For our weekend in Champagne we decided to base ourselves in Reims and Epernay, which each have an impressive collection of champagne houses open to visitors, in close proximity to the the city centre. While this ease of accessibility was a definite drawcard, we soon discovered that with so many champagne producers to choose from, we had some tough decisions to make. With just a day to enjoy each city, we decided we’d try to keep things interesting by selecting champagne houses of different sizes, with differing scales of production and tour styles. This approach made each visit a completely new experience, and taught us so much more than would have been possible if we’d only stuck to the more famous names.
Home to such notable champagne houses as Veuve Clicquot and Pommery, G.H Mumm and Ruinart, we were really spoilt for choice. Since I’d already experienced the Veuve Clicquot tour on a previous visit, we set our eyes on Taittinger, which was for us the next most familiar champagne house. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we opted for G.H Martel, a smaller family-run operation located just around the corner.
The entrance to Maison Taittinger was huge and impressive. Walking inside the reception building was like entering a museum – queues were formed at a row of ticketing counters, and large groups were already assembling for one of several upcoming tour departures in different languages. This was my first ever champagne cellar tour, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. First we were led to a small theatre where we were shown a short film before being guided down a spiral stairway to he cellars, where all the magic happens.
Our tour took us through the UNESCO world heritage listed gallo-roman chalk mines and remains of the thirteenth century Abbey of Saint-Nicaise. I thought the tour provided a good introduction to the champagne making process, but Bec says the Veuve Clicquot tour was far better. Our guide was obviously well rehearsed in the script of the tour, but didn’t really handle questions very well. A glass of Taittinger’s signature Brut Réserve finished off the tour nicely. We took our time with the tasting and were one of the last to leave. So when I noticed an extra full glass at the bar, and no other takers, it didn’t take much convincing to get my hands on it!
After the formality and polish of the Taittinger visit, we arrived at the simple courtyard entrance to the eighteenth-century buildings of G.H Martel looking forward to a very different kind of tour. We were greeted by a very friendly young man at reception who very apologetically explained that as the usual tour guide was not well, the English-language tours would not be going ahead. He did offer to try to take us through in English, but noted that it would be his first time ever conducting a tour. Sensing his apprehension, we decided to skip the cellar and museum tour and go straight to the finale: the tastings.
We sat in the reception area that doubled as the boutique, but as we were served our champagne by an attentive host while we sat in rococo-style armchairs surrounded by antique cabinets, it felt more like we were in a fancy eighteenth century living room than a bottle shop. We were each served three glasses including a classic and vintage brut, as well the rosé. We enjoyed the tastings, hospitality and setting so much that we didn’t even feel as though we were missing out by not having done the tour.
The drive from Reims to Epernay was amazing. We took the scenic route through some narrow roads and were rewarded with endless views of the rolling hills of Champagne as far as the eye could see. I was so glad we decided to spend the night in Epernay – it had a completely different feel to Reims, with a certain elegance and more of a village atmosphere. I’d also recently watched the Netflix documentary ‘A Week in Champagne’ and couldn’t wait to see Maison Gosset and maybe even meet Bouchon, the dog of Gosset House. But since they are not open to the public, and Bec had already done the Moet et Chandon tour, I set my sights instead on Mercier. When I read that their cellar tours were conducted in a miniature train, I was sold!
The Mercier cellar tour was by far the most commercial of the bunch. After watching a video that was essentially an extended advertisement, we were led to an all-glass lift that glided down a wall that dazzled us with a light show sequence until we reached the pit below. We then boarded a train for a tour of the caves, which featured more Mercier branding. With a greater focus on the history and operations of the Mercier house than the champagne-making process, this felt more like a theme park ride than a cellar tour.
The train ride though the caves is definitely a novel experience, and completely different to our other Champagne tours. Despite being light on substance, the attention paid to creating a “visitor experience” is impressive. The grounds are also beautiful to visit. But for me, the most enjoyable part of the visit was the tasting: a glass of the flagship Brut Mercier.
Our tour of De Castellane was the most surprising tour of the weekend. Our final stop turned out to be the most informative and interesting. This was also the most technical so far, going into great detail about the champagne production processes, from the growing of the grapes, right through to the packing of the bottles for delivery. Unlike the previous champagne houses we’d visited, De Castellane featured some modern production facilities which we were able to explore in addition to the cellars. With just half a dozen of us in the group, we enjoyed a more relaxed and personalised visit, which was led by our very knowledgeable and entertaining guide.
The visit to Castellane also included entry to the museum and the 63-metre high Tour De Castellane, one of the town’s landmarks which can be seen from afar. We walked up the 237 winding steps before reaching the top for some amazing views. The tasting was the least impressive part. I guess we’d been spoilt with some amazing champagne so far. But even despite the average champagne, this was still my favourite tour of them all.
Avenue de Champagne
Overall we were quite pleased with our selection of visits – each was a uniquely different experience that together covered a good mix of large and smaller operations, with a range of presentation styles covering both historic and technical aspects.
With a newly acquired appreciation of the art and skill of champagne making, we turned our attention to applying this knowledge in practice by indulging in some more excellent champagne. So we strolled along the beautiful Avenue de Champagne, with its impressive gated mansions and manicured gardens, stopping for tastings at just some of the several champagne houses that dotted the way.
A. Bergere & Collard Picard
I could hardly believe I’d made it to the famous Avenue de Champagne. What better way to enjoy it than by sampling some of the world’s best fizzy drink? We were drawn to the courtyard of A. Bergere for tastings of both the classic and prestige cuvées, which were both excellent. When some light showers hit we ducked into Collard Picard, a cosy space with a decent sized bar and bay window seats looking out onto a pretty inner courtyard for enjoying a glass the classic brut of for me, and rosé for the missus. What better way to pass the time in Champagne…
Taittinger, 9 Rue Saint-Nicaise, 51100 Reims, www.taittinger.com
G.H. Martel, 17 Rue des Créneaux, 51100 Reims, www.champagnemartel.com
Mercier, 68-70 Avenue de Champagne, 51200 Epernay, www.champagnemercier.fr
De Castellane, 57 Rue de Verdun, 51200 Epernay, www.castellane.com
A. Bergere, 40 Avenue de Champagne, 51200 Epernay, www.champagne-andrebergere.com
Collard Picard, 15 Avenue de Champagne, 51200 Epernay, www.champagnecollardpicard.fr