This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
Champagne makes the social world turn. And yet, driving between its meticulously groomed vineyards and cream-coloured towns, this French region, rooted in the chalky hills between Paris and the Ardennes, appears remarkably quaint. Local pride in the Pinot and Chardonnay fields — some thought to date back to the Romans — has made this area one of Europe’s most photogenic destinations, and as growers embrace biodiversity and ban pesticides, greenness is everywhere in every sense.
In the regional hub of Reims, just 45 minutes from Paris by train, bars and bistros spill over into pedestrianised streets and wine gardens serve hundreds of local blends. These days Champagne houses want in on the action, too. In the past few years, tasting rooms and taverns have popped up on some of the region’s most venerated estates, while in Epernay, the magnificent Avenue de Champagne buzzes with a thirsty after-work crowd. Relish it all responsibly (remember — spitting is encouraged) on this route through the heart of the region.
Pick your designated driver and start the day with a drive through the Marne Valley, famed for its vine-clad slopes. At Vincelles, the fields part to reveal a Roman road and this revered Champagne house, which has been producing a range of organic wines since 2013. In good weather the Blin family welcomes oenophiles to their hilltop tasting room to gaze out over the landscape with a glass from the 10,000-bottle cellar.
Follow the river to Damery where you’ll find the chic Champagne Telmont compound, run according to sustainable principles by its president Ludovic du Plessis. You can book tours of the cellars here, enjoy drinks at the bar or sample a food and wine pairing menu at the communal table. Look out for the photographs of Ludovic with Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s invested in Telmont’s green initiatives.
Onward to tiny Épernay, where grand Champagne houses like Perrier-Jouët and Moët et Chandon lord it over the Avenue de Champagne. Stop for lunch at this smart bistro, where you’ll find a menu of terrines and fricassées. Corkage is free on weekdays (or €12/£10 from Friday evening to Sunday), so you can take a bottle of Champagne picked up on your travels. Alternatively, order a €25 (£22) half bottle from the wine list.
Stop at the sleepy town of Aÿ, with its half-timbered cottages. In 2021, the old pressing centre was transformed into a sensory Champagne museum. Here, visitors are invited to experience a virtual wine harvest, explore rooms scented with blossom, ‘press’ their own vintage and watch the fermentation process on IMAX-style screens. The exhibition ends in the tasting room, overlooking vineyards.
Detour through the Montagne de Reims nature park. A 30-minute drive into wild terrain will bring you to a forested path and wobbly suspension bridge — the only way in or out of this treehouse wine bar. With hanging armchairs and Champagne buckets strung from the ceiling, it’s the perfect spot to watch the sun go down with a glass. Ask for a plate of biscuits roses de Reims — a pink biscuit traditionally served with Champagne.
Finish at the Vranken-Pommery estate, a collection of gothic towers on the road to Reims. You can tour its ancient Champagne cellars then stay for dinner in the dining room in the old refectory, which stays open late. Try the risotto with leek fondue with a glass of one of Pommery’s more affordable Bruts (€15/£13). Finish with profiteroles.
Published in the October 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).
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