I’ve visited Reims, France, a couple of times – although each visit was short. I spent an afternoon and evening there in 2015 as part of the WWII tour I took with my husband. In 2018, my daughter and son-in-law and I spent just over 24 hours in the city. Last month, I visited with another daughter and again, we spent a little over 24 hours.
Although there are other attractions in Reims, there are two things that the city is most famous for – the Notre Dame de Reims Cathedral and champagne.
At the heart of champagne country, Reims is home to several champagne houses. In the surrounding countryside and nearby towns, many more are found.
Champagne was produced in the area as early as the 1500s. The soil and climate is different than that in the nearby Burgundy region of France, so the still wines from the Champagne area were much lighter. Instead of producing the still red wines, the lighter wine was bottled before the fermentation process was finished. When the bottle was opened, it exploded because the wine had continued to ferment and expand. The resulting wine was referred to as champagne, named after the region of France where it was produced.
In the late 1600s, Dom Perignon made changes to the champagne-making process. He strengthened the bottle and used a cork instead of a wood stopper. He blended grapes to improve quality and changed the fermentation process. Improvements continued throughout the years, including mechanization of some processes.
Visiting a Champagne House
A number of the champagne producers offer tours of their houses and caves (where the wine ages). If you are interested in visiting one of the champagne houses, planning ahead is vital.
Before our trip this year, we scheduled a visit to Taittinger and purchased our tickets online. In 2018, we had visited Mumm, another large champagne house. At that time, our visit to a smaller producer was cancelled.
We visited Taittinger in the morning, and planned a tour to visit small producers in the afternoon. We purchased tickets for an organized tour where we rode in a small van to some of the champagne houses outside of the city. The benefit of this type of tour is that if one of the smaller houses is unavailable, the guide will arrange a visit to a comparable one. The attendees will experience a tour that covers everything they expected.
G. H. Martel and Taittinger Champagne Houses
Our Taittinger tour was in the late morning, so we had a little extra time. We walked to the center of town to see the cathedral, but since we had planned to visit it the following morning, didn’t spend any time there. We decided to catch the city bus and get to the champagne house early.
Just before we were dropped off outside of Taittinger, we noticed the Martel champagne house. Since we had nearly an hour before the tour started, we walked back to Martel. They were offering tours, but we didn’t have enough time. We were able to participate in a tasting. We are not experts, but enjoyed the taste of the champagne.
We returned to Taittinger for our tour. It was interesting. I had been on the Mumm tour in 2018 and there were similarities, but I still learned on this tour. We toured the caves as we listened to our guide explain history and production. I found the caves fascinating! When we finished our tour, we were treated to a taste of Taittinger champagne.
We booked our afternoon tour through Sparkling Tours. We were very pleased with the tour, led by the company’s owner, Valentin. Our first visit was to the champagne house of Michel Fagot, where we saw the wine press, vats, and distribution tanks. It was interesting to see how the small operation differs from the larger ones.
Wine and champagne producers use migrant workers for harvest much like we do in the States for produce. Grapes are harvested when a committee determines they are at their peak. Everything needs to be harvested within a short window. The workers move from one field to another.
When all the champagne grapes are harvested, different types of grapes or other produce will be scheduled. The workers continue moving through the season.
We visited the Abbey in Hautvillers where Dom Perignon was a monk. He is buried in the chapel. Here, our guide told us about his life and his contributions to champagne production.
Our final stop was at Champagne Gisèle DeVavry. We were able to watch the uncorking and re-corking of the champagne – one of the final steps in the process. During the fermentation process, the champagne is tilted a little at a time so all the yeast particles settle in the neck of the bottle.
When fermentation and settling is complete, the neck is frozen, and the bottle is uncorked so the frozen yeast pops out. The bottle is re-corked to prepare it for distribution. It is a very interesting process.
We were able to sample champagne at both of the houses in the afternoon. We began to get a taste for what we liked.
We learned all about champagne on our full day of touring and tasting. We learned that only sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region of France can be called champagne. This is not completely true. It is true for the European Union and for all other areas of France. Although this agreement was reached shortly after World War I, it was not agreed to by the United States until 2004. Producers like Korbel and André who were already using the word champagne on their labels were exempt.
We enjoyed our champagne-themed day. If you are interested in touring champagne houses in France, I would recommend visiting Mumm or Taittinger in the morning and then participating in an organized tour of the smaller houses in the afternoon. If you have two full days available, you could visit both houses in the city of Reims on one of your days and do a full day guided tour on the other.
I’d love to hear about your experience!