Champagne blog for Beginners and Connoisseurs
What to Do in Champagne
Table of Contents
Are you thinking about visiting Champagne in France, and don’t know what to do in Champagne? You should! It’s a beautiful region, easy to get to from Paris, full of attractions like visiting champagne wine producers, the gothic Reims Cathedral Notre Dame and the picturesque villages around the Mountain of Reims Forest. There’s a little something for everybody here. Let’s talk about the main attractions on this post. If you haven’t yet read the previous post What is Champagne, it can help you navigate through this one, as it explains a little about what is the Champagne region and the champagne wine.
Champagne is a world-renowned region for sparkling wines, as you probably already know, so it’s just logical people come here to visit wine producers and their cellars. Many of the big Champagne producers can be visited by regular tourists, but some don’t accept any (like Krug, Louis Roederer and Pol Roger). Most of the ones that can be visited are either in Reims, like Veuve Clicquot, Mümm, Taittinger, Pommery, or in Epernay, like Moët & Chandon, Mercier and De Castellane. There are exceptions like the beautiful cellars of Joseph Perrier at Châlons, Nicolas Feuillatte at Chouilly, Bollinger at Aÿ, and more.
These houses can offer a mix of different activities. Guided visits to the cellar are the most common of them. When you take one of these at Moët & Chandon, a inhouse guide will tell you about the history of the House, lead you to the 16 miles long cellar, explain with words how Champagne is made, and then take you to the tasting room to offer one or more glasses of their wine. The visits of Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart, Taittinger, Pommery and G H Martel are located in literal 2000 years old Roman chalk pit mines, which are pretty cool! Generally there’s a shop at the end, but in Champagne these are VERY sober, almost like they don’t want to appear to be wanting to sell anything, god forbid .
Photo Reims Tourisme
You can just go in just for a tasting, but not a visit, at Perrier Jouët, De Venoge and Collard-Picard, for example, and Veuve Clicquot, Pommery, Charles de Cazanove and Boizel offer both. But you can’t have a tasting without a visit at Taittinger, Bollinger, Billecart-Salmon or Ruinart. Veuve-Clicquot started offering picnics and lunches at their countryside manoir sometime ago, and Moët & Chandon in their garden across the street (and tea-time cake when it’s cold). Ruinart offers brunches at their domaine some weekends throughout the year.
Photo Epernay Tourisme
One good rule of thumb: there’s always the risk of being denied a visit or tasting if you haven’t booked. Tourism in Champagne has had a big bump before covid, and it’s catching up fast since.
Reims Cathedral Notre Dame
Photo Cyrille Beudot – Reims Tourisme
This church is a must-see for most tourists in Champagne, and as a matter-of-fact, because this is the most visited attraction in the region. Not only because Notre-Dame of Paris is closed for repairs; it’s also because of its size, beauty and for having hosted the crowning of more than 30 kings of France. Before the French Revolution of 1789, Reims was known as the city of the coronations of France, a kind of sacred status closely tied to the Archbishop of Reims and the Holy Ampulla. This was a glass vial reputed to have been given by God to Saint Remi so he could anoint the “first” king of France, Clovis.
Built on top of the Roman baths, and of three previous versions of churches, the church you can visit was started in 1211 after a fire destroyed the last one, and it took lots of local limestone, huge effort by the masons and many campaigns of raising money to be able to finish it in the 1500s, more than 300 years later. It is a classical gothic church, one of the top 5 largest ones in France and the one with the largest number of statues (more than 2300!) around it. The upper stained-glass windows on the top are mostly 800 years old, and some modern artists contributed with beautiful windows around the lower parts, like Marc Chagall and Jacques Simon, the later which created the “champagne wine window” telling the history of the wine in Champagne.
If you’re in shape, you can pay to climb the tower into the ceiling of the church, looking the inside of the cement structure built after the bombings of WW1 with donations from Rockefeller. And you can pay to visit the Palais du Tau museum glued to the cathedral, which is the old Bishop’s palace where the feasts happened after the crownings. The museum has a collection of objects related to the coronations, like some regalia, and to the cathedral.
The Vineyards and the Villages
Just outside Reims you can see the countryside. At first, the fields of grains and sugar beats, and behind them the Mountain of Reims, lined up in medieval villages on the hills surrounded by patchworks of vineyards that are lush during the Summer with green leaves and grape bunches, or red and orange during the Fall. It looks like a painting that changes at each turn. I really enjoy stopping by them to take pictures and explain about the cycle of the grapes.
Photo Cyrille Beudot – Reims Tourisme
Reims is always appearing in the French lists of cities where you can eat the best, because of its restaurants, bars, butchers, cheese shops, wine shops, pastry shops and bakers. Epernay is less renowned but it has plenty of good options too, and you can find many restaurants in small villages around the two cities.
Photo Reims Tourisme
Talking about restaurants, Reims is the champion in the region, and one reason is because it has some of the best restaurants IN THE WORLD. L’Assiette Champenoise is tied in 4th with 6 others in the 2023 List of the 1000 Best Restaurants in the World. Le Parc is number 160, and Racine also made into the list. The city has 9 Michelin stars, the highest rate in France per population. You can find French cuisine in tradition, contemporary and bistronomy, besides Italian, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and fusion. Some of the simpler and good restaurants are Petit Comptoir, Les Cornichons and l’Alambic. There are dozens of wine bars, pubs, craft beer bars and brasseries. I love to go to Le Wine Bar, Le Clos, Aux 3 Petits Bouchons, The Market Brew House, Le Shed and l’Escale. In Epernay I recommend the restaurants La Cave à Champagne, Le 7, La Table Kobus and Stelvio.
Photo Axel Coeuret pour le Petit Comptoir
It’s not obvious to point to local dishes, but there are staples of the local cuisine. We have to start the list with sparkling wine, which is often served before, during and after meals. But know also that there are still wines, red, white and rosé, produced in the region and they can be very good.
There are 3 local AOP cheeses: Brie, Chaource and Langres, all from cow milk. Brie is the one you know, white, creamy, fruity and earthy. Chaource is also white but with a more liquid interior, stronger and fruitier. Langres has an orange rind, it is more crumbly inside and it’s smelly, but the good kind !
Photo Troyes Tourisme
Champagne has lots of tradition in baking. The most famous cookie is the light and crunchy vanilla-flavored Pink Biscuit of Reims, which you can eat with champagne wine or put around the strawberry-Charlotte cake. Fossier is a brand that has been producing these biscuits since the 1700s, and they offer a multitude of other sweets like the cork-shaped chocolate bonbons filled with liquor, butter cookies and dry meringues.
Local dishes that are very typical, but not often found in restaurants, are:
- Potée Champenoise, a stew comprising cabbage, carrots, turnip, potatoes, bacon and other smoked pork cuts, served to the grape pickers during harvest.
- Ham of Reims, a pork shoulder cooked in herbs and then molded in a terrine with jelly, generally served cold as a starter.
- Pâté-croûte, a long pie molded in a terrine generally filled with cooked pork with herbs, that can be taken and shared during grape picking.
- Vinegar and Mustard of Reims. The vinegar is made with the rest of wines from the region, and are aged in casks and the mustard is made with this vinegar. A famous brand is Clovis.
- Boudin Blanc of Rethel, a white and creamy pork sausage, served as the main meat or in pies, pastries and gratins.
- Andouillette of Troyes, which is not for the faint of heart, because it’s made from pork and veal entrails and has strong aromas.
- Pig’s feet of Saint-Menehould, where the pig’s feet are boiled with onions, carrots, garlic, cloves and other spices, and then breaded in a pan.
Come to Champagne and I’ll give you my best tips on where to eat and drink the best.
Small Champagne Producers
When you first start learning about wines, it’s expected you will start with recognizable big brands so you can get familiar with the basic characteristics of the wine of each region. As soon as you feel more comfortable and know your way around the kinds of grapes and methods, you can be more adventurous and try wines from established or up and coming smaller brands, and it can feel exciting! For me, the fun in wine is the journey, taste wines from all kinds of regions and producers, which doesn’t stop you from having your opinions and favorite ones, much the contrary!
Photo Epernay Tourisme
The brands of champagne wine you can easily find in a Carrefour, Costco, Tesco or Aldi store will tend to be the biggest producers: Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Mumm, etc. Those 20 or 30 big ones dominate the production of wines at around 60-70% of all bottles produced every year. But behind the big and medium ones there are around 1.800 small champagne producers spread out in the region! Yes, you heard it right!
So, next time you’re in Champagne, make sure you visit one of them. Most don’t receive tourists, but hundreds of them do. A rule of thumb is to always book if you don’t have a lot of time or if you don’t know much about the place you’re going. If you come in one of my tours I’ll take you to one of my selected ones, of course. Following the traditions of their forefathers, most of the small producers offer a basic range of champagne wines, like a non-vintage, a blanc de blancs, a rosé, a vintage and a demi-sec (I plan to write another post about kinds of champagne, stay tuned). And yet, specially since the 1980s, a group of small producers have been trying new and old techniques to make niche champagne like organic, biodynamic, Burgundy style, oaky, oxidized, etc. There’s a style of champagne for everyone.
Photo Epernay Tourisme
One of the perks of visiting a small producer is to almost always be able to meet the people who produce the wines, and to see the whole of the production of the wine in one place. It really helps understanding how champagne is made.
There’s more, but it’s for a next one.
I could also talk about Dom Pérignon’s tomb in the monastery of Hautvillers, the roman ruins in Reims, the sights of WW1 battles, the fortress of La Pompelle, the archeological museums, the Route of General Patton, and more. But you’ll have to come back for that in another post. Be sure to subscribe to my posts and stay tuned!