Years ago at a team-building exercise, I had to come up with a surprising fact about myself. I hate these kinds of activities and couldn’t deliver anything remotely interesting. Or surprising, for that matter. I’ve given it some thought afterwards and analysed empirical evidence. Based on that I now believe I should have said: I don’t really care much for Champagne.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t MIND champagne. Anything that combines nerdiness and glamour is generally good in my book. It’s just that taste-wise, I prefer other beverages and when it comes to champagne-appreciation more generally, it often veers too close to snobbishness for my liking. That said, when a two-day trip to Champagne became feasible, I was not going to say no.
The good thing about physically going there (it only takes two and a half hours by car from Brussels) is that you’re not stuck with the big houses like Veuve Clicqot or Ruinart. In fact, I would suggest you avoid Veuve Cliqcot, if at all possible (incredibly boring!). There are many smaller houses that produce Champagne that is cheaper and often more interesting than the rather mainstream offerings by the giants. The catch is that you need to educate yourself and try things to find out where your preferences lie.
Reims and Epernay are full of options for tastings and tours. We didn’t attend many, as the first day of our trip was a public holiday, but if you’d like to see traditional cellars, even I had to I admit that Taittinger’s caves were impressive. If you want to see any of the smaller houses, I recommend making an appointment – otherwise you risk not getting in (we missed out on Jacquesson for that very reason). Driving around through the hilly landscape where every inch is covered by grape vines is a lovely experience in itself, however, and autumn is a good time to do that.
In the end, we did most of our buying at Cave des Sacres, a wonderful Champagne shop next to the cathedral of Reims. They have an amazing selection from the famous brands to less well known but very high quality bubbly to some very rare and obscure bottles. When you’re in a hurry, this is a good option compared to trying to visit all houses yourself. The downside is of course that you have to buy without tasting.
Even if Champagne is not your favourite drink, Reims is very much worth a visit also for the cathedral. I think I’ve been imprinted since childhood and still think that nothing suits churches better than the Gothic style. I prefer them slightly smaller than this particular cathedral, but its majestically austere interior is beautiful and the exterior is a positively crazy explosion of hundreds of sculptures. I’ve just finished Reza Aslan’s God, where he talks about Lord of the Beasts as the first god humans worshipped. I was therefore especially glad to see the outer walls decorated with many exotic animals, including a cow.