Travel & Life Digest

Roadtrip to Champagne : Hautvillers, Epernay & The Grand Crus villages

Finally sunshine!
The weather hadn't been very kind to us this time around, throughout our drive  from Paris. On rainy days you head to the Champagne House caves off course, they're underground and come with bubbles at the end of each visit.
But on sunny days get on the road and enjoy the rolling hills around the South of Reims!

Hautvillers is on the top of a hill, covered with vineyards. Make it your one village to visit, it's such a feel-good place.
Driving up the hills, go slow so you can spot little white stones marking each Champagne House's territory. We spotted Moet & Taittinger around here.

The village itself is the cutest thing.
Traditional houses, flowers and colourful shutters make up a doll-like environment. Houses have iron signs hanging above the front doors, to show what the residents used to do...a baker, an ironmonger, look around there are great little details to reveal the history of this place.
Here you'll also have the chance to visit some smaller producers, some of whom have the same ratings for their Campaigns as the big famous houses do. Pop into the Tourist Office for info, right opposite the central square.
There is a car-park right at the bottom of the village, so on summer days you'd better park there and walk your way through the village.
Look around for Champagne tasting places, there is Le Café d'Hautvillers, on the main square with a local pub-like environment and massive courtyard to  sit and enjoy the sunshine at. Down rue Dom Perignon there is Au 36, a tiny modern champagne tasting place, where you can also try local delicacies if you call them in advance and make a booking. Their little courtyard is adorable and always packed, so you want to make that call!

Prime destination: Abbey St Pierre, where Dom Perignon is buried.
Did you kow he was a monk?
A cellerar-bursar actually (that's just fancy talk for "chief of wines" really). He is said to have invented the fermentation-in-the-bottle process simply by using beeswax to make bottles watertight. But what is wonderful is that he started blending different grape varieties, sourced from different locations around Champagne to produce a cuvee according to his taste. Now that's a fun job!

The Abbey is surrounded by flowers and trees, hence walking up to it was like a little parcel of surprises with the sun twinkling in-between the tree leaves and the Abbey revealing itself with every step.
The interior of the Abbey is so peaceful. Nothing fancy, whitewashed walls and reddish mosaic floors make it very earthy and approachable.
It was Easter Sunday so we lit a candle and sat there for a minute. How often do you have absolute quite in your life? Usually religious places are sombre and dark, this Abbey though was full of sunshine, thanks to the massive arched windows behind the altar, bare walls and rustic old chairs, made you feel at ease.

On to Epernay! How cool is this: Avenue de Champagne, a spit-spot, tree-lined boulevard with impressive Champagne Houses one next to the other! Moet & Chandon is closed until October 2015 so again pop into the tourism office for a quick roundup of what's available. Right at the end of the boulevard you'll find the impressive tower of Champagne de Castellane. Maybe not the most famous out of the lot, but a very impressive place to visit nevertheless, with old-world charm interiors, art deco staircases and famous chalk caves.
Hand on heart, after Hautvillerss we didn't find Epernay that exciting, we wanted to get out in the countryside again. You have two choices: You can either board on the river boat for a 4 hour sail to Chateau Thierry & back, or you can drive through the scenic route of the Grand Crus villages to the lighthouse of Verzenay. No it's not on the seaside, or on the river for that matter, you'll see...
Even without navigation, the route is signposted the whole way, so you won't get lost.

What are the Grand Crus villages?
Well, picking up from my Dom Perignon story, every champagne is still a mixture of chardonnay and pinot noire grapes, from different plots around the region. The best quality grapes come from certain village vineyards, these villages have the "Grand Crus" status and are the priciest vines to purchase. The area is hillier than you think, so prepare for a good two hour drive through tiny little villages and a sea of vineyards.
Bouzy (I know, what are the chances for such an "appropriate" name?) is a stronghold of the Vranken-Pommery House, you'll see a lot of the field marked by the little white stones with the Pommery name on them.  In Tours-sur-Marne you'll find the Laurent Perrier House which is quite special place to visit on your champagne quest, because they have switched from the classic chalk underground caves to stainless steel tanks, still underground, very sleek and futuristic though.

Verzenay is the end of the route with its' lighthouse guarding over hectares of vineyards.  It also has a Grand Crus status so make sure you get some bottles from local producers, you won't regret it! We bought 3 bottles of rose champagne for a whooping 50 euros in total! Not bad going hey?
Stretch your legs with a brief walk to the lighthouse, the views over the area are amazing and entrance is free. The vines hadn't blossomed yet, hence you want to wait and visit the region from May to September, when they are in full swing, a sea of green and earthy reddish-brown!
A note on driving around the villages: no petrol stations, be prepared!

The prize of driving around for so long is an early evening visit to the Perching Bar. This is brilliant: a bar in a treehouse, in the forest, where you can taste champagne, off course!

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