Few wines captivate us to the extent Champagne does. But then Champagne is not simply a wine; it is also a state of mind,” writes noted wine connoisseur Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible.
Not all wines qualify to be called champagne. Only wine produced at the vineyards at Champagne district earn the privilege to be called so. Remember, champagne only comes from Champagne!
To unravel the bond between the globe’s most celebrated and lavish wine to the land of its origin, one needs to take a trip to Champagne, a district located about 100 miles (160 km) east of Paris in northeast France.
Champagne, the district, is best known for the production of the sparkling white wine that bears the region’s name. Laws of the European Union and those of most countries reserve the term champagne exclusively for wines that come from this region. These vineyards, where the world’s famous sparkling wine is produced, have been declared the UNESCO ‘World Heritage’ sites, joining the likes of Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China.
Wine tourism (also known as oenotourism or vinitourism) is designed exclusively for those who are keen to explore the world of wines. If you happen to be one among the tribe, tour operators from India and those based in France can help you explore the most envied vineyards that produce the most exquisite champagne in the world.
Honestly, it is not easy to decide on how to begin exploring this Mecca of champagne drinkers! The viticultural boundaries of Champagne are legally defined. It is divided into five wine producing districts within the administrative province: Aube, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, Montagne de Reims, and Vallée de la Marne. The towns of Reims and Épernay are the commercial centres of the area. Every region charms and captivates your heart and mind.
Though Champagne, the drink, can exhilarate you all year round, the best time to experience the Champagne region is between mid-May, when the leaves come out, and midOctober when the autumn colours are magnificent. Avoid travelling in August as most champagne makers are on their annual holiday and most champagne houses are closed.
The budget, says Pramod Krishna, director general Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies and wine enthusiast, depends on whether you want do a day trip or you want to stay longer. “Even then, it could come to 100 euros for two including a night stay,” says Krishna, who is a regular to Champagne and trails other vineyards. According to him, the leanest time to visit is June and July.
One can reach Reims, the centre of Champagne district, easily through air, train and road. Champagne is about a 2.5 hours’ drive from Paris. If you were to board TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse), the “high-speed train” from Paris, it will get you to Reims in 45 minutes. You can enjoy the view of the picturesque valley of the Marne River and the countryside as well. Champagne can also be easily reached from Calais, London or even Scandinavian countries. As far as accommodation goes, there is something to suit every pocket.
Champagne is sorted into more than 300 vineyards called “crus”, each of which is ranked based on the quality of the grapes it grows. Wine tour operators and guides will take you to various champagne houses and introduce you to the world of winemaking. Visitors to wine cellars or champagne tours should ensure that their trip also includes free tasting. Like free lunches, free tasting sessions too do not last long.
All champagne companies have their own tours. Making champagne is an art and each one of them has a museum. “Here, the emphasis is on the family, on how champagne was initially bottled in cellars and how it is modernised now,” says Krishna. Some of the popular champagne brands such as Mumm, Veuve Clicquot, Krug, Piper-Heidsieck and Louis Roederer are produced in Reims. But the big boy of champagne is Moet et Chandon that makes millions of bottles.
There is more to Champagne than just wining and dining. The region is dotted with acrobranche (ropes) tree top adventures, different museums, World War sites, military cemeteries, ruins, memorials, local markets, forests and bike trails. The shopping centre at Reims is best explored walking.
Between 1914 and 1918 during the First World War, Reims was bombed every day for four years. To escape the bombing, citizens created underground cellars several metres under the ground. This is where wines are produced today. These cellars are full of graffiti and are reminiscent of its past.
Another notable attraction at the heart of Reims is the 13th Century cathedral of Notre Dame-a great masterpiece of the Middle Age. Damaged badly due to First World War shelling, it was restored with funding from the New York based Rockfeller Foundation and reopened in 1938.
If you are a history buff and want more to explore, turn to the Museum of Surrender in Reims that is frequented by many visitors. This museum is situated in a school building that was used as Eisenhower’s headquarters during World War II. While a portion of the school has been used to create the museum, the actual war room where the peace treaty was signed on May 7, 1945 with old tables and chairs bearing the names of the signatories, has been duly preserved.
Women business tycoons are not a new age phenomenon. One realises this when one visits Veuve headquarters. Veuve Clicquot was the woman who developed the famous champagne brand and is credited with the modernisation and mass production of wine during the 19th Century.
The city also has many restaurants that boast of Michelin stars that are the hallmark of fine dining quality globally. You can also satisfy your sweet tooth at several independent shops offering hand-made pastries, chocolates and biscuits.
Eager as you are to explore Champagne, one barrier that many visitors may face is the language. Everyone does not speak English and it is best advised to go for guided tours and tourist boards that undertake bookings.
So, plan in advance and enjoy your champagne. Learn about it and appreciate it. Bon voyage!