By. Jiles Halling
Champagne – just the sound of the world has a sort of magical attraction conjuring up, as it does, images of celebration, luxury and indulgence. It’s not surprising therefore that hundreds of thousands of visitors make their way to the Champagne vineyards every year.
With all these people visiting you might think that it’s hard to get away from the crowds, but believe it or not there are nearly 5,000 champagne makers in total and plenty of opportunities to get off the beaten track and discover the people, the places and of course the wines that make Champagne so special. It’s in these little backwaters amongst the small brands who names you may have never heard of that you’ll find the true diversity of champagne that will change your perception of champagne for ever.
The champagne vineyards lie about 120 km east of Paris and cover some 34,000 hectares or about 85,000 acres. In some parts of Champagne you can see vineyards as far as the eye can see: nothing but a sea of vines, arranged in well-manicured rows looking as if a giant had passed an enormous comb across the fields. In other spots however, the soil and the microclimate are not suitable for vines so you’ll see no vineyards at all, just arable land and forest. This means that there are sometimes several kilometres between one vineyard area and the next even though they are all part of Champagne.
The largest town in Champagne is the city of Reims and it’s also the easiest to get to from Paris: a matter of about 2 hours’ drive from Paris or just 45 minutes on the high speed train (TGV). Reims certainly deserves a place on your tour of Champagne and if you only have a day to spare then it’s the best place to choose because not only is it home to many of the well-known brands such as Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Mumm, Taittinger, Pommery and several others, but it is steeped in history too.
For hundreds of years the kings of France were crowned in Reims cathedral, a fabulous piece of mediaeval architecture that celebrated its 800th anniversary last year. The town centre was severely damaged in the First World War and rebuilt in the 1920s and 1930s in the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles. The elegance of that era still lingers in the town centre where you can stroll, shop and eat or drink at the hundreds of street bars and cafés.
Reims however is quite a few kilometres from the vineyards and to see them you need to get out of the town and that means having a car because public transport is limited and taxi fares fairly high.
The Champagne vineyards are spread across 4 main areas and in each one you could very happily and very easily spend an entire day.
Three of these areas are to be found around Reims and Epernay, about 25 kilometres distant from Reims and its rival in terms of its importance to the champagne trade. The fourth area of Champagne, the Aube region, is over 100 kilometres to the south around the towns of Bar-sur-Seine and Bar-sur-Aube. It’s an area that has its own charm and attractions but it’s not practical to visit this area in a day if you are staying in Reims or Epernay. To visit the Aube it’s better to allow yourself more time by staying overnight in the historical town of Troyes or nearby.
By the time you’ve stopped along the way to admire the views, taken a few photos and had a bite to eat, it’s difficult to visit more than 3 champagne makers in one day. One more thing to note is that unlike some other wine regions of the world where it is quite common to find a restaurant at the winery where you can enjoy the wines served with lunch on the spot, this rarely happens in Champagne and to complicate matters further there are few restaurants or cafés worth mentioning outside Reims or Epernay. Nevertheless the ones we know of are mentioned below.
Route 1 – La Montagne de Reims
Closest to Reims is the area called la Montagne de Reims: a ridge overlooking Reims that starts just north of the city then runs south for some 20 kilometres before curling round west towards Epernay. The name Mountain of Reims is a bit of an exaggeration really because the highest point is only 280 metres high but it’s here that one finds some of the very best Pinot Noir grapes in Champagne.
A great place to start your exploration is the village of Rilly-La-Montagne. It’s home to more than 70 champagne makers so there is no shortage of places to stop for a degustation (tasting). Be aware though that it is always a good idea to make an appointment in advance.
Vilmart, once described as the Krug of the small producers, is probably the best known champagne house in Rilly; at Roger Manceaux you’ll get a warm welcome and a wide range of different champagnes to suit many tastes, whilst at Philippe Brugnon you can be introduced to the art of opening a champagne bottle with a sabre.
Moving south along the ridge you can follow the Route Touristique de Champagne to the village of Ludes, like so many Champagne villages just a collection of houses perched on the vineyard slopes between the forest at the top of the hill and the farm land in the plain below.
In Ludes you’ll find Champagne Canard Duchêne one of the few large houses actually based out in the villages rather than in Reims or Epernay. At the other end of the scale is Huré Frères, almost impossible to stumble across by chance tucked away as it is at the end of a tiny alleyway, but well worth the effort to find it. Run by two dynamic brothers who speak excellent English, this tiny brand is making quite an international reputation for itself built around traditional values and meticulous work in the vineyards.
The villages along the Montagne de Reims follow on one from the other in each fold of the landscape and just a few kilometres from Ludes you come to three that have been given the prestigious Grand Cru status. They are Mailly Champagne, Verzenay and Verzy.
The quality of the grapes in this little enclave is all the more surprising because many of the vineyards in these three villages face due north, which is usually considered to be a nonsense in the world of wine where optimum exposure to the sun is what most people look for. This peculiarity gives the champagnes here a slightly higher degree of acidity than average and a long ageing potential that is prized by lovers of fine wine. These are champagnes of real character and depth, not the pleasant but relatively unremarkable champagnes that you might enjoy without a second thought at a wedding or other celebration. These are real wines that cry out for you to take a while longer to savour them and discover the complexity that reveals different flavours and aromas every time you take a sip. Wines that are wonderful as an aperitif but even better when you take your time and sip them slowly or enjoy them with a meal.
The first building you come to as you arrive in Mailly Champagne is the cooperative of the same name. You can’t miss the large car park in front and the glass fronted reception hall, but whether you stop there or at any of the dozens of other smaller champagne makers , you can hardly go wrong no matter which door you stop at. The same applies to Verzenay but it has two additional landmarks to attract the visitor: a windmill perched on one of the hills overlooking the village and on the other, despite the village being some 300 kilometres from the sea, a lighthouse.
It never actually functioned as a lighthouse but was built in 1909 as a publicity initiative and until 1914 it was a lively place to eat, drink and have fun. All that came to an abrupt end at the outbreak of the First World War during which the front lines were just a matter of a few kilometres away. Today the lighthouse has been converted into a museum of life in Champagne which is well worth a visit, not least for the wonderful views.
If it’s views you like you won’t want to miss most unusual bar in Champagne. The Perching Bar, as the name implies, is perched in the tree tops in the forest just above Verzenay and Verzy and is reached by a footbridge suspended between the trees. You can get within 200 yards by car but the last part has to be negotiated on foot. The Perching Bar is not open in the Winter months, so as with visits to champagne makers, it’s always good to plan ahead and make bookings if you have special places you really want to see.
As regards champagne makers, names to look out for in Verzenay are Pehu-Simonet, Hughes Godmé (for organic champagnes), De Carlini and Jacques Rousseaux.
The next in this trio of Grand Crus villages is Verzy, barely 3 kilometres away by road and just a 15 minute walk across the vineyards if you are so inclined – the vineyards are criss-crossed with tracks and paths and you are free to roam around and through them wherever you wish on the understanding , of course, that you don’t damage the vines.
There are fewer champagne makers of real quality in Verzy, but two stand-out names are Juillet-Lallement and La Maison Penet, the latter being a specialist in what are called low dosage champagnes meaning that they have little, or no, added sugar in them. It’s a very dry style of champagne that doesn’t appeal to everyone but if that’s your preference then Alexandre Penet is the man to visit and if you book in advance you may be invited to stay for lunch.
Verzy also boasts a good local restaurant, Les Chants des Gallipes ( The Song of the Vineyards)which is a good place to stop for a bite. Also, in the forest above the village, is a plantation of rare twisted beech trees ( Les Faux de Verzy) that grow in only three places in the world. If you want peace and quiet a stroll through the magnificent forest to see these special trees could be just the trick.
La Montagne de Reims continues for several more kilometres. First it passes through Villers-Marmery, a tiny enclave renowned for its Blanc de Blancs champagnes made with Chardonnay grapes whereas the rest of La Montage de Reims is better known for Pinot Noir grapes. Then the ridge turns to the west through Trépail and on to two more Grand Cru ranked villages: Ambonnay where you’ll find another little restaurant, L’Auberge Saint Vincent, and beyond that the delightfully named village of Bouzy, famous not just for champagne but also for its red wine.
Of course the vineyards go on and on but beyond Bouzy we enter into two other regions: La Vallée de La Marne to the west and La Côte des Blancs to the south each of which holds treasures in store which we’ll explore in separate articles.
To contact the champagne makers mentioned click on the links in the text, go to their web sites listed below or go to http://www.francefinewines.eu/
In Rilly La Montagne
Champagne Vilmart http://www.champagnevilmart.fr/
Champagne P. Brugnon 16 rue Carnot, Rilly La Montagne
Champagne Roger Manceaux http://champagnerogermanceaux.francefinewines.eu/
Champagne Pehu-Simonet http://www.pehu-simonet-champagne.com
Champagne Godmé http://www.champagne-godme.fr/
Champagne De Carlini 13 rue de Mailly, Verzenay
Champagne Jacques Rousseaux http://www.champagne-jacquesrousseaux.com/
Champagne Juillet-Lallement http://champagnejuilletlallement.francefinewines.eu/
La Maison Penet http://champagnelamaisonpenet.francefinewines.eu/
By. Jiles Halling
Author: Jiles Halling is an Englishman and long-time resident in Champagne. You can find out more on www.mymaninchampagne.com