There’s only one place in the world that has an Avenue de Champagne; only one with a 3km road lined with champagne houses, where sampling the sparkling delights within is pretty much obligatory; only one place on earth with well over 200 million bottles of champagne, stored in 110 km of underground tunnels. That place is the self proclaimed Capital of Champagne, Épernay.
Épernay must count as one of the most extraordinary places in France. Less for its many opulent-looking champagne houses lining the Avenue de Champagne, than for the contents of the damp and musty cellars beneath them. Virtually all the champagne houses offer tours or tastings, or tours and tastings, making it easy to sample some of Épernay’s buried treasure.
This is where Moët et Chandon, Perrier Jouet and Mercier, some of the world’s largest champagne brands, rub shoulders with dozens of lesser known labels. It sits in the middle of a region gloriously blanketed by vineyards, where each picturesque village is home to numerous small champagne producers and various cooperatives. It’s a small and friendly, yet oddly ordinary, place. If it wasn’t the epicentre of champagne lore, you’d probably pass through without giving it a second glance.
This ordinary town has a global reputation though. It was none other than notorious boozer and British wartime leader, Winston Churchill, who declared the Avenue de Champagne, “the most drinkable street in the world”. Churchill certainly did his bit to help the town flourish, midway down the Avenue is the champagne house of Pol Roger, producer of Churchill’s favourite fizzy wine.
The town was badly damaged during both World Wars, one reason why it has a lot of uninspiring architecture. Even during the conflict champagne production continued unabated, with few men available it was the region’s women who kept the wine flowing. Unsurprisingly, the German army had a headquarters here, as did the British and Americans during the liberation of Europe. Given the other options, a posting to Épernay must have been keenly sought after.
Driving from The Hague, we arrived late at night to discover a chilled bottle of champagne awaiting us in our city centre apartment. It was from a small producer, Fred Legras, from the nearby village of Chouilly. It seemed a little degenerate to be popping open a bottle at midnight on a Tuesday, but when in Champagne … it was delicious and gave us a taste of things to come.
The next morning we had a coffee in a nearby cafe and set off to explore the town. We wandered around until we found the Tourist Office, handily located at one end of the Avenue de Champagne. Even in the tourist office there was a champagne tasting available. Two champagne houses were offering samples, and tourists got to try them for free … it seemed rude not to.
Across from the tourist office is the home of the world’s most famous champagne, Moët et Chandon. We decided to start our tour of the Avenue de Champagne there, reasoning that it was the benchmark by which to judge the rest of our champagne experiences. Outside there’s a statue to Dom Pérignon, the monk credited with invented the process to make Champagne, and someone whose name is treated with reverence in these parts.
Moët et Chandon definitely offers a more glitzy tour and tasting than most, and it has a fully ‘pimped out’ gift shop, but it also felt a little sterile. In other places we visited the passion of the makers was obvious, and the tours cheaper and more fun. The Moët experience was a bit too corporate and, for champagne, a bit too serious … but more of our time in Épernay’s cellars later.