The joyful sound of corks popping from bottles is heard all day, every day and into the night in Champagne. Locals drink their bubblies at lunch, as an apéritif, during dinner and for dessert. Champagne is always the drink of choice here. And why not? Especially when you have some of the world’s most prestigious labels produced within your midst.
Dive into the Champagne culture with us! We’ve just added a 3½ Day – 3 Night visit to Champagne as part of our MTW Tour offers. See more details on our Tours page here.
A few eye-popping facts about the Champagne region. Over 362 million bottles are produced annually, with sales totaling €4.9 billion or $5.4 billion.
France consumes 49% of the annual Champagne production, while 51% of the bottles are exported, primarily to the United Kingdom, with purchases of 27 million bottles yearly. The United States is the next largest consumer, with an annual in-take of 24.5 million bottles. Germany and Japan are next, each of whom purchase about 13 million bottles annually. (Statistics from Comité Champagne)
The three primary grapes grown for champagne – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay – are cultivated by approximately 15,800 producers. There are about 340 main Champagne houses. The largest houses, in order, are: Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Nicolas Feuillatte, G.H. Mumm, Laurent-Perrier and Taittinger. Smaller, but highly sought-after houses include Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger, Charles Heidsieck, Louis Roederer, Krug, Perrier-Jouët. Smaller houses, such as Salon (owned by Laurent Perrier) and Selosse produce cult wines with prices ranging from $125 to $500+ per bottle.
BEFORE THE BUBBLES
Interestingly, the first sparkling wines in France originated in the Limoux area of Languedoc. Champagne has produced wine since 57 BC, but essentially only red grapes were grown. Indeed, for a number of decades, Champagne competed fiercely with Burgundy for the wine market. Eventually Burgundy Pinot Noir was judged to be superior. Growers in Champagne switched to white grapes to survive.
But white grapes were also problematic for Champagne growers. Barrels of still white wine shipped to England frequently became carbonated once they had arrived. Wine growers in Champagne despaired as their wines developed a strange fizz. To compensate, they began shipping their wines earlier, working diligently to ship in cold temperatures as soon as the initial fermentation had ceased. But, to their consternation, the annoying fizz continued to develop as their wines sat in warm English taverns and experienced a second fermentation.
Then something remarkable happened…British society fell in love with the sparkly, fizzy wines. Wine purveyors began bottling the wine and even adding a little sugar to increase the carbonated fizz. A new wine was born!
But what about Dom Pérignon, who famously “drank stars” while discovering Champagne? As Cellar Master at the Benedictine Abbey of Hautvillers, Dom Pérignon developed a number of techniques to improve the quality of wines – including efforts to rid them of bubbles. But an ingenious Moët & Chandon marketing campaign in the late 19th century is now known to have conjured up the good monk’s starry quote and credited him for “inventing” Champagne. (Hugh Johnson – The Story of Wine)
REIMS: ROYAL CITY
Reims may not be the official capital of Champagne – lovely Épernay claims a right to the title as well. But Reims is where French kings were coronated from the 5th century until 1825. And the city is also home to a new TGV route – the French bullet train carries passengers from Paris to Reims in a mere hour or so.
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame is located in the center of the historic city. This Gothic wonder is over 800 years old and considered one of the great masterpieces of the Middle Ages. It’s also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walk the long aisle – just like the 32 French kings. Notice the magnificent transepts and side chapels. When you reach the nave you’ll see the stone marking the spot where the kings were anointed.
Stained glass windows, dating from the 13th to the 20th century, are installed over the choir. A rare, centuries-old rose window has survived over the main portal. Marc Chagall and Imi Knoebel designed the stained glass windows at the east-end of the cathedral.
Across from the Cathedral, in a small plaza, is a statue of Joan of Arc. During the Hundred Years War, Reims and much of northern France fell to the English. In an extraordinary turn of events, the audacious teenager from Orléans liberated the city and led Charles VII to the throne.
The Palais du Tau (named to its T-shaped form and the Greek letter T or “tau” ) sits adjacent to the Cathedral and houses the coronation robes and crowns of the French kings. The palace, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was used by the aristocracy to prepare for coronations and hold banquets following the ceremonies. Priceless tapestries cover the walls and a collection of chalices and reliquaries, including a talisman belonging to Charlemagne are on display as well.
For more modern history, visit Le Musée de la Reddition (Museum of the Surrender), located a few blocks away from the Cathedral. Here, on May 7, 1945, General Dwight Eisenhower met with General Alfred Jodl to sign the German surrender and an end to World War II. The museum presents numerous artifacts and memorabilia documenting the combat and eventual liberation.
Champagne suffered greatly during both World Wars. National treasures, like the Cathedral Notre Dame, were plundered and heavily damaged. Champagne houses were commandeered – their stock shipped off to Germany and property left in ruins.
During World War I, France lost 1.3 million soldiers and civilians; over 4.2 million were wounded. Champagne, because of its proximity to the German border, was the scene of some of the most horrific carnage. (Statistics from The Great War)
Given the fact that the mere word “Champagne” is synonymous with celebration and the good life, it’s difficult to imagine that the area has known so much suffering.
Perhaps the region’s tragic past can explain the Champenois love for daily bubbles – a chance to celebrate all life’s good moments, small or remarkable. After all, anything is better with Champagne!
Ready for a Champagne break? (Rhetorical question!) Grab a table at Le Parvis – a Champagne shop and bar located directly across from the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Be quick! Tables are in high demand.
Le Parvis offers a truly endless selection of Champagne. Once you’ve made a choice, sit, sip and savor the moment as you contemplate the exquisite facade of the Cathedral, with its perfect proportions and gravity-defying towers.
Now that you have your “Champagne legs” it’s time to visit a few of the houses. Our favorites in Reims include Domaines Veuve Clicquot and Taittinger.
At the renowned cellars of Veuve Clicquot, founded in 1772, you’ll learn about the charismatic and determined Widow Clicquot (Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin) who survived both the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars to establish one of the premier Champagne houses in the world.
A few streets over, the Taittinger Cellars were constructed in the Abbey of Saint-Nicaise, within Gallo-Roman chalk pits dating from the 4th century. There are any number of impressive cellars in Champagne, but the ancient Taittinger tunnels are astounding for their enormity and an evocative historic presence.
Many of the older Champagne houses are notable for their ancestral personalities and Domaine Taittinger is no exception. Just after World War I Taittinger moved their operations to an estate that had originally been built by Theobald I King of Navarre and Count of Champagne. The illustrious knight is beloved in Champagne lore and was once credited with bringing the Chardonnay grape from Cyprus to France. Unfortunately, the University of California at Davis spoiled this fairy-tale with its decidedly un-romantic genetic analysis. But the chivalrous exploits and adventurous spirit of Theobald live on in the exquisite Champagnes of Taittinger.
Taittinger cellars date back to the 4th century and are over three-stories tall at some points.
ÉPERNAY: THE OTHER CAPITAL
The main boulevard through Épernay is named “Avenue de Champagne” and serves as a reminder that the city is also a contender for the title “Capital of Champagne.” While Reims, with its magnificent Cathedral and aristocratic heritage feels a bit formal and aloof, Épernay is much more approachable. Its Belle Époque architecture, cute shops and parks are picture postcard charming. The city’s main roundabout sports a giant cork and bottle-top – slightly goofy, but guaranteed to induce smiles.
If you’re visiting Épernay in December, join in the Habits de Lumière, three days of fireworks, flamboyant light shows and street theatre. Needless to say, the Champagne is free-flowing and ever present.
Épernay does have its serious side, however. Champagne is, after all, big business and producing a good Champagne is hard work, as you’ll discover while touring the various houses.
Épernay is home to Champagne icons Pol Roger, Mercier and Perrier-Jouët. But the world’s largest Champagne House, Moët & Chandon occupies block after block within the city, with cellars spanning 28 kilometer or 17.4 miles. Take a tour of the famous labyrinth and enjoy a tasting afterwards.
A few miles outside of Épernay is the region known as the Côte des Blancs, treasured for its extraordinary Grands Crus Chardonnay vineyards and prestige cuvées. Here you’ll find the tiny village of Mesnil-sur-Oger with one of our favorite properties: Domaine Salon, released in vintage years — typically three per decade. Salon is loved for its crystalline freshness, and secondary aromas of grilled breads and caramel.
Nearby is Aÿ, another small village with yet another mythical property: Domaine Bollinger, famous for its Special Cuvée, a non-vintage made from a blend of current and reserve wine, and aged in magnums. The Bollinger family made a shrewd marketing move when they coaxed their dear friend Albert Broccoli — undoubtedly over a vintage bottle of Bolly — to feature their Champagnes in the James Bond films.
As we continue our tour through the Côte des Blancs, we arrive in Avize, home of cult winemaker Anselme Selosse, who has both his vineyards and a charming B&B in the village. The lovely property is anchored by an exceptional restaurant run by Stéphane and Nathalie Rossillon. Chef Rossillon prepares his own, distinct style of classic French dishes with a decided Asian twist. Visitors flock to Les Avisés for the highly-rated food accompanied by impossible-to-find bottles of Selosse Champagnes — and an off-chance meeting with the celebrity winemaker himself.
One of the hottest categories in Champagne these days is Grower Champagnes, or “G-Power” as we like to call these unique, fantastically individual wines. “Growers” produce approximately 80,000 bottles annually — a infinitesimally tiny percentage of the overall Champagne production. However, unlike the giant houses who buy most of the grapes they use in their production, Growers own their vineyards and use their own fruit to make Champagne. Look for an RM (Recoltant Manipulateur) on the Champagne labels to distinguish Grower Champagne from the big houses, whose labels are marked NM (Negociant Manipulant).
Since Grower Champagne producers are primarily family-owned estates, they have known their property and vines in intimate detail. And, because the estates are small, families usually tend to the property themselves with minimal outside assistance. The most appealing aspect of Grower Champagnes are the distinct, individual styles — or Champagne personalities — that the families have created and reproduced for generations.
The go-to place to sample Grower Champagne is C Comme in Épernay — well over 350 Champagnes from 45 different growers are available. Here you’ll find unique selections at very affordable prices. Delicious small plates of creative appetizers and charcuterie are available as well. Be sure to pick up a few bottles to enjoy on the road or to take home as souvenirs — you’ll never find these labels in the States.
But whatever you do, take a few moments to toast the people of Champagne, who have spent centuries cultivating the perfect beverage to mark the best occasions and life’s most memorable events.
And a few great bottles for toasting!
Call 850-687-1370 or write [email protected] to order:
2006 Dom Pérignon Brut Rosé. $379.99
2008 Dom Pérignon “Luminous” Brut. $219.99
2008 Dom Pérignon Brut. $174.99
2002 Billecart-Salmon “Le Clos Saint-Hilaire” Blanc de Noirs Brut. $399.99. Rare!
2002 Billecart-Salmon “Cuvée Nicolas François” Brut. $169.99
2006 Billecart-Salmon “Cuvée Nicolas François” Brut. $139.99
Billecart-Salmon “Sous Bois” Brut NV. $89.99
Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé NV. $69.99
2008 Louis Roederer “Cristal” Brut. $239.99
2009 Louis Roederer “Brut Nature” (Philippe Stark bottle). $79.99
Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV. $39.99
2006 Taittinger “Comtes de Champagne” Rosé. $199.99
2007 Taittinger “Comtes de Champagne” Blancs de Blancs. $164.99
2012 Taittinger Brut Millésimé. $76.99
2013 Taittinger Brut Millésimé. $76.99
Taittinger Nocturne Rosé NV. $69.99
Taittinger Cuvée Prestige Rosé NV. $64.99
Taittinger Cuvée Prestige Brut NV. $39.99
2008 Veuve Clicquot “La Grande Dame” Brut. $189.99
Veuve Clicquot Rosé NV. $59.99
Veuve Clicquot Brut Gold Label NV. $57.99
2006 Pol Roger Brut Rosé. $99.99
Pol Roger Brut NV. $49.99
2012 Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage. $72.99
Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial NV. $49.99
Moët & Chandon Brut Rosé NV. $59.99