Having spent a decent amount of time in France in the past, it seemed like a crime that I hadn’t made my way out to the Champagne region! I decided that needed to be remedied on this most recent trip. The two main cities in Champagne are Reims and Épernay. While they both have many houses or “maisons” to choose from, Reims is most often associated with Veuve Cliquot and Épernay with Moët & Chandon.
Knowing that we wanted to do at least one big house and a few smaller, local spots, we ended up in Épernay. It was an easy decision, because Veuve was closed for the season, so Épernay it was! It turned out to be a great choice, because Épernay is so easy to navigate—it’s one main drag, called Boulevard de Champagne, that’s a stone’s throw away from the train station. From Paris, it takes a little over an hour on the train to get to Épernay, but it’s a very quick and scenic trip through the French countryside.
Our first stop of the day was at Mercier. The furthest away of the champagne houses, but a must-visit if you find yourself in Épernay. We decided to do the cellar cave tour along with a tasting. The tour started as we took an elevator 30 meters below ground to the caves, where we boarded a train that took us through only a small fraction of the massive 18 kilometers of tunnels. An audio guide explained the process of producing and storing champagne, as well as a short history of Mercier. It was a great introduction to the day and the size of the caves were a little awe-inspiring—millions of bottles of champagne are stored there before they are distributed all over the world!
Finally it was time for the tasting! Wanting to try a few varieties, my friends and I picked the Brut, Brut Réserve and Brut Rosé. Our sommelier, Guillaume, carefully walked us through all of the varietals, how they differ in taste from one another and what it would pair best with. Beyond being incredibly knowledgeable and personable, he also was very generous with the pours! I am used to Napa tastings, where you get a small splash, but here we had full glass pours!
My personal favorite was the Brut Rosé. It was light, crisp, a good amount of bubbles, with a smooth finish and a tiny bit of sweetness. It would go great with some oysters or sushi.
Verdict: a great place to kick off the day, generous pours, and while it’s not a personal cave tour, it was very informative.
After Mercier, we were feeling pretty good on account of the 3 full glasses of champagne in less than an hour. We worked our way back towards the train station on Boulevard de Champagne and stopped at de Venoge. From the outside it looks like a beautiful chateau, but once you enter the tasting room it’s completely modern and plush, from the light fixtures to the chairs.
Like I said we were feeling pretty lubricated so we decided to order a single glass of champagne at de Venoge. My friends all stuck with Bruts, like our previous tasting, but I decided to go with their Blanc de Blanc to sample a different style. Unlike Brut, Blanc de Blanc is made only from Chardonnay grapes. It wasn’t nearly as bubbly as theirs—I would compare it to some semi-sparkling wines that I’ve had in the past, like a Vinho Verde—but it was fantastic! The Brut my friends had was earthier—it had almost a mineral-like taste to it.
I think I had the winner and I could see the envy on my friends’ faces. I felt bad, but not bad enough to trade my champagne! I liked the Blanc de Blanc so much, that I bought a bottle of it on the spot. It’s not readily available in a lot of stores in the US, and it was cheaper by at least $30 from any place that I’ve found here that carries it.
Overall a solid stop on the Champagne Campaign.
Pitstop for lunch at Le Chapon Fin
At this point, we were in dire need of sustenance. Those morning pain au chocolat just weren’t making the cut with the amount of champagne we were working with. Enter Le Chapon Fin. A classic bistro serving traditional French fare, Le Chapon Fin is a great place to mop up some of the booze. When they brought out the bread, we made short work of it—you would have thought we had gone days without eating instead of mere hours.
After a quick scan of the menu, I knew I wanted moules-frites, or mussels and fries to you non-Francophiles. There were three different preparations, and I of course went with the one that had cream and bacon, because why wouldn’t I? When it came, it was everything I wanted, and more. The mussels were tender and sweet, the fries slightly thick-cut and crispy.
And the sauce for the mussels. We have to talk about this sauce! It was creamy and smoky and salty—basically just plain delicious. If I could bathe in that sauce I would. I will be attempting to recreate this meal at home, so stay tuned.
I can without any uncertainty say that this meal was incredibly satisfying and not just on account of being slightly buzzed when we arrived. When the bill came, and I saw that my moules-frites were only €11.90, I actually laughed. I felt like I was ripping them off, but alas that was the price and I was happy to pay it.
If you’re looking for a lunch option in Épernay, go here and get the moules-frites—you won’t regret it.
Feeling re-energized by our lunch, we went back out to hit the Champagne Campaign trail running. Figuratively, not literally. I had a lot of mussels after all. But that led us to A.Bergère—a small house along the Boulevard that looks a little unassuming. As with de Venoge, the interior of the tasting room was ultra-modern—not what you expect when you enter through the wrought-iron gates on their property.
There weren’t a lot of frills or explanations of the champagnes here. It was more of a choose, pay and pour scenario, which was fine as our morning proved to be pretty educational and allowed us to try a few varietals. As my friend Jared said, “I feel like I know enough about Champagne to be a little dangerous now.”
We tried the Brut Sélection and the Brut Rosé. Again, this was a brand that is hard to come by in the States, so I knew once I tasted the Brut Sélection I needed to get a bottle to take home. It didn’t hurt that the bottle was a beautiful hand-painted design. It’s in my wine cooler now, but I plan on displaying it on my bar cart after I’m able to enjoy it, because the bottle is that pretty!
Overall I would say if you’re looking for a non-fussy, low-key house, this would be your best bet along the Boulevard.
Moët & Chandon
The granddaddy of all houses in Épernay. You know when you are approaching the Moët & Chandon house. The scale and grandeur lets you know that they run the town—at least in terms of Champagne production. In fact, it’s the biggest house in all of Champagne—even bigger than Veuve. Once we entered, we were ushered into a salon area that was fit for a queen. The over-the-top décor reminded me a bit of Versailles. I guess when at Moët & Chandon, let them drink champagne!
Once again, we decided to do the cave tour, so that we could compare a medium-large house with a LARGE house. The biggest difference here was that we had a real-life person that walked us through the caves. That’s right, no train on this stop of the Champagne Campaign. While Mercier was interesting, it was great to have a guide who we could ask questions to as we toured the 28km caves! The amount of bottles we saw, which was only a small fraction of the entire collection down there, was incredibly impressive—especially the Dom Pérignon.
We came back upstairs and were taken to a dining room that overlooked the gorgeous gardens and grounds of Moët’s estate.
As soon as the champagne was poured, the sommeliers vanished into thin air. The explanation of the champagnes left a little to be desired, but the taste did not. Deciding to go big or go home, we went with the Grand Reserve tasting option that gave us two reserve bruts and a reserve rosé. All of them were fantastic and you could really taste the craftsmanship that went into each of them.
To sum it up, you can’t come to Épernay without making a stop at Moët & Chandon. The cellar tour is amazing. The tasting is all about the champagnes, but don’t expect much in the way of explanation about taste/pairings during this section.
All in all, it was an amazing day in Champagne. If you have the chance to visit, it’s such an easy day trip from Paris, so don’t hesitate to do it! Depending on the time of year you visit, you may need to make tasting appointments, so make sure to check hours and appointment information before you go.
If you have any questions about an upcoming trip to Épernay, I’m happy to help you plan your Champagne Campaign!