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The Champagne Trail

With more than 100 Champagne houses, and a further 19,000 vignerons (vine-growing producers), it is unsurprising that Champagne has become a popular area with wine lovers.

The Champagne Route

The Champagne Route

Only sparkling wine produced in the region can truly be called champagne and the ingredients are firmly controlled by the French government. The special manufacturing process, which requires secondary fermentation in the bottle to produce carbonation, historically made the wine a favourite of kings and queens across Europe and, today, some of the oldest and most recognisable names in the wine world may be found in the region.

Starting 75 km to the east of Paris, the Champagne Route is roughly 600 km in length and has around 80 welcome points which you can visit along the way. Places where you will receive the warmest welcome and enjoy the best visit are labelled ‘point d’accuiel’. Here you will receive an insight into how the champagne is made and be encouraged to sample the produce of the house you are visiting. Whilst the larger champagne houses charge for their tours, Moet & Chandon for example have a tour which lasts for around an hour, some of the smaller vignerons do not. In the best of these, the champagnes offered are arguably just as good, if not better, than those produced by the larger manufacturers.

The grapes which may be used in champagne, and the areas in which they may be grown, are dictated by the wines AOC classification, the government standard which details the specific requirements for certain wines to be labelled by name. Most champagnes, but not all, are produced using the same three varieties of grape - the red pinot-noir and the white grapes pinot meunier and chardonnay. Despite using the same grapes, production methods and growing regions differ immensely and subtle differences in flavour may be detected between producers.

The Champagne Trail actually comprises five routes which take you through rolling vineyards, pretty villages and past stunning historic buildings. Information on each route is best obtained from the local tourist offices, which are happy to advise you on their highlights and the opening times of each champagne house or vigneron. Some of these require you to book your tour in advance but, once again, the local tourist information office will be able to advise you how to proceed.

A brief guide to the five Champagne Routes is given here:

Slopes of Champagne Vines

Slopes of Champagne Vines

Massif de St-Thierry

Beginning and ending in Reims, this circular tour takes in some of the largest champagne houses in the world. Along the route you will encounter many familiar names including Lanson, Krug, and Mumm which has been the official champagne of Formula One motor racing since the year 2000.

Reims itself has a Notre Dame Cathedral which is protected as a world heritage site and rivals the one in Paris. The city is also home to several fine champagne houses and is a very good base if you are wishing to tour the area.

Montagne de Reims

This route travels from Reims to Epernay through the heart of the Montagne de Reims Natural Park. The quiet hillsides offer fantastic panoramic views and the route passes through the amusingly titled village of Bouzy, where many a traveller has purchased a bottle of the fine red wine produced there, purely to have the village name inscribed on the label.

At Champagne Mercier you can experience a tour with a difference as you are taken, via panoramic lift, 30 metres below the surface to explore the cellars. When you reach the bottom, you are transported around part of their 18 km network of underground tunnels by laser guided train.

Vallee de la Marne

This circular route follows the River Marne from Epernay to Dormans and back again. Particularly popular with walkers, the footpaths wend their way through pinot meunier vineyards and afford fantastic view across the river valley. The highlight of this route is, without doubt, Hautvilliers, famed for its abbey, where the monk Dom Perignon is said to have made great advances in champagne making techniques.

Leclerc Briant, at Epernay, offers a tour entrance with a difference 0 you are given a choice of ways to enter the cellar, one of which is by abseiling down the shaft of a disused well! Also on display is a large, intricately-carved champagne barrel which was exhibited at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris.

A Champagne House in Epernay

A Champagne House in Epernay

Cote des Blancs

Travelling south from Epernay, this route passes through the home of the white chardonnay grape, to Villenauxe-la-Grande. Along the route, the viewpoint at Mondement offers stunning views over the Petit Morin Valley and the ancient town of Sezanne with its pretty old buildings offers a fabulous place to stop away from the vineyards.

Notable champagne houses on route include Nicolas Feuillatte, with its high-tech facilities, and Jean Milan who celebrate 150 years of champagne making in 2014.

Cote des Bar

To the east of Troyes in the Aube, this 220km circular route passes through several pretty stone-built villages. It is best travelled in spring when the early flowers begin to blossom and the hills are bathed in a carpet of colour. The village of Essoyes is home to the Espace Renoir, which is dedicated to the artist who once lived there. As you walk around its streets, some of the places where Renoir painted are marked with easels and a reproduction of his interpretation is displayed for you to compare.

Located near to Clairvaux Abbey and the Royal Champagne Crystal factory, Dumont and sons provide a guided tasting experience for you to enjoy.  Other notable names in the area include Charles Clement and Remy Massin.

The immense number of vineyards and champagne manufacturers on the Champagne Route would take several months to fully explore. If you are only in the area for a short time, centre yourself at one of the larger towns such as Reims or Epernay where you are able to visit a large number of producers in a small area. If you have more time, you can then then expand your horizons from there.

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