CHAMPAGNE | Surely one of the best ways to spend a weekend is on a road trip from London to France’s Champagne region. It’s something we’ve thought about a lot recently so on a recent weekend we decided to put the plan into action. After succefully navigating London’s Friday evening traffic it was smooth sailing and before we knew it we were loading our car onto the Channel Tunnel train at Folkestone. 35 minutes later we were in France and the brilliant French motorway system took us all the way out in an uninterrupted journey to the Champagne region.
Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right
We based ourselves in the city of Epernay which known as the “Capital of Champagne”. On the Avenue de Champagne, which is home to over 20 Champagne houses, you can easily stroll from one Champagne house to the next.
We wanted to grab supplies for a picnic lunch to maximise our 1 full day in Champagne and so on Saturday we started at the Halles Saint Thibault food market (Rue Saint-Thibault, 51200 Epernay). The market was full of super fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, charcuterie, and pate. It was clear there were many locals doing their weekly shop, but all of the traders made us feel very welcome. The Champagne region is wet, averaging about 200 days of rain per year however we were very fortunate to have a sunny day – perfect for alfresco dining and strolling to the different Champagne houses.
Our first tour and tasting of the day was at the world’s largest Champagne maker, Moet & Chandon (20 Avenue de Champagne, 51200 Epernay) . Moet (which many not realise is pronounced “Mo-wet” as the founder was of Dutch heritage) is teeming with history. The hour-long tour (traditional visit €22.00) takes you through the 17 miles of chalk caves that Napoleon once visited. Our tour guide Sophie provided an excellent intro into the process of making Champagne.
We learned about the process of transforming grapes into the magic that is champagne. It all started about 300 years ago when a monk named Dom Perignon didn’t complete the fermentation process before corking a bottle of wine for his mates. After a cold winter, the fermenting resumed, and in Spring a second fermentation process began that resulted in the bubbles that make champagne renowned.
Today the process of making champagne is much more deliberate, involved and labour intensive. The process starts with selecting the “cuvee”, the grape variety in the champagne. Many types of champagne are a mix of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Pinot Meunier. A unique part of the process of making champagne is the riddling “le remuage”, which is the careful process of turning the bottle to move the dead yeast into the top of the bottles. The next part of the process is the disgorging which involves plunging the champagne into an ice bath which removes the dead yeast and leaves only the champagne.
After the tour finished, we enjoyed a tasting and then made our way to start exploring small and medium size champagne houses on the Avenue of Champagne. We visited at the end of the season, but either way we would recommend contacting a few houses that you’d like to visit in order to book a tour or tasting. We had a few places lined up but ended up stopping at a few impromptu locations.
One unplanned stop was right in the heart of the Avenue of Champagne, Paul-Etienne Saint Germain (51, Avenue de Champagne, 51200 Epernay), owned by husband and wife, Jean-Michel and Agnes. The house offers tastings in a beautiful, yet welcoming environment. We tried several varieties from the ‘Tradition’ to the ‘Exception’, the entire time being engaged by Jean-Michel and Agnes. The family pride and great care that goes into their high quality champagne is obvious upon tasting. Their champagne was absolutely superb and we’d encourage all to visit.
Later, the highlight of the day was the visit to the family owned Henry & Bourdelat (10, Rue des Limons 51530, Brungny). The Champagne House is located 7 km outside Epernay, but it was worth the jaunt out of town. On the way out of Epernay we were able to enjoy the beautiful countryside on an unexpectedly sunny November day.
Son Thierry Henry and his parents now run the operation that was originally founded in 1955. They grow their own grapes and make the Champagne in the lower level of their house. The entire process is organic. They do not add sugar to their champagne like some very well known, high end brands.
Thierry Henry himself has pretty limited English but his hospitality needs no translation. He is warm and welcoming, and invited us to enjoy many different kinds of Champagne from the Brut Reserve, Rose de Signee, to the Brut Prestige in the comfort of his lounge room. Most of us agreed that it was the hands down best Champagne we tried all day and it was very reasonably priced considering the labour and time involved in the whole process. We definitely recommend arranging a visit to see Thierry Henry on any visit to the Champagne region.
Overall, it was an amazing weekend – the perfect blend of education, luxury, and fun. The distance from London to Champagne is just around 300 miles but it is worth the effort. We encourage all to hit the open road and visit the world famous region of Champagne.