The first thing you smell as you drive into Epernay, Champagne, is money, at least if you arrive from the north.
The broad, chateau-lined sidewalks are made of large white stones that look like they’ve never seen a sole – sorry, couldn’t help myself. The ornately fenced in champagne houses that give Avenue de Champagne its name are all trying to be more grand than their neighbors, discreetly of course.
While this famous avenue is definitely worth a visit, it’s a stark contrast to the more humble, rural caves that you’ll find in the surrounding villages. Moët & Chandon, Mercier and Comtesse Lafond are impressive, but you get the sense that, while the well-dressed hosts all have acclaimed French degrees in viticulture, they’ve probably never picked a grape.
I’ve visited once in mid-November and once in mid-October. The latter is the decisive winner. According to the tourist office, high season ends on November 1. Going mid-October ensures that tourist numbers are limited, the fall colors are vibrant and most places are still open.
Hautvillers is one of the area’s prettiest villages, a 15-minute drive north of Epernay. The town is small but packs in a church, bakery, a couple cafes and restaurants, a tourist office and a handful of Champagne houses, some with excellent views of the valley. We started at JM Gobillard & Fils. A friendly, low-ceilinged space where you’ll sit at large tables with tipsy strangers from the Netherlands, the US and everywhere in between. Nothing pairs with good vibes quite like champagne. Tastings are a painless €3/glass or €5 for three tastings.
If you want to get the blood flowing between sittings you can walk down the hill from the tourist office, turn right onto a path that leads through the vineyards and walk a stunning one-hour loop. There’s a tourist map available. Pick up an eclair or five at the bakery to keep fueled.
Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger is our second favorite village, not because of its quaintness, but because it’s home to Launois Père & Fils champagne house. The rolling vineyards and hillside chateaus you’ll see on the short drive from Epernay also add to its appeal. Of the 24 champagnes that I’ve tasted, the Dorine blanc de blancs is the winner. It’s become tradition to not leave Champagne without a case – and no, I’m not being paid for this endorsement. It’s a reasonable €17.75/bottle so the guilt factor is low-ish. If you can, do the museum tour, in French only. It’s interesting – I assume more so if you understand what they’re saying.
Dinner time is a no brainer. Our choice is and always will be La Cave à Champagne – a small, crowded French restaurant in downtown Epernay with moderately priced set menus (€20-35) and food that’s so good it will leave you stuttering. Book ahead and request the front room, it’s slightly more special. The restaurant is French quaint not French chic, so don’t worry about wearing your fancy pants.
Driving from village to village, through blazing orange vineyards and, hopefully, under deep blue fall skies is magic, and that’s not the champagne talking. If you live in Luxembourg, it’s only 2.5 hours away, so there’s really no excuse, even if you don’t like champagne.
If, at the end of the day, you haven’t managed to hit your tasting quota, go to La Fine Bulle or any of the other generic champagne bars on Rue Gambetta, where you can power through five tastings for €15.
I recommend an itinerary that looks something like this:
Saturday: Tastings/lunch in small villages & vineyards, aperitif in a champagne bar and dinner at La Cave à Champagne
Sunday: Avenue de Champagne (because it’s more likely to be open on Sundays and all the houses are within walking distance).
That being said, you really cannot go wrong with a champagne-themed weekend. Santé!
Don’t forget to have a water bottle with you. Two days of tasting is a marathon and the walk from one champagne house to another can take awhile.
“Woody” is apparently not a valid adjective to use when describing champagne flavors.
Hotel Parva Domvs
Pros: On Avenue de Champagne; breakfast included; cozy; sweet owners
Request the blue room for a safe bet. The old man, half of the pair that runs the place, was lovely and makes his own champagne. Be ready to practice your French.
Hotel La Cloche
Pros: Downtown but quiet; cheap; quaint
We’ve stayed at both of these places, and I’d stay at either of them again
La Cave à Champagne