First, nothing about pronouncing the word “Reims” is phonetic. As far as I could tell, the pronounciation is closer to “rahnce.” Kind of like “France,” but not really.
Reims or Epernay?
When I was in Barcelona last year, I went on cava tour at Freixenet in Sant Sadurni d’Anoia and loved it, so when my friend floated the idea for our Paris trip, the only answer was: “Why not?” Further research gave us two main destinations: Reims or Epernay.
This question was the source of much back-and-forth between me and my friend. Reims wins in terms of volume (eight houses to choose from), but Epernay wins on history and having a street actually called Avenue de Champagne. In the end, we went with Reims because there seemed to be more non-champagne things to do. However, were I to go back, I’d head to Epernay because I want to go up in the tower at de Castellane and survey champagne country from high up.
Located in the heart of the Champagne region, Reims is a nice day trip from Paris. It’s about 130 kilometres northeast of Paris, about 45 minutes direct on the TGV, closer to 2 hours on the regional TER train.
My transportation mode of choice is the train. It’s ideal for short day trips in Europe and I’ve wanted to ride the TGV since it was described in my junior high French textbook. As an awkward teenager in rural Nova Scotia, a high-speed train in France was pretty much the opposite of my daily existence.
There is a traveler/anglophone-friendly site for buying train tickets, RailEurope, but I avoided using it – and getting charged extra service fees – by booking train tickets directly through the SNCF site. The Man in Seat 61 has a pretty good guide for buying train tickets without incurring additional charges. With advance purchase, I was able to get discounted tickets for €26 one-way.
If you’re booking tickets online, note there are two train stations in Reims: the Reims station in Reims and the station approximately 5km outside of the city, Champagne-Ardenne.
It probably goes without saying, but the train ride through the countryside of Champagne-Ardenne is beautiful. Fields of yellow colza (or rapeseed, very similiar to canola) whiz by and there are plenty of charming things to look at. The train between Reims and Epernay runs along the Marne river. On the day of our trip, there were swans hanging out in the river, it struck me as particularly French and wonderful.
Champagne Houses of Reims
There are lots of champagne tasting options in Reims, but the schedule is a bit tricky. Houses are open for a couple of hours in the morning, then closed for lunch, then re-opened for a couple of hours in the afternoon. If you’re on foot or using public transit (which Reims has in abundance, for a small city), it is reasonable to hit two champagne houses and not overdo it.
Pre-booking is essential. Schedule in advance to secure a spot and avoid disappointment. I contacted a number of houses about tour availability and one I was hoping to see was not able to accommodate my schedule.
With our transportation fixed to the train schedule, we had enough time to do one tasting visit and explore the town a little. Given the proximity to the train station, we chose the the legendary Champagnes GH Mumm.
Mumm – Toasting the Spirit of Adventure!
The tour is approximately an hour in length and takes visitors through the fundamentals of historic and modern champagne production. While the tour is the same for all visitors, the tasting themes vary: Cordon Rouge (1 sample of Cordon Rouge), Découverte (2 samples of fancy product), and Grands Crus (2 samples of fancier product). I went with the mid-range “Découverte” for €17 (CAD$22.81).
The visit starts with a short film about the history of the house and the general awesomeness of champagne. The theme of Mumm’s film is using Mumm to celebrate the successful conclusion of intrepid undertakings. To quote Mumm, “to celebrate the spirit of adventure!”
Our knowledgeable and patient guide describes every aspect of the process, including the grapes, growing locations, and the careful composition of their product.
There are lots of cool, mysterious machines, comme ça:
After learning champagne composition fundamentals, we got a legitimately instructive lesson in the different sizes of champagne bottles. Fun fact: larger bottles require different processes to account for the additional volume and pressure. Science!
Lingering question: why are champagne bottles named after biblical kings? This amuses and fascinates me. Poking around on the internet has yielded no useful information beyond the names and volumes. I want answers.
Moving on. A champagne cave is exactly what it sounds like:
In the champagne caves, we got to see something pretty special. Mumm has a champagne “library,” which houses bottles from every important vintage. The key to the library is passed from cellarmaster to cellarmaster for his exclusive use, should he feel the need to sample older vintages and be reminded of what the product should taste like.
The final part of the tour is a mini-museum of old-timey champagne production machinery. This isn’t meant to sound condescending: it was adorable.
After all of this wonderful champagne learning, it was time to get down to some wonderful champagne drinking.
My Découverte selections were quite lovely. The cellarmaster described the 2004 Millésimé as having “exceptional persistence” which must also mean “tastes delicious.” The notes for the Brut Rosé describe the influence of chivalry and dictates it should be accompanied by a fresh rose. Alors, I did not receive one. Mumm should expect my letter.
There’s more to a champagne tour than an introduction to a brand and its corporate identity. Champagne is a product with a colourful history and strong cultural identity, to taste and learn more about it is to gain a better understanding of the people of the region, and by extension, another part of France itself.