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Wine Trails: Champagne houses to visit

See which Champagne houses to visit on your wine holiday, taken from Lonely Planet's new book Wine Trails.

Champagne houses to visit

1. City of Reims
The city of Reims is home to Champagne’s own royalty, with curious visitors allowed into the hallowed cellars of the likes of Mumm and Pommery, Veuve Clicquot, Heidseck, Lanson and Taittinger. It is the perfect place to get an idea of the hidden secrets of the world’s arguably favourite beverage, with gushing guides explaining the centuries-old alchemy that goes into its production. Each of the Grandes Maisons offers something different, but which one to choose? Lanson has just reopened its 150-year-old cellars after a €14 million renovation, including a quite incredible ‘cuvage’ with 101 giant steel vats holding the equivalent of five million bottles. Lanson is well known for its range of Pinot Noir Champagnes and has been served at the royal court since the time of Queen Victoria. Taittinger stands out as being one of the rare family-owned houses, and its twolevel 13th-century cellars are primarily reserved for ageing the signature vintage Comtes de Champagne, a remarkable cuvée. The neo-gothic castle towers of Pommery resemble a kitsch Disneyland, but this is the one must-see cellar. Madame Pommery, 140 years ago, conceived dry Brut Champagne as a counterpoint to sweet bubbly, and her 18km of cellars are like none other. This is where you will discover ‘les crayères’, some 120 awesome chalk holes dug in Gallo-Roman times to construct the city of Reims, which Madame Pommery decided were perfect ventilation for the maze of tunnels she constructed for her cellar that today holds some 20 million bottles.
lansonchampagne.com; taittinger.com; vrankenpommery.com

Champagne housees, Champagne map

Champagne houses. Credit: Lonely Planet

2. Champagne Gardet
Over two thirds of all Champagne, including 90% exported around the world, is produced by the 290 Negociants Manipulants, the Grandes Maisons who own hardly any vines but purchase grapes at harvest. Not all are multinationals, though, and a visit to the venerable Gardet, founded in 1895 and still supplying Britain’s House of Commons, is a much more personal experience than being taken round by a company wine guide of the likes of Moet & Chandon or Pommery. Gardet has remained a relatively small maison, owning a mere 5 hectares (12 acres) of vineyards, but produces a million bottles a year using grapes from another 100 hectares (247 acres) they buy in. To begin with, they are out in the countryside, in a sleepy village surrounded by vineyards. To organise a visit, you need to call or email in advance. Gardet replies with advice on accommodation and eating out, and then visitors are received at the headquarters in an ornate art-nouveau glass verandah filled with tropical plants. The visit to the ‘cuverie’, where the wine is made, and then to the labyrinth of cellars, takes over an hour and gives a good explanation of all the stages of Champagne’s complex production.
www.champagne-gardet.com; tel +33 3 26 03 42 03; 13 Rue Georges Legros, Chigny-les-Roses

3. Champagne E Barnaut
The bustling village of Bouzy is unique, since many winegrowers here exercise their right to make the non-bubbly Bouzy Rouge, a PinotNoir that is expensive because, as one grizzled vigneron moaned, ‘we could be making a lot more money by selling the grapes for Champagne!’ Philippe Barnaut is a fifth-generation winemaker with strong ideas: ‘People used to talk always about Le Champagne as a homogenous product, but what interests me is the diversity of Champagne. I vinify each parcel of each terroir separately before moving on to the crucial assemblage. Twenty years ago I was treated as a heretic, but now everyone is following this like a new fashion.’ Philippe has taken the daring step, for a Champagne producer, of opening an Aladdin’s-cave store for wine tourists in an ancient house that sits above four floors of cellars. Apart from offering tastings of his outstanding range of Champagne, the rustic wooden-fronted boutique stocks delicious regional foodie specialities – wild-boar pâté, lentils, mustard from Reims – and a kaleidoscope of wine gadgets.
www.champagne-barnaut.com; tel +33 3 26 57 01 54; 2 Rue Gambetta, Bouzy

4. Champagne Mercier
While most of Champagne’s famous names may be based in Reims, it is lively Épernay that is the genuine wine capital, with a host of fun wine bars, gourmet restaurants and bistros. In terms of cellar visits, the mammoth 27km ‘cave’ of Moet & Chandon is closed for renovations till the end of 2015, while Perrier-Jouet and Pol Roger are closed to the public. But over 100,000 visitors arrive each year at Mercier, still probably the most popular Champagne in France itself. The founder, Eugene Mercier, was the publicity-seeking Richard Branson of his time, taking clients up in hot-air balloons and building an immense wooden barrel holding 250,000 bottles of Champagne that was transported by oxen to Paris in 1900 to rival the Eiffel Tower as the star show of the Exposition Universelle. Today it dominates the entrance of Mercier’s outstanding cellar, where a lift plunges visitors into an eerie maze of tunnels. A small electric train wends its way through a small part, and you realise how deep underground the cellar workers are.
www.champagnemercier.fr; tel +33 3 26 51 22 22; 68 Ave de Champagne, Épernay

5. Champagne Tribaut
Before arriving for a tasting at the friendly Tribaut family winery, where the sunny terrace overlooks a panorama of vineyards, be sure to take a tour of the idyllic village of Hautvilliers, known as the birthplace of Champagne. There is a Rue Dom Perignon, named after the Benedictine monk who, 300 years ago, is said to have invented the process of double fermentation that creates Champagne’s unique bubbles. While their children run the estate, Ghislain and Marie-
José Tribaut spurn retirement to welcome wine tourists. ‘I am a typical “Recoltant Manipulant”,’ explains Ghislain, ‘the term in Champagne for someone who cultivates and harvests their grapes, selling the large majority to a Negociant Manipulant – Grandes Maisons like Krug and Taittinger – but I save enough to produce 150,000 bottles myself.’ After tasting Marie-José’s delicious gougères, light puff pastry filled with Gruyère, paired with a dry Rose Brut, many visitors end up coming back here to help out during the grape harvest.
www.champagne.g.tribaut.com; tel +33 3 26 59 40 57; 88 Rue d’Eguisheim, Hautvillers

6. Champagne Aspasie
Paul-Vincent Ariston describes himself as an ‘artisan vigneron’ and a visit to his 400-year-old stone farmhouse is a step back in time. Rather than just stopping for a tasting, it is worth taking a room in his comfy B&B, as then there is time for a full tour of the cellar with Paul-Vincent, who bubbles with as much enthusiasm as his Champagne. He proudly shows a huge wooden grape press, ancient but functioning, explains the ‘degorgement’, when sediment is frozen in the neck of the bottle and spectacularly popped out before final bottling, and then insists that ‘rather than using the electric giropalette, that turns 500 bottles automatically during fermentation, I prefer the old-fashioned remuage of each one by hand.’ He has some fascinating special cuvées, such as the totally unique Brut Cepages d’Antan, which has none of the usual Champagne grapes but, rather, three rare varieties – Le Petit Meslier, L’Arbanne and Pinot Blanc – that were grown here centuries before Champagne was popularised.
www.champagneaspasie.com; tel +33 3 26 97 43 46; 4 Grande Rue, Brouillet

7. Champagne Pannier
Pannier is one of Champagne’s better-known cooperative winemakers, a Recoltant Cooperateur to use the official title, with a growing reputation for high quality. Based near Château-Thierry, more well-known to Parisians for its safari park than vineyards, this is where much of the Pinot Meunier grape is grown. Pannier boasts a breathtaking labyrinth of cellars – stretching 30m beneath the earth – which date back to the 12th century when they were excavated for stone to build churches in the region. Today, you still feel you are exploring primitive caves rather than a wine cellar. Pannier was a well-known family producing Champagne, dating back to 1899, and when there were no more descendants in 1974, a group of 11 vignerons formed a cooperative to take over. Today this has mushroomed into a vast winery representing 400 growers. Although they produce millions of bottles a year, the cooperative keeps Pannier separate as their prestige brand, blending the local Pinot Meunier with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from    vineyards from the faraway Côte des Blancs and Montagne de Reims.
www.champagnepannier.com; tel +33 3 23 69 51 30; 23 Rue Roger Catillon, Château-Thierry

8. Champagne Fallet Dart
Just an hour’s drive from Paris, this part of the agricultural Marne valley was only incorporated into the exclusive members-only club of the Champagne appellation in 1937, though the sign outside this ancient estate proudly announces that the family have been vignerons since 1610. Paul Dart is a dynamic young winemaker, followed everywhere by his massive St Bernard dog, Elios. Both of them make visitors feel very much at home. Tastings are free, and for those who call in advance, Paul takes the time to conduct a winery tour. Although the estate is medium-sized, stretching over 18 hectares (44 acres), it still has something like one million bottles ageing in its cellar. Be sure to taste the Clos du Mont, a blend of vintages from a vineyard dating from the 7th century. And as traditionalist winemakers, the winery is also proud of its Ratafia, a luscious aperitif, and an elegant Fine de Champagne, aged in barrels like a Cognac.
www.champagne-fallet-dart.fr; tel +33 3 23 82 01 73; 2 Rue des Clos du Mont, Drachy, Charly sur Marne

Reproduced with permission from Wine Trails, 1st edn. © 2015 Lonely Planet.

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