Today’s guest blog is written and photographed by Distant Francophile– Scott and Janelle Gould.
I met Scott in January when we were both attending and intensive four day portraiture workshop with the Australian/Parisian photographer Carla Coulson. Everyone at the course, whilst learning portraiture, was also a travel photographer (not surprising given that Carla’s original speciality was travel photography). Scott and Janelle are in love with France- and it wasn’t until recently that Iearnt exactly how much until I saw on Instagram their trip to Paris. I was thrilled when they accepted my invitation to blog about one of the wine regions on my bucket list- Champagne.
So enjoy- I do recommend that you pour yourself a glass of bubbles whilst reading this- just to get into the mood 😉
I’m quite surprised by the fact that it took us years to visit the Champagne region of France. Especially given how much we enjoy the famous local product – and the fact that we visit France at least once a year.
The problem was one of perception. I’d always thought that we would have to do a tour of the area, but I could never find one that suited our needs. And despite me asking anyone and everyone for a tour recommendation, the responses I received were usually a bit underwhelming.
Eventually, after a bit more questioning and a lot more reading, I worked out that you could essentially craft your own tour of the Champagne region – and its famous Champagne houses.
So it was under our own steam that we finally visited the famed French region.
To help out anyone else who might be keen to explore the area, here are our do-it-yourself suggestions for visiting the Champagne region of France.
Decide Which Champagne Houses To Visit – Before You Work Out How To Get There
A massive number of choices make this step easier said than done. All of the well known (and many of the lesser known) Champagne houses seem to offer a variety of guided visits for you to choose from. And the on-line reviews aren’t a lot of help – apparently every visit of every is house is recommended at least once as the very best!
Like anything, you only seem to be limited by the time you have available and your budget. However, it seems that for many of the guided visits, booking is essential, so you really are best to give it some thought before you go.
Given Scott and I were only planning to be in the region for one day, we really wanted to see and learn as much as possible. We were also keen to see the crayères or chalk mines the region is famous for so we centred our ‘house research’ around the houses in Reims that offer tours of the mines.
After much deliberation, we decided to make a very big day of it and visit two houses – Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart.
Visiting Veuve Clicquot
Let’s start with Veuve Clicquot. The famous house offers three different guided visits at various times and price points:
- The one hour ‘Discoveries’ tour,
- The ‘In the footsteps of Madame Clicquot’ tour, which also takes an hour and focuses on the extraordinary woman who gave so much to the brand and;
- The ‘Aromatically Yours’ tour, which is provides an in depth overview of the house. It runs for two and a half hours and also includes a cheese tasting.
We chose to take the top of the range ‘Aromatically Yours’ visit which runs on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. We felt that it would provide far more detail of the history of the house. It also offered tastings of four vintage champagnes whereas the other tours offered fewer tastings.
When choosing your guided visit it is important to know that these tastings are not what we expect in Australia, where you taste a fairly small sample. In France, you get a full glass of every wine on offer – important to note if you are planning to drive.
We booked our Veuve Clicquot tour on-line and paid for it on the day of our visit.
Although the ‘Aromatically Yours’ visit can accommodate eight visitors, there were only four of us on the Wednesday we visited. The ‘Aromatically Yours’ visit has a single time slot – 10:00 am – which seemed a little early to me. But our guide Vincent – an Italian sommelier who’d worked in many countries before marrying a French girl – explained that this start time is specifically chosen because our senses are heightened at this time of day. I learn something new everyday!
Our visit started with an overview of the vines – specifically the three varieties that are used in Champagne – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Vincent showed us how to differentiate between the vines – apparently you can tell the difference by looking at the leaves.
If there was a test, I don’t think I’d pass it…
Vincent then guided us to a beautiful aroma garden where we spent time crushing flowers and leaves, trying to memorise scents that we might later find in the wine.
Following our aroma garden experience, Vincent gave us a run down of the history of the house and the region while we tasted non-vintage champagne. He also shared Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin’s story, the extraordinary young woman who married into the Clicquot family, was widowed aged 27 and who went on to improve just about everything regarding champagne. It is remarkable to consider just how successful the widow Clicquot was in a time when women were expected to do anything but run a family business, let alone revolutionise an industry.
She also gave her name to the house, given the word ‘veuve’ is French for widow.
After being immersed in the history of the house, we played a blind food smelling game where we again tried to identify scents that we might find in the wine. We then tasted jams – all with the aim of getting us primed to taste the vintage bubbles.
We were now well prepared and Vincent led us into the crayères. Veuve Clicquot has access to 24 kilometres of crayères or chalk mines which they now use as cellars for the champagne. The crayères are amazing cave-like spaces dug out of the chalk. It is quite chilly in the crayères – they remain at 12 degrees celsius year round. This fact really resonated with me when I learnt that that the caves had provided refuge for the citizens of Reims during the second world war.
Many of the crayères have been named after loyal workers who have been with Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin more than 40 years. Even after they’ve left the company, the former worker can visit ‘their’ crayère and can use it for private functions.
Our tasting was also held in one of the bottle lined crayères, which provided spectacular ambience. We were treated to two champagnes from the 2004 vintage – a brut and a rosé as well as a 1990 rosé and an excellent brut from 1989.
Vincent took us through the whole champagne making process and explained the differences between the champagnes as he guided us through the tasting. He took the time to explain the nuances of the wines and I feel like I developed a much better appreciation for champagne in general.
Our champagnes were perfectly matched with cheeses – the older the wine, the more mature the corresponding cheese.
Our two and a half hour visit flew by and I only have one word for the whole Verve Clicquot tasting experience – and that is amazing!
Ruinart, by contrast, offers one style of guided visit at various times of the day. We chose 4:00pm so we would have time for lunch and to visit the famous Reims cathedral between our Champagne house visits.
Ruinart accepts visitors by appointment only, and payment is required when you book. Unfortunately, the on-line payment method is not particularly secure, which may deter potential guests.
That point aside, the booking method ensured that the Ruinart team knew we were coming – there was a security guard awaiting our arrival at the gate. Once we’d had our names ticked off the guest list we were free to take in the sight of the aristocratic buildings which sat very comfortably on perfectly manicured grounds.
We were soon met by our guide and ushered into the formal waiting room. Ruinart visits are limited to eight visitors, so it didn’t take long for all the guests to arrive.
While we lounged on plush furnishings, our guide explained the history of the house and the region before we climbed down the numerous stairs to the Ruinart crayères.
Ruinart have access to eight kilometres of crayères and the structure of the Ruinart chalk caves are quite unique.
Although the word amphitheatre is inappropriate in the context, it is the word that keeps springing to my mind. Some of the Ruinart crayères are impressively cavernous. One was even used as a ‘cathedral’ during the World War Two, when these crayères also protected the locals from the perils of war.
With our tour of the crayères complete, we returned to our plush lounges for a champagne tasting. The Ruinart tasting consisted of two glasses each – and guests get to choose their two tastings from four champagnes, two of which are rosés.
The entire Ruinart visit lasted around an hour and a half and it certainly offered a taste of class that you’d expect from a luxury champagne house.
I have to say that we were really pleased with our decision to visit both Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart in the one day. Not only do I feel like we got an extensive insight into the champagne making process as well as the crayères, our decision also gave us a chance to compare and contrast two spectacular champagne houses.
Getting Yourself To The Champagne Region From Paris – And Back Again.
Once you’ve made your choice of Champagne houses to visit, and understand your tour times, you need to plan your journey. You could choose to hire a car from Paris if you were a) brave enough to drive in Paris and b) didn’t want to taste any bubbly. Unsurprisingly, we decided to take the train.
Our fast, smooth TGV service left Paris at 8:00am from Gare de l’Est and delivered us to Reims in around 45 minutes. You can book and pay for your train tickets in advance on-line – but do make sure that your destination is Reims rather than the Gare de Champagne-Ardenne. Stopping there would leave you in a difficult spot, about five kilometres south of Reims itself.
Although we didn’t choose to do so, it is easy to take a connecting train from Reims to the capital of the Champagne region, Épernay if the champagne houses in that town are better suited to your taste. Apparently Épernay is beautiful and worth a visit in its own right – I’ve definitely put it on the to-do list for a future visit.
Returning to Paris was equally easy, with trains running regularly. Again, the travel time was only 45 minutes. Of course, if you had the luxury of more time, it seemed that there were many forms of accommodation in Reims, and you could easily stay longer if you wanted to explore more of the area, or wanted to space out your visits to the Champagne houses.
Getting around the Champagne Region.
Scott and I tend to do a lot of walking while we are in France – you just get to see so much more. And while we were in Reims, it was no different.
The town of Reims is really quite charming, despite suffering a fair amount of damage due to bombing in World War Two. A number of older buildings remain intact, with squares and green areas providing space for visitors and locals alike.
We were due at Veuve Clicquot at 10:00am, and as it happens, Veuve Clicquot is the house farthest from the railway station, on the outskirts of Reims. The walk itself took a little over 30 minutes so we arrived with plenty of time to spare.
That said, other visitors on both our morning and afternoon tours chose to take taxis which seemed to be in good supply, with the staff at the Champagne houses ordering cabs for visitors at the end of the tours.
All in all our do-it-yourself visit to Champagne worked a treat – we had a fantastic day in a beautiful town – and I would recommend the DIY option to anyone else struggling to select a tour of the region.
About Janelle and Scott
You might already be aware that Melbourne, Australia is a long way away. From anywhere. From everywhere. But especially from France, particularly if you happen to be a devoted francophile.
We are a husband and wife team who love travel and photography. We also had a passing interest in France. But this interest grew into a full blown obsession after spending October 2008 in Paris and Provence with our son. We fell in love with the people, the culture, the architecture, the food, the wine… basically, we fell in love with everything about the place.
Since that ﬁrst trip, we have chosen to brave the 24 hour ﬂight to France several times – we try to visit at least once each year. We spend every spare minute planning future journeys – researching accommodation and tours, restaurants and shopping opportunities, packing lists and train timetables.
And when we cannot be in France, we are searching for ways to capture the spirit of France, and bring it into our everyday life…
Colleagues, friends and family originally smiled at our ever growing infatuation. Slowly though, they started to seek our advice on all things French. We are forever lugging books and photos here and there, scribbling out addresses and providing advice…and we absolutely adore every minute of it!