out, this trendy bistro offers an extensive wine list and a selection of sumptuous burgers. 2-4 Place Auban Moët, 51200 Épernay.
For dinner, expect to pay around €25-€30 For a three-course set menu at most places.
Epernay is only around one and a half hours by train from Paris.
Renting a car is a great idea if you’d like to visit some of the vineyards outside of town.
SAA flies to London, Frankfurt and Munich from Johannesburg. From there catch a connecting flight to Paris, then hop on a train or rent a car and visit the vineyards along the way. Book your tickets with SAA today.
Words by Francesca Lynagh