Champagne! It’s the universal beverage of celebration, and it was a day of celebration when Expat Club traveled to France on 14 April. Champagne lovers from over two dozen countries to came to taste the drink of the gods. We came from all over the world for a tour of France’s Champagne region.
A Bus to Champagne Paradise
Now, if you’re like me, when you hear bus tour, you balk. Maybe it’s because you envision traveling on that little yellow school bus you remember from your childhood. Au contraire! Bus travel is so much easier than the hassle of getting to the airport hours early, waiting in long security lines and facing possible strikes or flight delays — and Expat Club travels in style. We cruised comfortably on a luxury coach from Lauwers, complete with reclining seats and footrests.
To get us in the spirit (pardon the pun), we watched the film “Sideways,” a quirky film about two men on a wine journey through southern California. It made the travel time fly!
Arriving in the Champagne Capital
Our first stop was Épernay, the world’s champagne capital. Its chalk hills, world-renowned grapes, and good growing environment provide the ideal atmosphere for champagne. We got to experience the magic at De Castellane, a popular champagne house that sells most of its bubbles to Belgium and France.
After walking through a small museum at our own pace, we gathered for a 45-minute tour that brought the champagne-making process to life — from grapes to beverage.
Who knew there they used three different types of grapes used to produce champagne: Chardonnay (for the dryer champagne), Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier? A little bit smarter about our favourite alcoholic beverage, we were ready to head down to the wine caves, 10 kilometres of dark, chalk tunnels that seem to go on forever. But that’s nothing! Épernay has 120 kilometres of tunnels!
De Castellane produces 13 million bottles of champagne a year. Since it takes two to five years for the wine to mature, you’ll find about eight million bottles of bubbles in the caves on any given day.
Early days of champagne production were challenging because 50% of the bottles exploded due to the pressure. That’s why the monks called it the “devil’s drink.” Our guide explained that nearly 20 percent of wine bottles were lost due to explosion in the 17th century! What a pity!
Metal tanks, concrete tanks, bottling machine. The mystery of production techniques was revealed. We even saw historic bottles of champagnes and bottling techniques from years past. It gave us a whole new appreciation of champagne before we returned to the lobby for a glass of bubbly and, of course, some purchases. Before leaving Épernay, we drove by champagne house after champagne house, each mansion more spectacular and opulent than the previous one.
Dom Perignon’s Hometown
Next on the itinerary was the quaint village of Hautvillers, Dom Pérignon’s hometown and the birthplace of champagne. The world’s most famous monk discovered the champagne making process back in the 1700s in the village’s ancient Benedictine abbey. After lunch at Restaurant de l’Abbaye, we toured the monk’s former village, walking through the streets and visiting Saint-Sindulphe Church, where Dom Pérignon’s tomb lies in the chancel.
What next? Time to discover the village, do a little shopping and sample champagnes. We especially liked the forged iron signs throughout the village that represented people’s professions, the delicious raisin mustard found in a local shop and all the places to try different champagnes. Lots of bottles made a trip to Brussels!
World Heritage in Reims
The final leg of the journey took us to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Saint-Remi Basilica. This is nothing new for Expat Club! The list of UNESCO churches that Expat Club has visited is long and ever growing!
The atmosphere of the 11th-century Basilica is magical with beautiful artwork, soaring ceilings and a collection of 12th-century stained-glass windows that survived the French Revolution when so much was looted from the church.
From there, it was off to another UNESCO World Heritage Site: Reims Cathedral or Notre-Dame of Reims. Built between 1211 and 1516, this breathtaking Gothic masterpiece has played a pivotal role in French history for more than 800 years. Thirty-three coronations were held at the Cathedral! We felt pretty royal getting an opportunity to visit this amazing church.
From every angle, this cathedral is hypnotic. Buttresses supporting the building structure allow wide openings that let light pass through the stained-glass windows, including six colourful lancet windows and three rose windows by Marc Chagall. The windows were completed in 1974.
The French tourism office claims that the cathedral holds the title for the most beautiful Gothic cathedral sculptures. Indeed! You’ll see them everywhere you look. There are 2,300 statues in all: arches, decorative figures, indoor and outdoor figures, statue columns, tabernacles, and the famous smiling angel.
After our visit, we had time to explore the town and grab a bite to eat before heading back to Brussels with smiles on our faces and champagne in our bellies.
Fun fact: A four-ounce glass of champagne is roughly 90 calories. That’s 10% less than a glass of red wine or sweet wine.