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Tasty Side to Life Tours Website

Monday, July 22, 2013

The visitor's guide to Champagne

photo credit Matt Bites www.mattbites.com
 It's so easy for travels to get sucked into that evil vortex of guidebook "must see" experiences. A day champagne tasting in Reims is no exception. 

Drink some bubbly at your favorite houses ie Veuve Clicquot and Moet and Chandon, hang in Reims all day, hit the Cathedral, eat some mediocre/rather touristy french food (steak and frites) drink wine from a non impressive wine list  (inclusive of ONLY large producer corporate champagnes), and jump on the train back to Paris before 6pm. 

Been there, done that. Or maybe never been there, never done that but certainly not your cup of tea! You want new experiences. Hidden innovative restaurants deep in champagne villages, funky small producers, and flowing bubbly.  
Here is a quick guide which will help you spend your time with innovative french restaurants, touring and tasting with rad champagne houses deep in the countryside, exploring old school french villages and tasting from producers which don't breed the usual mass produced corporate style champagne.

Photo credit tastysidetolifetours      

In my world a real visit to champagne would entail feeling the soil in my hands, touching 50 year old vines, visiting a small champagne champagne producer owned by a french man w/ a little belly (the albeit result of too much delicious pate en croute or foie gras) with a a bustling passion for his champagne and his land. A champagne day trip would entail touring his families pinky chalky cellars from the 1800's and end with a visit and tasting of 3-4 different types of his champagne with his family sitting around you pointing out the flavors you should be tasting! 

If that kind of experience is what you're after then we compiled a list for you on how to avoid the cookie cutter champagne tasting experience and do something unique while in the Champagne region! 

Champagne Houses to Visit

Veuve Cliquot, Moet, Pommery, Taittinger, Mumm, Ruinart, Mercier, Perrier Joeut, Krug just to name a few. Only visit 1 of these large champagne producers. Really, REALLY I know you drink Veuve and Dom all the time at home (bravo by the way because those bottles aren't cheap!) but the tours at each of these large champagne producers are almost identical and once you've seen one you DONT need to see another. Trust me. Get out of the city of Reims and into the countryside STAT! Before you do, visit one because the 3rd/4th century caves are amazing!

Our favorite large producer tours are :

Champagne Pommery (5 Ave General Giraud, Reims)- If you only visit one large producer during your stay make it Pommery. They are fortunate to have some of the most impressive chalk caves of all the "Grand" houses. Gorgeous caves mixed with interesting installation artwork and an awesome story of a women widowed in the 1800's who brought the brand to what it is today!  A daunting 116 step stairway leads you 100 feet down to a 18k maze of underground caves which date back to the Gallo-Roman 3rd/4th century. The caves are filled with engravings of Roman wine gods, purples hues and installation artwork. While on the visit you'll be taught the process of elaborate champagne creation and see the millions upon millions of fermenting bottles of champagne which are aging in their cellars. Get there 15 minutes early and until 2014 walk around their reception and check out the elephant by upcoming french artist, the giant 100,000 bottle barrel and the adorable little BMW champagne mobile. Appointment only

Champagne Ruinart (4 Rue des Crayeres, Reims)- Ok ok so the giant LVMH owns this brand. While I wish that the Ruinart was still family owned  AND while I don't like huge corporate experiences- this house is still fabulous! Only kicker? They are unfortunately closed until 2014 for construction :( Ruinart is the oldest house in Reims with some of the most impressive caves dating back to 1729. These caves are so gorgeous they are designated a national monument. There is just something special here. Special formations, special light and gorgeous colors. 

Champagne Dom Perignon (20 Ave de Champagne, Epernay)- Another LVMH giant Dom Perignon is the haut gamme label of Moet and Chandon. Sneaky right? They try and keep that a little secret :) The private Dom Perignon tour gives you access to some of the oldest Moet cellars which are rarely seen by the public. Founded in 1743 and with over 2500 acres of land this brand owns the largest amount of space in Champagne and produces 26 million bottles/ year. They sponsor Formula 1 racing and the Oscars. Here you walk through the tunnels which Napoleon used to frequent and you'll be treated to an oh so private tasting in the private dining room or in the garden. 


Small Producer Champagne Houses to Visit

Some of our favorites in the Mountain of Reims- Vilmart, Pehu Simonet, Paul Clouet, Bereche et Fils, Roger Manceaux, Emmanuel Pithois. Cote de Blanc-Bernard Pertois, Agrapart, Driant Valentin, Paul Lebrun, Corbon, Chartogne-Taillent, Larmandier-Bernier Valley of Marne- George Laval, Tarlant, Le Gallais, Didier Ducos, Christophe Mignon. Also the Champagne Tree House which carries one of my favorite small producer champagnes Pehu Simonet. 

Christophe of Christophe Mignon Champagne explaining his Bio-Dynamic approach to Tasty Side To Life Tours clients
Bad news is I would say 85% of these won't speak any English :( Sad I know but you are deep in the french countryside.  Best idea is to hire a guide and translator from Tasty Side To Life Tours.

The gorgeous Anne Marie Huot of Champagne Huot et Fils walking Tasty Side To Life Tours clients out to the vines

Also, surprisingly unlike many other wine regions of the world- ie Napa, Australia, S Africa, Champagne itself does not have the greatest tourism set up. Tasting rooms for small producers are not huge built out systems and there is not a normal menu of tastings to choose amongst. Exactly why you most likely want a guide to figure out which houses DO welcome tourists.

Herve Le Gallais of Champagne Le Gallais in the Valley of Marne meeting clients (Insead MBA) and explaining his passion during a tour of his land and a tasting of his gorgeous Pinot Meunier heavy champagne
Vincent Laval of Champagne George Laval showing Napa wine makers his organic land. Never has he used herbicides or pesticides and his vines are 50 years old. Photo credit of Tasty Side To Life Tours
If you do decide to hire a company they can tackle the language barrier for you and make all necessary appointments a few days before your champagne tastings. 

Champagne Le Gallais- Madame Clicquots Old Hunting Chateau
On the other hand if you choose to attempt to do the tastings on your own keep in mind that each tasting is 1-1.5 hours, private, and the drive between producers is about 30-45 minutes most of the time. Remember that when champagne tasting you ALWAYS, ALWAYS  need to make a prior appointment and you should plan your trip at least 24 hours before the desired tasting day (or 3-4 weeks before if at all possible). There is always the chance that a small champagne producer might say "no" to welcoming you if you don't somehow know the brand or know a family member. So, no brainer- prob best to hire a chauffeur/guide/translator. 

For more info on Tasty Side To Life Tours and to champagne taste in France check out our website orcontact us here.

The Arts and Culture

Top things to squeeze into your day would be the Cathedral of Reims where the Kings of France were crowned, The Porte de Mars-some of the oldest Roman ruins in town, The military museum where the Germans surrendered in WWII (Salle de Reddition 12 rue Franklin Roosevelt 0326478419. Closed Tues)

Reims Cathedral where 25 Kings of France were served champagne during their coronation ceremonies

Inside Reims Cathedral. Stained glass by Marc Chegal
Where to eat 

Champagne's dining scene has some new trends and new restaurants popping up across the villages which the locals love. Michelin star restaurants have also recently made their menu's more affordable. It's almost a no-brainer to eat at one of these Michelin star gems as their prices are 50-75% less expensive than the same level food you will find in Paris! Les Crayeres, La Briqueterie, La Grand Cerf are our 3 favorite yet Le Foch and Les Millenaire are on that list as well. 

From 1 and 2 star Michelin chefs with new affordable 30-40€ menus to Thai/french fusion and even dining at a champagne tree house while perched in the trees in the forest of Verzy, here are 7 top Champagne restaurants that are locals frequent which are adding even more charm and uniqueness to the capital of bubbly.

1) La Briqueterie (4 Route de Sezanne, Vinay)- has reduced their menu from 49€ to 40€ in order to celebrate their 40 year anniversary! They offer lunch which is 3 courses (more like 9 or 10 with pre and apres courses) which is set in the countryside in an old brick laying building. It is farm to table and the chef has a passion for fresh ingredients and the freshest of seafood after having travelled and worked all over the world. The youngest chef in champagne and a restaurant surrounded by 1000's of roses. Not to miss! Dinner at 110€

2) Les Avises (59 Rue de Cramant, Avize)- Attached to the champagne house Jacques Selosse. Enough said :) A neobistro with great food and a charming ambiance. The cuisine: traditional french with modern touches from here to there and innovative, gorgeous plating. Menu is 37€ for lunch and 58€ for dinner. Reserve early! Closed Tues and Wed. Recently loved the light cepe mushroom soup w/ pink lentils, oven roasted quail, toast with lard and a soft poached egg. 

3) Les Crayeres (64 Blvd Henry Vasnier, Reims) Les Crayeres "Le Parc" has recently earned 2 Michelin stars (the highest in the region) and their brasserie "Le Jardin" has a 2 course menu for 28€. Their food is refined and oh so tasty with dishes like foie gras a la plancha with lentils, truffled french fries and pistachio millefeuille. The brasserie Le jardin is literally set in a garden just meters away from the impressive Les Crayeres Chateau which Madame Pommery used to call her home and where the troops in WWI used to dance the night away. Les Crayeres is just a stone throw away from Champagne Pommery.

4) La Boulingrin (29-31 rue de Mars, Reims 0326409622)- A huge platter of seafood, bone marrow that melts in your mouth, sole with butter and capers, pigs feet, foie gras and their famous potato gratin. This restaurant is the top local joint. It has such charm and an energy you can't describe. They are in the process of moving so closed until September 2013 but this is one of my favorite hidden local gems in all of Reims. Located 10 minutes of Pommery, Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart in the center of Reims. 

5) La Cave a Champagne (16 Rue Gambetta 51200 Epernay 0326555070)- Oysters cooked in champagne, foie gras slowly simmered in ratafia (champagne liquor) and butter, lots of butter. This is a traditional restaurant not to miss. Also a stones throw away from Moet et Chandon and a locals secret with a 19€ 3 course lunch menu.

6) Cook'In (18 Rue Porte Lucas, 51200 Epernay 0326548980)Just outside the center of Epernay off the grand "Avenue de Champagne" not far from Moet et Chandon, Perrier Joeut, etc is the relatively newly opened Cook'in which has grabbed the attention of local champagne makers. If you are tired of French food and want a little fusion then Cookin is the place to go. It is modern, creative and spot on thai.
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