A Few Days In

Explore — and Drink! — Champagne Like an Winemaker

by Emilien Boutillat
Champagne The dramatic landscape of France's Champagne region. Photo courtesy of Champagne Armand de Brignac.

Emilien Boutillat, winemaker extraordinaire for Armand de Brignac, knows Champagne: the region in northwestern France and the bubbly. We asked him to tell us how to get the most out of both, from the small towns you can't miss to the questions you should ask a vigneron.

CHAMPAGNE, France — I come from a family of winemakers and was born in Champagne, France. Throughout my childhood, I worked in the vineyards and the cellars with my father, developing a deep appreciation for wine and its production. When I was older, I chose to travel the world and experience new and different wine regions: Bordeaux, California, New Zealand, South Africa, and Chile, to name a few. Yet after seeing so many wonderful places, I decided to come home to Champagne. I love the wonderful landscapes and the history of the region and now work as a winemaker for Champagne Armand de Brignac, a collection of five prestige cuvées produced by the Cattier family, 13th-generation Champagne growers.

Armand de Brignac vineyard Champagne France
Picking grapes off the vines at the Armand de Brignac vineyard in Champagne.
Emilien Boutillat Armand de Brignac tasting
The author, Emilien, engaged in quality control.

The Scene

Champagne can only be made in Champagne, France. If it's not, it's technically not Champagne, but rather sparkling wine. So if you love the finest bubbly, there is no better place to visit than the birthplace of the king of beverages. (King Louis XIV and Madame de Pompadour loved Champagne so much that it came to be referred to as "the king of wines" or "the wine of kings," and still is to this day.) Speaking of royalty, King Clovis, the first king of France, and most of the French monarchs that followed, were crowned in the Cathedral in Reims, the region's informal capital. Today, Riems and its cuisine continue to blend traditions both old and new.

Champagne Valley
The beautiful, contrasting terrains that make up the Champagne landscape.

Lay of the Land

The region of Champagne, France, is extremely diverse, with three distinct terrains: the fields in the plain, followed by the vineyards in the hills, and the woods atop those hills. The landscape is incredible and changes with the seasons: I enjoy fall the most because, when the leaves on the vines and the trees turn, the landscape becomes a rainbow of vibrant red, yellow, brown, and orange.

In Champagne, everyone visits the village of Hautvillers, a beautiful town with lovely vineyards and a striking landscape, as well as Epernay, the capital of Champagne, and Reims, the largest city in the region, known for its king-crowning cathedral.

It's lovely to drive through the vineyards and get lost in small, intimate villages like Chigny les Roses and Rilly la Montagne, where you really feel the heart and soul of this magnificent region through the people, the winegrowers, and workers. Please don't be shy about going into the vineyards and speaking directly with the people. We are passionate and are always happy to share our knowledge of growing and winemaking.

If You Only Do One Thing

It's hard to pick just one! I would say visit a vineyard and tour the cellars: Taste their champagne, get to know the winegrowers, and enjoy a local lunch on a terrace overlooking the vineyards.

Armand de Brignac vineyard cellar
The cellar at Armand de Brignac.
Champagne tasting Armand de Brignac vineyard
When in Champagne ... drink!

Where to Drink (and Tasting Tips)

Champagne may be a small region, but it has a wide variety of wine producers, styles, and sizes. This diversity it allows you to easily move from one place to another and see the difference between the various vineyards and find the Champagne you like best. For example, a blanc de blancs (100 percent chardonnay) from the Côte des Blancs and a blanc de noirs from Montagne de Reims or Côte des Bar are incredibly different. The best way to enjoy, taste, and experience a great Champagne is directly at the source, which in this case is a small village. Pick a winegrower and talk to a vigneron: He or she will be able to talk to you about their product, from the pruning of the vines to the cellars. Some excellent sub-regions and wineries to visit include:

Côte des Bar
Champagne Drappier is family-owned and similar in size to our own vineyard.

Côte des Blancs
Champagne Selosse is very interesting and showcases unique wines.

Montagne de Reims
Mailly Grand Cru produces extremely high-quality champagne and the hosts are warm and endearing.

Reims Cathedral
The Reims Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Reims Tourism.

What to Do and See

Tower of Reims Cathedral
The top of the Reims cathedral has sweeping views of the town and surrounding vineyards.

Palais du Tau A Reims
Visit the palace for a look at the historic residence of former French kings awaiting their coronation.

Les Faux de Verzy
The arboretum is a terrific place to take a walk and cool down during the summer or to admire the colorful foliage in autumn.

Epernay, L’Avenue de Champagne
Take a stroll down one of Champagne’s most iconic streets.

Walk through the village and discover the town’s many examples of wrought iron art.

Maison Fossier
A delicious bakery featuring a variety of cakes, sweets, and the famous pink biscuit of Reims.

Le Parc de Champagne
The Reims park hosts art exhibitions, concerts, and the annual music festival La Magnifique Society each May.

Boulingrin Market
The market, opened in 1929, is a marvelous way to see local culture, especially at the farmers' market on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday morning. I go every week to buy the best quality vegetables, meats, cheese, and fish.

Place du Forum
A casual spot to sit outside, have a glass of wine or beer with friends, and enjoy a concert during the summer months. The historic spots in the plaza include Hotel Le Vergeur and the cryptoportique, a semi-subterranean vault built in the third century AD.

Entertainment in Reims
I go to concerts at La Cartonnerie, improv shows at Les Sacres De L’Improv on the first Thursday of every month, and the circus at Le Temps Des Cerises.

Street Art in Reims
A must!

Perching Bar
The bar in a treehouse in the Verzy forest is a fun, unusual place for Champagne tasting.

Hot Air Balloon Ride
For incredible views of my beautiful region.

Where to Drink a Glass of Champagne/Wine/Beer

Le Cabasson Estaminet
The quaint and cozy Le Cabasson Estaminet. Photo courtesy of Le Cabasson Estaminet.

Au 36
If you’re visiting Hautvillers, this is a fantastic place to try different Champagnes and to pair them with local dishes.

Le Coq Rouge
They have a very good wine list from winegrowers based not only in Champagne, but all over France. Coq Rouge is a perfect place to relax and enjoy a glass of red wine after a full day of Champagne tasting.

Aux 3 P’tits Bouchons
Similar in spirit to Le Coq Rouge.

Le Clos
This place has a fun, lighthearted atmosphere with a weekly, rotating wine list and games like petanque. I come often with friends at the end of the day to sit back and enjoy food from local food trucks with a glass of wine.

Le Cabasson Estaminet
I love this place! It has a cozy and comfortable atmosphere that makes you feel at home with gypsy jazz music, homemade pie, microbrewery beer, and board games. It also serves brunch. What more could you want?

Les Crayeres restaurant dining room
Inside the elegant dining room at Les Crayeres. Photo courtesy of Les Crayeres.

Where to Eat

L’Assiette Champenoise
My favorite Michelin-starred restaurant in the area now does a special menu paired with our cuvées. Arnaud Lallement is a remarkable chef.

Les Crayeres 
A magnificent Michelin-starred restaurant with beautiful grounds that are perfect for a sunset stroll.

Also Michelin-starred, serving a modern take on Japanese-French fusion.

La Cantine Du Coq
An excellent atmosphere.

Chez Lou
A healthy spot located behind the cathedral, featuring an array of salads, bowls, wraps, and juices. Go for the perfect lunch.

Joseph, Bar a Manger
A wonderful spot front of the cathedral with a nice terrace for tapas, Champagne, and brunch.

Chateau de Rilly exterior
If you make it to the small town of Rilly, spend the night here. Photo courtesy of Chateau de Rilly.

Where to Stay

For luxury, L’Assiette Champenoise and Les Crayeres.

For a B&B, La Demeure Des Sacres.

For a castle hotel in Rilly, Chateau de Rilly.

Harvesting grapes at Armand de Brignac
Hands on at Armand de Brignac. Photo by Bernadette Knight.

Plan Your Trip

Getting Around
I would highly suggest renting a car, as there is little to no public transportation and very few Ubers or taxis.

When to Go
The best time of year to visit is from May to October, and I would highly recommend visiting during the harvest as well (generally in September).

Money Matters
Tipping is appropriate if you are satisfied with your service

Local Customs
Many locals don’t speak English, so practice your French. The people are modest, and it’s best to dress in a respectful way that matches this custom. However, we French love to party, so come ready to meet new people with the biggest hearts.

What to Pack
An empty bag. By the end of your trip, you’ll thank me that you have room for all the excellent bottles of Champagne you’ve found along the way.

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