Champagne is the wine of kings and oligarchs, demand way outstrips production and prices are merciless; but it wasn’t always so. Planted by the Romans, like so many other parts of France, the Champagne region produced weedy wines before the 17th century as the area was too far north to guarantee ripe grapes. Only in very hot summers would the Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes of the Montagne, Marne and the Côte des Blancs achieve levels of colour and alcohol that would have rendered champagne comparable to the great wines of Burgundy, where the cocktail of grape varieties was largely the same.
Although champagne was the wine of coronations in Reims, it was not until the 17th century that it found an international vocation. Pierre Pérignon, a monk at the Abbey of Hautvillers in the Marne Valley, and English merchants doctoring shipments of new wines struck on a way of giving the wine a fresh twist. Laced with sugar and run into strong bottles before the spring, champagne underwent a second fermentation which not only resulted in more acceptable alcohol levels but induced sparkling as well.
Sparkling champagne was an instant success. It was the fizz of Charles II’s court and the louche days of the French Regency following the death of Louis XIV. While still champagne continued to be made, the sparkling stuff was always in demand when people were in the mood for fun. It had become the favourite of poets and painters, even before the widows and German book-keepers of the 19th century resolved the final technical problems and transformed champagne into one of the world’s greatest wines.
London to Reims. Leave London St Pancras by Eurostar at c. 10.30am for Paris, and continue by coach to the heart of the attractive, historic city of Reims. Arriving at c. 4.00pm, there is time to settle into the hotel before an introductory talk and our first tutored champagne tasting. Dinner at a nearby restaurant with a regional menu and carefully-selected wines to accompany the meal. All four nights are spent in Reims.
Épernay. By coach through the picturesque landscape of the Montagne de Reims to the small, but important town and trading centre of champagne - Épernay. Lecture and tasting at the trade body, Comité Champagne to illustrate champagne trends, followed by lunch at a bustling, central restaurant. Afternoon private visit of the old cellars at Moët et Chandon, culminating in a tasting of its prestigious vintage champagne, Dom Pérignon. Take a scenic route by local train to return to Reims.
Côte des Blancs, Montagne de Reims. South through a sweeping, panoramic monoculture of vines to the Côte des Blancs premier-cru village of Vertus. Charming, personal visit of the cellar and its surrounding vines at the highly-regarded, family-owned Fourny & Fils. Lunch in a good, typical local restaurant. By contrast, back north in the afternoon to the premier-cru village of Mailly and its respected cooperative with commanding views over the predominantly Pinot Noir vines of the Montagne de Reims. Visit and tasting of four distinct champagnes.
Reims. The glamorous house of Ruinart and its chalk cellars, or crayères, carved out by the Romans, form a part of an extraordinary network of passages and caverns beneath the entire city, their natural subterranean qualities ideal for wine storage. Independent lunch and free afternoon to explore the rich and strategic history of Reims: its cathedral; early 20th-century architecture; markets. Maison Charles Heidsieck offers a beautiful setting for our final early-evening visit, followed by a tasting and seasonal dinner partnered by perfectly-matched champagnes.
A leisurely start. Leave Reims at c. 10.30am by coach for Paris and continue by Eurostar to London St Pancras, arriving at c. 3.30pm.
The tour is dependent on the kindness of many individuals and organisations, some of whom are reluctant to make arrangements far in advance, so the order of visits outlined above may change and there may be substitutions for some of the wineries mentioned.
Critically acclaimed historian and author of 15 books, many of them about Germany. These include monographs on Berlin and Prussia and biographies of Frederick the Great and the last Kaiser. His book on post-war Germany, After the Reich, was a best-seller. His latest book is On Germany (Hurst, 2018). He has worked as a teacher and journalist and is a prize-winning translator from French and German. An expert on wine and food, he was a professional wine judge for many years, and Chairman of the Juries for Germany and Austria at the World Wine Awards. He has written four books and numerous articles on wine. Twitter: @GilesMacDonogh | Website: www.macdonogh.co.uk
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,280 or £2,140 without Eurostar. Single occupancy: £2,460 or £2,320 without Eurostar.
Train travel by Eurostar (Standard Premier); coach travel; hotel accommodation; breakfasts, 2 lunches and 2 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Hôtel de la Paix, Reims: a comfortable, modern and central 4-star hotel, originally three separate buildings. Rooms are bright and well-equipped.
There is quite a lot of walking and standing in possibly muddy vineyards and cool, damp cellars (stairs to the crayères can be steep and numerous) as well as tasting an average of 5 champagnes per day. The first and last days involve a long drive but there is little coach travel in between. Average distance by coach per day: 57 miles.
Between 10 to 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'Giles was superb, very knowledgeable and very helpful.'
'Both lecturer and tour manager were first-class. Exemplary.'
'We were very favourably impressed with all aspects of the tour, we could never have done it on our own.'
‘Giles was very knowledgeable regarding all aspects of champagne, the rgion and different houses we visited.’