France’s champagne region and city of Reims is just a 45 minute train ride north-east from Paris through the countryside. If you are visiting Paris and have time for a day trip, this is the perfect blend of history and gastronomy.
The iconic champagne houses, including Veuve Clicquot, Tattinger, and Pommery, are situated in the town of Reims. Ruinart is the oldest of the champagne houses, established in 1729, and is known for its blanc de blanc, a pure blend of Chardonnay grapes.
We decided to catch the train in the morning and visit two champagne houses. The trip was easy, we settled into our pre-assigned seats and soon were swaying along the tracks as the train sped through golden fields and open skies.
Once we pulled up to the train station I had read how important it was to quickly get in line at the taxi line up just outside the train station doors. It was true. There was a long line up already when we arrived.
Surrounded by tall stone walls, we pulled into the driveway of Maison Ruinart and were greeted by a friendly guard. All guests booked on a tour have their name on the list, no walk-ins allowed! Luckily, due to our advanced planning, we were invited to enter the gates and join a few fellow couples in the salon, elegantly decorated with renaissance paintings and some comfortable plush sofas.
Our chic french guide greeted us and started our visit by speaking about the history of Ruinart, pointing out the portraits of the founders. It was after Louis XV issued a decree allowing champagne to be distributed by bottles, and not just barrels, that Ruinart’s champagne gained popularity as business gifts to the cloth buyers, distributed through Dom Ruinart’s brother’s network as a cloth merchant.
Our first stop was a room filled with art – a modern tablescape with melting chandeliers by Dutch artist Maarten Baas; one of France’s earliest advertising posters with a woman provocatively showing off her shoulder by Czech illustrator Alphons Mucha; a replica of Louis XV’s commissioned “Le Déjeuner d’Huîtres” oil painting depicting an oyster feast in full swing with many of Ruinart’s recognizable round shaped champagne bottles.
This painting happens to be the first known piece of art to showcase champagne – can you look carefully and figure how they knew it was champagne featured at the party?
Finally someone in our group noticed the cork flying over the table, a telltale sign of the bubbles pressurized into the wine.
Throughout the entire tour our guide’s descriptions were interesting, engaging and thought provoking… she really knew her craft!
At this stage our guide offered the group a warm blanket as the cellars – les crayères – would be quite cold once we dropped 38 feet below ground, to an even temperature of 11-degrees Celsius. It was this attention to detail that really elevated the experience and made us feel taken care of and appreciative of the luxury in this world prestigious champagne house.
Down the steps we went into the cool dark tunnels, lit with a warm glow along the stairwell. Once we reached the lower level we could see through a window into the production facility as they corked each bottle.
Champagne has a two part fermentation process. Once the first fermentation is complete the neck of the bottle is frozen to create an ice plug, trapping the collected lees sediment. The plug is popped out before quickly re-corking the bottle for a second ferment to create those beautiful fine bubbles.
We were led through the dark halls of the cellars where rows and rows of champagne bottles were gently resting. A quiet setting with dim lighting is just what the champagne needs to mature into its wonderful flavor. As we walked deeper into the caves the bottles of champagne grew larger, and the rows grew deeper, grouped by various cuvée.
In one of the main cathedral-like chambers, the champagne bottles rest at an angle in large wooden trestles shapes like an M, where they are rotated or ‘remuaged’ a quarter turn, 2-3 times a day, to help the lees particles slowly make their way into the neck of the bottle. Madame Veuve Clicquot is credited with inventing the riddling rack. Premium cuvée continue to be rotated by hand.
The history of the cellars is fascinating. Originally old chalk quarries, the walls and large dome shaped rooms are all chiseled by hand. During World War I the main Ruinart house was tragically destroyed and so the offices were moved into the cellars, creating an underground bomb shelter where work could continue.
France’s champagne houses have a history of strong women entrepreneurs. In 1919 André Ruinart passed away leaving his widow Charlotte to run the estate. This is a similar tale to that of Madam Veuve Clicquot who had a huge influence on establishing and innovation in the champagne industry (and some say was rumored to have murdered her husband!). There must have been huge competition and drama between the champagne houses, this setting would make an exciting novel I’d like to read.
Finally we emerged into the sunlight and walked back across the grounds taking in the vast and elegant building and its perfectly manicured landscape. We re-gathered in the salon to savor some of the delicate champagne that had been resting in the caves just days prior..
Our host presented us with a choice of blanc de blanc or rosé, with two cuvées to sample. As we sipped, she joined us and described the flavor profiles, taking us through what to look for on the pallet and the subtle differences.
The blanc de blanc is Ruinart’s signature champagne, made entirely from Chardonnay grapes. It glows with a pale golden yellow color and very fine bubbles. The rosé, created since the 18th century, blends Chardonay with the addition of Pinot Noir.
This was a lovely way to experience the champagnes and we discussed as a group what we thought of each one, which we preferred, and where everyones’ travels had taken them. Finally our tour was complete and we couldn’t resist stopping into the store to bring a few bottles home with us, creating a very special memory of our visit to the one and only champagne region.
Sails & Spices Travel Tips
- Getting Around – When arriving at the train station be prepared for a long line up at the taxi stand. We took a taxi to get around and once we were done our tours, called one from the champagne house to get back into the town square where the train station was.
- Lunch – The champagne houses can be quite far apart and it’s a bit of a walk along the main road to get from place to place. We decided to book two tastings and in between it was a challenge finding somewhere for lunch. Next time I would pack a picnic if there isn’t ample time to find a restaurant. Note the main town square has lots of restaurants (although not a ton of vegetarian or vegan options – we settled for a veggie burger).
- Dress – It does get chilly down in the caves and there is a fair bit of walking, so dress accordingly for your comfort.
- Language – We took the tour in French and probably understood 80% of it, but being immersed in the French language added to the atmosphere and we felt we probably got a better tour in the guide’s native language.
- Book in advance! It’s no surprise the tours book up quickly especially in the summer time. We simply booked online.
Before I arranged this trip I had no idea the champagne region was so close to Paris. It turned out to be a very easy day trip from Paris. We were back in time for dinner and were thrilled to have experienced the Champagne region of France. What an experience!
Enjoying Your Champagne
- Serving – Serve your Champagne cold, between 7 to 10 °C / 45 to 50 °F. Chill your bottle in a bucket of water and ice for 30 minutes, or take your champagne out of a cold fridge for ~10 minutes before serving.
- Storing – For long term storage, champagne prefers a cool and dark location, with a consistent temperature of approximately 55 deg-F . Lay your bottles on their side so the cork doesn’t dry out. Only store your champagne for up to a couple days in a fridge before serving, or chill with ice.
- Pairings – Champagne pairs beautifully with most lighter meals. Brie cheese, strawberries and almonds are all classic pairings. Rich, buttery and salty foods will contrast nicely with the champagne’s light bubbles. Try our Spring Asparagus Risotto to enjoy with your next bottle.
- If you are looking to throw a cheese a wine party – don’t miss our comprehensive guide to The Ultimate Cheese and Wine Pairing Party.
If you love wine, we would highly recommend a visit to the Champagne region, just outside of Paris.