There are 2 major places that people visit in Champagne: Reims [pronounced RON-se], and Epernay. We stayed at an Airbnb in Reims, and didn’t have any problems getting there (which is AMAZING for us). When we got there, we were told that we just had to take a bus to where we were staying, which we did. When we got there, we dropped off our bags and then headed back into the city center. I say city center fairly loosely. Reims is the largest city in Champagne, but it is a city like Crystal Lake (Illinois) or Ames (Iowa) is a city. We went to the tourism office first to get some maps and recommendations for things to do and eat, then we wandered around in search of dinner.
As I have mentioned several times, restaurants don’t open for dinner until 7. This turned out to be a problem because, although Ariel and I were seated and ordering our dinner by 7:30, the buses had stopped before we finished. This meant that we had to make the 20 minute walk back in the cold. For those of you who are not up on the weather in northern France right now, it has been getting to the high 50s or low 60s during the day, then drops down into the mid 30s overnight.
Pro tip: check the schedule for the bus (or however you’re getting home) BEFORE you leave, so you know when you need to head back
Another thing I’ve noticed is that heating doesn’t work very well in France. This meant that it was pretty cold in our room and we were keeping our sweaters on when we went to bed. The next morning we went to a champagne and chocolate tasting at the Lothaire Chocolate Shop! We got each got a glass of champagne, a pink biscuit (which is apparently a specialty of the champagne region), white chocolate with pink biscuit powder, a roasted almond covered in white and dark chocolate and the pink biscuit powder, and a piece of dark chocolate. All of it was excellent! They also had several flavors of macaróns that I had not seen anywhere else, so I bought some of those [Numbers 18-21 on Nicole’s Macarón Challenge].
After we had finished our tasting, we visited the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims where nearly all of the French kings were crowned. The cathedral is one of many UNESCO world heritage sites in Champagne and is styled after the older and more famous Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. Unfortunately, the front of the church was being restored, so it was covered by scaffolding. Despite this, the cathedral was very nice, especially because it had been partially or completely destroyed several times over the years (mostly by various fires, but it was also bombed during World War II).
Side note: technically, there are a lot of Notre Dames because any church named after Mary (Mother of God) in France is called “Notre Dame,” as the words literally just mean ‘Our Lady.’ Although when most people say Notre Dame, they are referring to the one in Paris.
Once we had finished walking around (and taking pictures of) the cathedral, we headed to the train station so we could go to Epernay and make it to our first Champagne House on time for our tour and tasting! Train tickets from Reims to Epernay are only around 9€, but there are sometimes long gaps between trains. Fortunately, we only had to wait for around 15 minutes before the next train. The whole train-ride we were going past vineyard after vineyard, but there were no grapes on the vines as the harvest ends at the end of September. Epernay is significantly smaller than Reims, and once there, it took us almost no time at all to get to Moët & Chandon, which is located on the famous Avenue de Champagne.
Pro tip: most large champagne houses require you to book appointments in advance. You will want to book pretty far in advance to make sure you can actually get an appointment. You can book the tours/tastings online (via the champagne house’s website), or you can book a tour (this is better if you want to visit any smaller champagne houses and won’t have a car as most smaller champagne houses are not in the cities).
The first thing they did on the tour was tell us about the history of the house, followed by a video about Moët and how champagne is made. It turns out that it takes at least 3 years between when the grapes come off the vine, to when the champagne is ready to be sold )(or much longer if it is a vintage). Then they take you down into their wine caves and tell you all about production. I learned a lot more about champagne than I ever thought I would know, but perhaps the most interesting (to me) was that champagne has to come from grapes that were not only grown in the Champagne region of France, but there are very specific areas within Champagne where the grapes must be grown. I also learned that because light is very bad for champagne, the only part of the wine caves that are lit are the places they take you on the tour. In addition to thousands of bottle of champagne, there was also a barrel that once held Port Wine given to Moët by Napoleon in the caves; apparently Napoleon and Moët were good friends.
Finally, they bring you into a tasting room, tell you about the particular variety you are tasting, and you try your glass(es) of champagne! From the sommelier we learned all about the different kinds of champagne. The most useful is that levels of dryness (from most to least) are: Extra-Brut, Brut, Sec, and Demi-Sec. We also learned that the level of dryness comes from the amount of sugar added; a typical bottle of Brut has 9 grams of sugar, while a bottle of Demi-Sec has 45. Ariel and I tried the Vintage 2008 blanc, and the Vintage 2008 rosé. Both of us prefered the rosé, but thought both were too dry for us. The sommelier told us that Moët’s Vintage 2008 only has about 5 grams of sugar per bottle. Once we had finished with our champagne, we were taken into the store. Neither of us bought any from Moët. Afterwards, we found a little bistro to eat at, and then caught a train back to Reims.
When we booked our trip, we had enormous difficulty finding a place to stay, but we had looked online and couldn’t find anything happening in Reims. On Sunday, we found out why all of the hotels and hostels were full. It turns out there was some sort of marathon going on. This shouldn’t have been a problem (since we did find an Airbnb), but when I tried to get to church, it became a problem. It’s hard enough to figure out what announcements on trains and buses are saying in English, so Ariel and I have just been ignoring them unless everyone else reacts to them, in which case we follow their lead. We got on the bus without a problem, but we were practically the only ones on it, so when they made an announcement (which was garbled and impossible to understand), we didn’t have anyone’s lead to follow. The stop after the train station was the one we needed to get off at to go to the cathedral, but the bus never went anywhere near the cathedral. Eventually we hit the ‘request stop’ button, got off and had to walk. While we were walking we discovered the marathon, and all the blocked off streets that came with it. This meant that I ended up getting to mass late (I came in during the first reading), but since— like Notre Dame de Paris—people were still touring the cathedral during mass, I didn’t disrupt anyone. Unfortunately, mass was in Latin, and they didn’t have any translations. I have been going to mass long enough that I knew what was going on, even if I didn’t know exactly what they were saying.
Another problem with Reims on Sunday: everything is closed. Having both studied French (and French culture) we probably should have seen this coming, but in Paris, as long as you are in the more tourist-y areas, most things are still open. We eventually found an adorable little tea shop where we could get breakfast (brunch); it was one of only 2 restaurants in Reims that was open according to Google. Another problem with the marathon was that all of the buses to the city center were shut down. This meant that we had to walk to Taittinger, which was especially hard to do because of the marathon, and meant that we ended up arriving late. Thankfully, they still let us do our tour, and we just missed the film about the making of champagne. Taittenger’s wine caves are some of the oldest ones in Champagne, with the oldest parts having been carved out by the Gallo-Romans. Taittinger’s wine caves also go deeper than Moët’s, and are therefore (slightly) colder at 8 degrees Celsius in the deepest parts. Taittinger’s caves were also used as bomb shelters during the World Wars, and parts of the caves were originally part of the original abbey’s cellar. Like the lights in Moët’s caves, the lights in Taittinger’s caves are Sodium-based and emit neither heat, nor UV light. The tour ended in the oldest part of the caves, and we had to climb several stories on a spiral staircase to get back up to the tasting room.
Ariel and I had signed up for the college student tasting, so we each just got one glass of their most popular, non-vintage champagne. Both of us preferred Taittenger’s champagne to Moët’s and we each bought a bottle for our 21sr birthdays. Buying champagne in champagne, directly from the champagne house is significantly cheaper than buying it elsewhere. For example, for a bottle of Nocturne Sec Rosé and a bottle of Brut Réserve cost about 75€ at Taittinger. In the United States, that would cost over 110€ (or about $125). We then had to get a cab to the train station so that we could head back to Paris (via Epernay because we hadn’t decided what we were doing in either Epernay or Reims when we booked our tickets).