Friday, September 30, 2016

Épernay, Capital of Champagne!

Vineyards around Épernay
A mere hour and a quarter from Paris by train, Épernay is nestled among vineyard after vineyard in the heart of Champagne country. Six of us arrived here one summer day, thirsty for some bubbly but only armed with enough French to name grape varietals.

In the town of Épernay is the renowned Avenue de Champagne, lined with big Champagne houses, such as Möet et Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Mercier, and Perrier Jouët. Beneath the streets are over 60 miles of subterranean cellars containing millions and millions of bottles of sparkling wine.

The tourism office in Épernay is situated on the famous Avenue. Head over there for additional information about the area and its various attractions. Take the Petit Train Touristique Mill'Bulles (Little Tourist Train of a Thousand Bubbles) for a quick tour to learn about the fascinating heritage of the town and enjoy its quirky street art and stately buildings.

As a bonus, you will almost always find a couple of Champagne houses hosting free tastings at the office. Be sure to have a glass or two before you head out.


Möet et Chandon

Tasting Champagne
Our first order of business was to head over to Möet et Chandon for our cellar tour and Champagne tasting. The big Champagne house is associated with luxury name brands, Louis Vuitton and Hennessy, as well as royalty from Napoleon Bonaparte to Queen Elizabeth II. It is no wonder that the entire estate screams opulence.

We joined the English-speaking tour (reservation highly recommended!) and were introduced to the history of the house and the Champagne making process from vine to wine. We walked through the underground caves, past riddling racks of sparkling wine bottles, where lees were gradually urged to the necks. The cellar also boasts of a beautifully carved wooden barrel that was once filled with port, a gift from Napoleon. By the end of the tour, the thirsty gang was rewarded with delicious Champagne. Yum!

Riddling Rack
Napoleon's Gift of Port
The most prestigious Champagne brand from Möet et Chandon is Dom Pérignon, named after the famous Benedictine monk remembered as the "Father of Champagne." Although Dom Pérignon did not technically discover the process of making Champagne, his namesake vintage cuvee is definitely worthy of special occasions. Unfortunately, Dom Pérignon did not come with the tasting. We settled for a goofy photo with the Dom's statue instead.

Picture with the Dom

Side Note, Special Town - Hautvillers

We spent the night at a cottage (known as a gite) in Hautvillers. Hautvillers is a cute little commune about four miles north of Épernay and surrounded by vineyards. In this town is also the Abbey of St. Peter, where Dom Pérignon and Dom Thierry Ruinart refined the process of Champagne making. Attached to the abbey is the Church of St. Sindulphe, which is also the final resting place of the Dom.

Abbaye Saint-Pierre
You will find info about different gites at the tourism office. It is definitely a wonderful lodging option, especially for group accommodation. The one inconvenience is that you have to figure out transportation, which can be a bit challenging if you don't speak enough French to order a taxi or fancy driving on narrow hilly roads.

My Verdict: If possible, visit Épernay with a Francophone. A little French goes a long way. However, once you get there, be prepared to be blown away by the beauty of Champagne country. Visiting in the summer poses a challenge as it is prime vacation time for the many small Grower Champagne makers and restaurants. But drink some Champagne and go with the flow. It will still be a trip to remember!