Some of the best vines are to be found on the Côte des Blancs, a 20km stretch just south of Epernay that grows some of the very best Chardonnay grapes in the world. While Chardonnay might have originated in Burgundy, the Côte des Blancs’ chalky white slopes are its spiritual home, constituting 97% of the grapes grown here. Any blanc de blancs worth its weight in liquid will have Chardonnay grapes from the grand and premier cru vineyards of the Côte des Blancs – it’s in the name, after all.
It’s impossible to move for wine producers here, to the extent that my elderly host at Parva Domus, after a relaxed breakfast and zero persuasion, hurried to the kitchen to fetch a bottle of his 2015 effort. You’d struggle to call my French passable, but half a bottle shared with him and a more-laboured-than-expected walk to my taxi said it all. We might not have spoken the same language, but mutter the word ‘Champagne’, and you can’t go far wrong. You’ll find this hospitality across Champagne, especially in the small hotels and gîtes in Epernay and beyond, with owners eager to show off their and others’ produce to enthusiasts and tourists alike.
The centre of Epernay is a perfect base from which to journey through the Côte des Blancs, but it would be criminal not to spend a day exploring the Avenue de Champagne.
The villages classified as being within the Côte des Blancs are home to some of the best winemakers in Champagne. The six villages – Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger and Oiry – are all included in the handy Champagne Trail driving tour of the area, more than 400km of signposted ways across the region. The Côte des Blancs section is manageable in a day or two through sleepy villages, past traditional châteaux and among meandering vines.
One house that marries tourism with the day job particularly well is Boizel, as hidden behind the modern atelier façade is a house firmly in touch with its 19th-century roots. Evelyne Roques-Boizel is its guardian and all-round Champagne sage: her name will evoke a positive reaction from any producer. A tour of Boizel’s cellars is a good start to a day of leisurely house hopping, with a multitude of other names such as Collard-Picard and De Castellane minutes away.
Based in Chouilly is Vazart-Coquart, a third-generation producer at the forefront of Champagne’s push for a more sustainable and ethical future. Jean-Pierre Vazart’s harvesters lodge every year at the winery, and the efficiency of his winemaking process has been significantly improved through new machinery and better practice.
Vertus is on the outskirts of the Côte des Blancs, but it’s worth visiting for a look around Duval-Leroy, a sizeable house run by Carol Duval-Leroy since her husband’s death in 1991. The operation is headed by Duval-Leroy and her chef de cave, Sandrine Logette-Jardin, and a minute’s conversation with either is enough to see why the importance of women at the top of the industry is rightly being recognised.
To experience the life of a smaller producer, Lucile Proy-Goulard will welcome you to her farm on the outskirts of Epernay that she shares with her husband, the only farmer on the Côte des Blancs to rear sheep, not grow vines. If you ask nicely, she might drive you to her vines in an original Citröen CV2 to picnic overlooking Epernay as the sun sets. The vineyard offers a great panorama of the town, over to the Côte des Blancs itself.
The Côte des Blancs makes up a small part of the Champagne region, but includes some of its most beautiful landscapes, interesting vineyards and passionate Champagne houses. Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, during a whistle-stop tour of their Reims headquarters before my train home, emphasised the importance of heart to the area: ‘Champagne is a wine, but it’s more than that: it’s a symbol of celebration, of happiness, of love, of pleasure, of being together. We have to keep that magic.’
With a long trip to the Côte de Blancs, there’s no risk of the magic being lost.
David Taylor is a freelance travel writer and broadcaster. He’s written for Esquire, Luxury London and Oracle Time, and has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s ‘From Our Own Correspondent’