A few days into our Paris vacation, I needed a break from the busy city. You see, I really love visiting the City of Light, but sometimes the crowded museums and the vélomoteurs buzzing in the streets can wear me down.
So one morning, we hopped on a train at the Gare de l’Est heading to Champagne country, excited to sample some sparkling wines and enjoy a day in the countryside. Arriving in Reims in less than an hour, we conveniently discovered that some of the biggest names in Champagne offer tours and tastings right in town.
First stop was our reserved tour at Veuve Clicquot, one of my favourites. Our guide led us downstairs into the deep, vast limestone caves where thousands of bottles of champagne are stacked in piles lining the walls of the corridors. It’s eerily quiet and naturally stays quite cool — the perfect environment for these bottles of liquid gold to rest up for their effervescent future debut above ground.
I’ve enjoyed this fine champagne over the years, though learning its captivating history made this visit even more special. When the founder’s son, François Clicquot, died at a young age in 1805, it was his widow (veuve in French) who took control of the company and successfully perfected the quality of the champagne. For example, Madame Clicquot is credited with inventing the riddling rack, which has become standard equipment in the champagne world. The riddling rack holds bottles of champagne as they are slowly turned upside down over many days, allowing any sediment in the wine to fall toward the top of the bottle. This sediment is then disgorged from the bottle, resulting in a more clarified and delicious product.
After touring the caves, we returned to the reception room for the dégustation. Having learned about the grapes in champagne (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay), I tried to taste the mix of grapes in each of the different samples they offer: the popular Brut Yellow Label and the more prestigious La Grande Dame. I savoured the subtle flavors (dried fruit and toast) with good acidity for a crisp, refreshing finish. Superb!
All this touring and tasting had developed our appetites, so we strolled to lunch at the elegant Les Crayères. Originally built as a residence for the Pommery family in 1904, this ornate chateau now offers upscale accommodations and two fine restaurants. While the gastronomic restaurant, Le Parc, boasts two Michelin stars, we chose the more relaxed brasserie, Le Jardin, with outdoor seating — perfect for our sunny day. Here one finds sumptuous food, efficient service and, of course, a thorough wine list offering many local favourites. We enjoyed our choices from the menu — turbot fish meunière style, and cod with amoricaine sauce — and it was all delightful. For me, the highlight of the meal was a Blanc de Blancs from Ruinart, one of the oldest champagne houses. So complex in flavour and with such fine bubbles, it was such a good pairing with the fish and certainly elevated the meal.
We were completely content and grateful for our relaxing and delicious excursion that day. Somehow these sparkling wines taste even better when you know the vineyards are just down the road. It was time for our train back to Paris and I was ready for the big city again, knowing that a return trip to Champagne is within easy reach.
If You Go:
For tours of the champagne houses, it’s best to book in advance. Most offer reservations on their websites. Because of the naturally cool temperatures in the caves, it can be helpful to bring a light jacket or sweater, even in the summer.
Veuve Clicquot Champagne
1 Rue Albert Thomas
Domaine Les Crayères
64 boulevard Henry Vasnier
By Phil Tremo
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