A few weekends ago, Willem and I took a weekend trip to the Champagne-Ardenne region of France. We didn’t have a particular reason for going, other than the fact that we had a car, a free weekend, and an itch to go someplace new. Our only criteria was that we needed to stay within a 5 hour drive from Haarlem so that the trip was manageable as a weekend break. We had recently been to Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg, so we settled on France.
We stayed in a charming B&B in Reuilly-Sauvigny, a tiny village of only 230 residents about half an hour away from Épernay (the capital of the Champagne region). The B&B is run by an older American couple who moved to France in the 1980s and have been living there ever since. It was a lovely place to use as a base for our exploration of the region.
We arrived late on Friday night, having left the Netherlands after Willem got off work. Saturday morning, we got up early to take advantage of the delicious breakfast at our B&B, and then drove to Épernay. Without a doubt, the champagne industry is Épernay’s biggest claim to fame. The entire city revolves around champagne. The world’s most famous champagne houses are all located in Épernay, lining a road aptly named “Avenue de Champagne”.
We spent our first few hours in Épernay wandering around the old town center. It didn’t take us long to find a local Carrefour (cheapskates that we are) where we bought some bread, cheese, and fruit for lunch. Armed with our purchases (and feeling very French carrying around our baguettes), we settled on a bench in the shade right in front of Épernay Cathedral. Yum.
After lunch we walked to the champagne house of Moët et Chandon, where we were scheduled to go on a tour of the house’s famous champagne cellars.
It is possible to tour almost all of the large champagne houses in Épernay if you book in advance (and the myriad of smaller champagne houses will often allow you to just walk up and ask for a tour/tasting), but since we only had one day in Épernay we had to choose just one. The Moët et Chandon tour turned out to be a great choice. It was fascinating, to say the least. I learned more than I could have ever hoped to know about champagne and the champagne industry. Here are a few of the most interesting tidbits:
- Legally, a sparkling wine can only be called “champagne” if it is grown and produced in this particular region of France. The French government is fighting hard to maintain the special designation to protect this traditional industry.
- Moët et Chandon is one of the world’s largest champagne producers, with an output of 26,000,000 bottles of champagne annually.
- Moët et Chandon is the official supplier of champagne to the British monarchy
- 30 meters below its headquarters in Épernay, the entire stock of Moët et Chandon champagne is stored in a 28 kilometer network of caves–28km adds up to a mind-boggling amount of bottles!
- Dom Pérignon, the famously expensive brand of champagne, is actually owned by Moët et Chandon.
- In order to keep the taste of champagne uniform (despite the variability in the quality of grape harvests each year), most bottles contain a combination of types and years of grapes. Vintage champagnes, however, only use grapes from that specific year’s harvest. If the grapes from that year’s harvest do not taste perfect, the company will not produce a vintage champagne that year. This is why vintage champagnes are rare and expensive.
When the tour of the cellars finished, we came to the best part of the Moët et Chandon experience: the champagne tasting, of course!
We spent the last part of our day driving around the vineyards that surround Épernay before heading back to the B&B for the evening. We even found Moët et Chandon’s vines! I was impressed by the fact that, in a time where most companies split up the various sections of their business in order to maximize profits, the major champagne houses in France still stick to the traditional methods of production. In one day, we were able to see the entire process of champagne-making from vine to bottle.
On our final morning in the Champagne region before we drove back to the Netherlands, we made a small detour at Reims to see the famous Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims. The cathedral was built on the site of ancient Roman baths, and replaced an older church that burnt down in 1211. Notre Dame in Paris is more famous, but having seen both of them, I think that the Reims cathedral is the more beautiful of the two.
The cathedral is not only a pretty building though. The cathedral was captured by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, and stayed in English hands until 1429 when it was liberated by Joan of Arc.
Joan of Arc’s success in Reims allowed Charles VII to be crowned king on July 17, 1429, keeping alive the tradition started in 1364 that all kings of France be crowned at the Reims cathedral. Today, the cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and receives over 1 million visitors each year.
Overall, the Champagne region was a lovely place to spend a short weekend trip. Anyone who likes history, champagne, or a combination of the two will enjoy a few days in this little corner of France.