The sweet, musty aroma of wood and stone deep underground combined with the sour tang of barrel-aged alcohol… it’s one of the Champagne region’s most unmistakeable and trademark smells. There are hundreds of cellars to visit in the plethora of champagne houses across the region; three of the most famous are those of Mumm, Taittinger and Mercier.
The Mercier champagne house was founded in Épernay in 1858 and is one of the most visited establishments in the region. Its creator, Eugène Mercier, has taken up the challenge of democratising champagne (formerly considered an elite drink) and creating a ‘champagne for all occasions’, without sacrificing its quality. Visitors can take a tour of the Mercier house with an audio guide, starting with a film that retraces the exploits and innovations of its founder before plunging 30 meters underground. On board a small train, visitors spend 45 minutes touring the sumptuous cellars, adorned with chalk relief sculpture by Gustave Navlet. Some of Navlet’s sculpture depicts major towns in Champagne while other sections are allegorical, representing work in the vineyards, harvesting, the different stages of wine making or simply wine itself. Rising back up to ground level, the tour concludes with a flute of Mercier’s finest.
The G.H. Mumm champagne house has been operating since 1827 but its wine heritage was written long before that, the Mumm family itself – whose lineage includes barons and knights – dating back to the 12th century. The family was active in the production and sale of wine in Cologne from 1761, but Arnold Mumm's three sons understood the commercial potential of champagne at the beginning of the 19th century. The Mumm vineyards extend over nearly 218 hectares, strongly dominated by Pinot Noir grapes (78%); 160 of the hectares are classified as ‘Grand Crus’ and spread across eight historic villages: Aÿ, Bouzy, Ambonnay, Verzy, Verzenay, Mailly, Avize and Cramant. The Mumm house installed grape presses right at the heart of its vineyards, an innovation that exemplified its particular commitment to the terroir. The cellar tour at Mumm traces the main stages of champagne production and also incorporates one of France’s most comprehensive museums on the champagne trade.
Founded in 1734 by Jacques Fourneaux, the Taittinger champagne house is one of the last major houses to have retained its independence, boasting 288 hectares of predominantly Chardonnayvineyards that are maintained using the most environmentally-friendly techniques. Around 50 years ago Taittinger took the decision to continue its champagne production under mass selection, in which cuttings are taken from several vines of the same variety that have collectively demonstrated desirable traits (as opposed to clonal selection, in which cuttings are taken from a single ideal vine). This approach is the prerequisite that contributes to the complexity and personality of each of the Taittinger champagnes. The Taittinger tour takes you 18 metres underground into a 4th-century Roman former chalk quarry, which later became the cellars of the Saint-Nicaise abbey. The abbey was destroyed during the French Revolution and the preserved cellars were eventually adopted by the champagne house.
Fill your nose with the scent of apples around the village of Tourteron, due south of Charleville-Mézières and the Parc naturel regional des Ardennes. The rolling hills around here are strewn with productive orchards and, as you travel from village to village, you can visit local producers to sample and buy fruit. The area is known for the Reine des Reinettes apples, known in England as King of the Pippins, which has a medium-grained white flesh and an intricate, citrusy flavour.
With no less than 469 municipalities labelled as ‘towns and villages in bloom’ (Villes Fleuries), Champagne is France’s most flowery region. With beautiful, delicately-scented displays almost everywhere you look, local inhabitants have transformed the region into one enormous fragrant flowerbed that all visitors can enjoy. Some towns and villages organise flower-themed eventswith exhibitions and expert hints and tips on their programmes. The annual Ville Fleuri competition, held since 1959, is chaired by France’s tourism minister and was originally set up to develop green spaces across the country before becoming a respected contest in its own right. In the Marne department alone there are over 50 parks and public gardens; in fact, based on Ville Fleuri ratings, Marne is**France’s single most blooming department.* Flowers even play a part in the vineyards, with the continuation of the old tradition of planting a rose bush at the end of each row of vines to indicate the presence of disease. To visit Marne is, quite literally, to experience la vie en rose*.
Reims’ food market
Wander the vaulted Halles du Boulingrin in Reims, which began operating as the city’s principal food market in 1929.Following a major restoration project, the Halles were reopened in all their Art-Deco glory in September 2012. It’s an ideal place to shop for fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, flowers and delicious local specialities; breathe in the scent of the terroir and chat to passionate local producers. The market is set up here three times a week: Wednesdays (7am-1pm), Fridays(7am-1pm and 4pm-8pm, the latter period also showcasing organic produce) and Saturdays (6am-2pm).