Experiencing the underground crayéres is a must for any visit to Champagne. Here are the best 8 tours in Reims and Épernay—all end with a tasting or two. We’ve also uncorked some sparkling wine tips for celebrations closer to home.
Dom Pierre Pérignon was the first to discover the secret of Champagne’s production by combining the still wines of the region and storing the beverage in bottles. Today, the world’s most famous sparkling wine comes from the very same vineyards, along the towering Marne Valley between Épernay and Château-Thierry and on the slopes of the Montagne de Reims between Épernay and Reims. For more details to plan your grape escape, see Fodor’s Champagne Country destination guide.
All About Grapes
Three types of grape are used to make Champagne: pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier. The two pinots, which account for 75% of production, are black grapes with white juice. Rosé Champagne is made either by leaving pinot noir juice in contact with the grape skins just long enough to turn it pink, or by mixing local red wine with Champagne prior to bottling. Blanc de Blancs is Champagne made exclusively from white grapes. Blanc de Noirs is made exclusively from black grapes.
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How Sweet It Is
The amount of residual sugar determines the category—ranging from Demi-Sec (literally half-dry, actually sweet) with 33–55 grams of residual sugar per liter, to Extra-Brut (very dry) at less than 6 grams of residual sugar per liter. Classifications in between include Sec at 17 to 35 grams, Extra Dry at 12–20 grams, and Brut, under 15 grams.
Vintage vs. Nonvintage
Vintage Champagne is named for a specific year, on the premise that the grapes harvested in that year were of extraordinary quality to produce a Champagne by themselves without being blended with wine from other years. Cuvées de Prestige are the finest and most expensive Champagnes that a firm has to offer.
Touring the Cellars
When you take a Champagne tasting tour, you won’t be at the vineyards—it’s all done inside the various houses, miles away from where the grapes are grown. Champagne firms—Veuve-Clicquot, Mumm, Pommery, Taittinger, and others—welcome travelers into their chalky, mazelike cellars. Most of the big houses give tours of their caves (cellars). Many firms welcome visitors; for some you need to book in advance (by phone or via Web sites). Tip: Don’t forget a jacket or sweater—it’s chilly down there.
Closest to City Center: Mumm
Not the most spectacular cellars but a practical option if you have little time: You can walk it from the cathedral and the train station. Mumm was confiscated by the French state in World War I because it had always remained in German ownership. Visit starts with 10-minute film and ends with choice of three dégustations: the €20 option includes a rosé and a vintage grand cru.
Fanciest Architecture: Pommery
This turreted wedding-cake extravaganza on the city outskirts, was designed by Jeanne-Alexandrine Pommery (1819–90), another formidable Champagne widow. The 11 miles of cellars (about a hundred feet underground) are reached by a grandiose 116-step staircase. They include no fewer than 120 chalk pits, several lined with bas-reliefs carved into the rock.
Most Expensive Visit: Ruinart
Founded back in 1729, just a year after Louis XV’s decision to allow wine to be transported by bottle (previÂ¬ously it could only be moved by cask) effectively kick-started the Champagne industry. Four of its huge, church-sized 24 chalk galleries are listed historic monuments. This is the costliest visit on offer—and, if you shell out €38, you can taste the Blanc de Blancs.
Best for History Buffs: Taittinger
Cavernous chalk cellars, first used by monks for wine storage, house 15 million bottles and partly occupy the crypt of the 13th century abbey that used to stand on the spot. You can see a model of the abbey and its elegant church, both demolished at the Revolution.
Best Museum: Castellane
Some of the region’s deepest cellars—down to 130 feet—and, above ground, a museum with an intriguing display of old tools, bottles, labels and posters. There’s also the chance to see the bottling and labeling plant, and climb to the top of a 200-foot tower for a great view over Épernay and the surrounding Marne vineyards.
Best High-Tech Visit:Mercier
Ride an electric train and admire the giant 200,000-bottle oak barrel it took 24 oxen three weeks to cart to the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. An elevator down to (and up from) the cellars is a welcome plus.
Longest Cellar Walk: Moët & Chandon
Foreign royalty, from Czar Alexander I to Queen Elizabeth II, have visited this most prestigious of all Champagne houses, founded by Charles Moët in 1743. The chalk-cellar galleries run for a mind-blowing 17 miles. The visit includes a glass of Brut Imperial; for €27 you can also taste a couple of vintages.
Ladies’ Choice: Veuve-Clicquot
The 15-mile chalk galleries here were first excavated in Gallo-Roman times—back in the 3rd century AD! You can see and talk to cellar workers during the visit, and the souvenir shop has the most extensive range of gift ideas of any champagne house. This is Champagne’s most feminist firm—named for a woman, and still headed up by a woman today.
Photo Credits: Colorful Champagne Bottles by iStockphoto / AdShooter; Tunnel of Champagne by iStockphoto / RandyRomano; Grape Leaves by Shutterstock.