Just three hours' drive from Calais, the Champagne region is well worth a trip. Explore the region, taste on-site and choose from a huge range of keenly priced bottles. GILES FALLOWFIELD provides a visitors' guide.
At any given time it’s usually possible to buy Champagne cheaply somewhere in Britain. It is, however, true that most ‘cheap’ Champagne is exactly that. Real bargains are few and far between. The thin, acidic stuff you usually end up with if you pay less than a tenner is unlikely to make you rush back for more. It is equally true that we pay over the odds for the big Champagne names this side of the Channel. It’s not just a question of a higher rate of duty, although the £19.85 per case (£1.65 a bottle) levied on all sparklers in the UK dwarfs the 4p or so a bottle paid in France. The UK market is lucrative for the Champagne houses. They like to charge an extra premium for their wares that’s hard to justify in terms of increased transport costs alone. That’s why it is worth a trip to the Champagne region.
Buying your Champagne in France stacks up, particularly if you are after a few cases. Once you’ve gone to the trouble of crossing the Channel to ensure a better price, however, it makes sense to drive the three hours or so further south to Reims (275km from Calais) and beyond, to widen the choice. The range of Champagne sold in most of France’s supermarkets is even less inspiring than what’s on offer in our major grocers.
Furthermore you’ll get the chance to look round some deep, cool, chalky Gallo-Roman cellars; visit Reims cathedral; drive up Epernay’s swanky Avenue de Champagne, and through famous villages such as Bouzy, Aÿ and Cramant. You’ll also be able to taste before you buy, sample the local food and soak up the atmosphere to better understand what can make Champagnes so special.
The opportunity to buy direct from individual growers, most of whom don’t sell their wines outside France, should be the clincher. These producers are the real stars of the Champagne region, and you’ll find some of the best fizz bargains. You are also likely to be shown round by the men and women who make the wine and have the opportunity to taste their wines with them, not something that will happen in the bigger houses.
If you’ve been to Champagne before or have more time than a long weekend to explore the region, take a look around the southernmost villages of the appellation in the Côte des Bar such as Les Riceys – the only place in France where wine may be produced under three different appellations, one fizzy (Champagne) and two still, the red wines Rosé des Riceys and Coteaux Champenois.
This is surely the loveliest countryside in the Champagne region, and because the wines from this district are less well known, it’s the best place to pick up a real bargain. The other attraction is the city of Troyes, the ancient capital of Champagne, which has a well-preserved medieval centre, good restaurants (two with Michelin stars) and places to stay at all price levels.
If you are travelling to Champagne pre-Christmas with the primary motive of buying big-name brands, the prices at the cellar door are surprisingly good. For example Moët & Chandon’s Brut Impérial NV costs just Euro21.80 at the cellar door in Epernay – that’s about £14.50, and £6 less than the typical retail price in the UK. Don’t buy your Champagne from some smart-looking shop near the cathedral in Reims, as this will be more expensive.
The cellars in Reims are spectacular. When the Romans dug them they were outside the main town. The oldest cellars are all along the southern side of the city. Thus the houses of Ruinart, Pommery and Taittinger are all grouped around the Place du Général Gouraud.
All three of these companies welcome visitors but booking is essential at Pommery and Ruinart and advisable anywhere if you are in a group or want to ensure an English-speaking guide. Because there are many similarities between the three it is unlikely that you’ll want to visit all of them, although each has its own individual charm and attractions.
The Grand Avenue
You have to travel to Epernay’s Avenue de Champagne to find the busiest cellars. Mercier has around 200,000 people through its doors annually and is a good place to start. The Mercier tour explains the whole making process of Champagne well and you can pop into LVMH stablemate Moët & Chandon, up the road. While many of the best-known Champagne region marques are in Epernay, it’s also a good base for exploring the villages of the Côte de Blancs to the south and the Montagne de Reims to the east and northeast. Aÿ and Tours-Sur-Maine, where Bollinger and Laurent-Perrier respectively are to be found, are a short drive eastwards. But take the opportunity of visiting one of the smaller growers where you’ll find both enterprising winemakers and wines of real character. The following are a selection of cellars and places to buy direct, plus hotels and restaurants in the area:
Where to buy in the Champagne region
Ruinart, 4 Rue de Crayères.
Tel: +33 3 26 77 51 51; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Visits by appointment only, Mon–Fri, Dec, around 1.5 hours. From Euro8 per person, this price includes a tasting of Ruinart NV Blanc de Blancs or Rosé, each priced at Euro32 in the shop.
Pommery, 5 Place du Général Gouraud.
Tel: +33 3 26 61 62 63; email: email@example.com
Mon–Fri, Dec–Mar, 10am–5pm. Tours last 1.5–2 hours and cost between Euro7.5 and Euro20 per person Reservations by letter, fax or email essential; all tours include a tasting. Brut Royal Euro22.50.
Taittinger, 9 Place Saint-Nicaise.
Tel: +33 3 26 85 84 33
Open Mon–Fri, 1 Dec–28 Feb, 9.30am–1pm, 2–5.30pm. Visits one hour, Euro5.50 per person (Euro4.50 for groups of more than 20); a glass of Champagne is included in the price. Taittinger Brut Reserve NV costs Euro22.
Mumm, 34 Rue du Champ de Mars.
Tel: +33 3 26 49 59 70; www.mumm.com
Weekdays and afternoons at the weekend, free tasting. Mumm de Cramant Euro34 or Mumm Grand Cru Euro25.50 (not available in the UK).
Hotels & restaurants
Les Crayères, Gérard Boyer, 64 Boulevard Henry Vasnier.
Tel: +33 3 26 82 80 80
Relais & Châteaux luxury hotel with 19 rooms (from Euro242.50) and a three-star Michelin restaurant set close to Ruinart and Pommery. Shut 23 Dec–13 Jan. Not cheap, but Gérard Boyer’s mark-ups on Champagne are very reasonable.
Grand Hôtel des Templiers, 22 Rue des Templiers.
Tel: +33 3 26 88 55 08
Stylish, old-fashioned hotel with 18 rooms (from Euro160) without a restaurant, tucked away in a quiet side street near Lanson’s offices and Louis Roederer’s cellars.
Hotel de la Paix, 9 Rue Buirette.
Tel: +33 3 26 40 04 08
Well-run Best Western hotel with 106 rooms (from Euro70).
Le Boulingrin, 48 Rue de Mars.
Tel: +33 3 26 40 96 22
Historic brasserie close to the station. Usually has a great by-the-glass deal on one leading Champagne marque.
Le Millénaire, 4–6 Rue Bertin.
Tel: +33 3 26 08 26 62
Smart restaurant the Champenois entertain in.
Le Vigneron, Place Paul-Jamot.
Tel: +33 3 26 79 86 86
Centrally located restaurant with amazing collection of Champagne memorabilia, run by eccentric, handlebar-moustachioed owner.
Where to buy
Mercier, 68 Avenue de Champagne.
Tel: +33 3 26 51 22 22
Every day except Tue and Wed between 1 Dec and 30 Mar, 9.30am–11.30am, 2pm–4.30pm. Tour lasts about 45 mins and costs Euro6; tour including three wines to taste Euro10. Booking recommended, essential for groups.
Moët, 20 Avenue de Champagne, Epernay.
Tel: +33 3 26 51 20 20
Mon–Fri, 12 Nov–31 Mar. Tour lasts one hour and costs Euro7 per person, tours including tasting of two vintage Champagnes Euro15. Booking recommended, essential for groups. Moët 1996 vintage on sale for Euro27.95.
Perrier-Jouët, 28 Avenue de Champagne, Epernay.
Tel: +33 3 26 53 38 10
By appointment only, price Euro9, 9.15am–11.30am, 2.15pm–4.30pm.
Hotels & restaurants
Royal Champagne, Bellevue, Champillon.
Tel: +33 3 26 52 87 11
Comfortable hotel near Epernay, which boasts views over the vineyards from many of its 20 rooms. Also has a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Where to buy
Laurent-Perrier, Avenue de Champagne.
Tel: +33 3 26 58 91 22
Open Mon–Thu, tours by prior arrangement only.