Champagne – a region, and of course a world-famous wine.
My view of champagne has been that you buy into the idea of a celebratory drink, or you don’t. The best champagnes are beautiful, and the history of the region and the wines is fascinating. But much of the ordinary stuff – which is virtually all the champagne you will ever see – is just that, ordinary.
I don’t mind about that. When we want to know more about champagne, and use our knowledge to seek out the good stuff, we can. And on our tour of Champagne, we will, of course. When champagne is served to celebrate something, or to offer congratulations, what’s not to love?
So, in that spirit, read on…
Let’s have a look at the region. It starts about 100 Km to the East of Paris, and for a wine region it’s huge – the largest AOC wine producing region in France. To the north it borders Belgium, and to the East, Lorraine.
In the North and East of Champagne, there was horrific fighting in the First World War. And today, along the ridge of the Chemin des Dames, there are many moving memorials, museums and cemeteries that pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands killed and injured in the various Battles of Marne. From here, the Germans were close enough to shell Paris!The main wine-making area is made-up of three series of hills, from North to South the Massif of St Thierry, the Foret de la Montagne de Reims, and the Cote des Blancs. These hills are where the best vines are grown, and in the valleys between the hills are the main cities of Reims and Épernay. These are the commercial centres of Champagne, where you’ll see beautiful headquarters belonging to famous names like Moet & Chandon, Veuve-Clicquot, Mumm, Dom Pérignon and Lanson.
The largest city, Reims (pronounced Rance, bizarrely), was almost completely destroyed by artillery in WW1. It was rebuilt in the 20s at the height of the art deco boom, and there are some lovely examples. Although largely undamaged in WW2, Reims is where the war ended. On May 7th 1945, in the Allies HQ, now the Museum of Surrender, the armistice that ended the war in Europe was signed.
The two churches are 1 Km apart, and are both UNESCO heritage sites, but the contrast in building style is huge. The older Basilica is based on romanesque arches, with thick walls and without butresses. In fact, symptomatic of life before buttresses, the roof of the Basilica collapsed during construction.The current cathedral was begun 2 centuries later in the 13th century, and it’s a spectacular tribute to the gothic style, with gothic arches, buttresses, and of course huge, beautiful rose windows. These windows were destroyed when the cathedral roof melted as a result of artillery fire in the first world war. The outside of the cathedral boasted more than 2,300 statues, and molten lead from the roof and windows poured out through the mouths of some of the gargoyles during the fire. It has been restored – boy, has it been restored! Now that it’s 90 years old, it looks like an old cathedral again, and it’s amazing.
Épernay, built on the banks of the River Marne, is smaller than Reims. It can’t compete with the cathedral and basilica of Reims, but the Avenue de Champagne is one of the most elegant, wealthy boulevards you’ll find anywhere.
Our tour starts North of Reims, and we’ll explore some of the battlefields and memorials around the Chemins des Dames. On Monday, we’ll cycle through the vineyards north of Reims, arriving into Reims on Monday afternoon.
On Tuesday we’ll cycle through the Foret de la Montagne de Reims, visiting the beautiful forest of the Faux de Verzy, and some of the most beautiful vineyards of the region, on our way to Épernay.On Wednesday we’ll explore the Cote des Blancs, where the best of Champagne’s chardonnay is grown, and of course we’ll be tasting champagne, too.
On Thursdaywe return to Reims, via pretty, rolling hills and the Abbey that was once home to Dom Pérignon.
On Friday, we cycle through vineyards along the River Vesle, leaving Reims, and head north through rolling hills, cycling once again over the Chemin des Dames, and back to our start point of Chamouille.