As I write this, I feel I can still taste the intense garlic from my recent trip to France.
I’d visited Reims with my wife for a few days at the end of January, with a brief stop in Paris on the return leg.
Although we were excited to spend time meeting our friend’s baby daughter, I was also looking forward to experiencing the famous Champagne region.
To get there, we decided to get the Eurostar to Paris, and then booked a Flixbus to Reims. These buses are an absolute bargain, but one issue presented itself. The Flixbus stops at the TGV station in Reims, which had no trains to the centre of Reims when we arrived, which was only 9 PM. Uber to the rescue!
This can be an issue with France in general, especially when you are used to the 24-hour culture in London. When outside major cities, it seems to be up to the mood of the owner of any establishment regarding whether they’ll open for business, especially so in January. Lunch times and dinner times are somewhat more regimented. Of course, the positive is that the quality of service, atmosphere and food is generally higher than random choices in the UK.
One of best things I’ve found out about visiting France is not just their food or beautiful architecture – it’s their historic wine regions.
The Champagne region is easily accessible from the UK, either via Paris, or just by driving direct. There are lots of villages dotted around which host caves and wineries from well-known brands to smaller, family-run affairs.
Located in the city of Reims itself are numerous famous names – Veuve Clicquot, Pommery, Tattinger, Mumm and Lanson are all within walking distance.
We’d arrived late on the Thursday, so we began Friday with a stroll around the city.
The superb Cathedral was worth a visit, with stunning stained-glass windows. After, we took a punt on a small bar nearby called Joseph. It was packed with locals and proved an excellent choice. We squeezed in along the bar, facing the kitchen.
The menu tempted, but so did the specials. We plucked up the courage to try some snails for the first time. It turned out to be an excellent decision. The snails were great – I’d never eaten them before. They were served in thin biscuit shells, so were simple to eat too – just stick the whole thing in at once!
This was followed by a generous sized steak tartare, which was delicious with capers and mustard running through it. Served alongside perfectly cooked and seasoned rustic fries this was just what was needed.
We then decided to walk down to the estates to see some of them for ourselves and have a look at some other parts of the city.
Veuve Clicquot was shut until sometime in February, and Taittinger does not really have a bar unless you go through the tour, which was running. Their estate looked rather slick and felt a bit soulless, like a shopping mall. Maybe some other time I’ll visit, but with a Pommery tour booked the next day we thought we’d wait.
Still, there were some bars open to grab a glass back in town. We hit up a bar called Lion de Belfort, which had outdoor seating overlooking Subé Fountain, with its golden angel resplendent in the sunshine.
Here, we had a glass of Esprit Nature from Henri Giraud. This tasted divine after the morning’s exertions.
I can imagine the bar’s terrace is a prime (but smoky) spot in summer, and in early Jan it was a bit chilly. Time to move on!
The next day was the day for Champagne visits. The plan was to set out into the villages before heading back to Reins for the tour of Pommery.
First stop was Epernay; this is where you’ll find the Avenue de Champagne, a road lined with leading champagne houses including Moët & Chandon and Mercier. There are many cellars dug deep into the chalk underneath the city.
Being out of season, this town was also a bit quiet, with many of the larger brands closed. However, a small number were open – we stopped in Champagne de Venoge to start with. A glass of Blanc de Noirs was excellent. This is not a wine type I am that familiar with, seeing it rarely in the UK. Blanc de Noirs “White of blacks” is made from the red grapes only, usually a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. This can give a richer, smokier flavour and a tinge of red fruit.
Blanc de Blancs “White of whites” on the other hand is made from Chardonnay.
Before driving back to Reims, we had a wander around the pretty village of Haitvillers. There are smaller producers dotted around, and we found the centrally located Biliard-Labeste after our legs ached from the steep hills. This is a small family-run producer – we received a tasting from the owner’s son. After a generous tasting of most of their champagnes, we ended up walking away with a few bottles.
We got back to Reims just in time to get to our tour and headed straight down the long staircase into the impressive carved out caves.
The tunnels were also home to a number of art installations which was an added bonus. But the unusual and striking modern art was juxtaposed with very large relief images carved into the rock. It is worth getting the tour to see these alone.
The tour finished with tasting a Pommery Grand Cru 2008. Very good indeed, but I am still a bit of a novice Champagne taster to find l many nuances from vintages.
We stayed in our Airbnb for our final night in Reims, cracking out a Raclette machine and gorging on melted cheese, atop potatoes and charcuterie, accompanied by a magnum of Cotes du Rhone. Santé!