A weekend in Reims

Champagne bottles at the end of the riddling process, where the dead yeast is ready to be disgorged.

Champagne bottles at the end of the riddling process, where the dead yeast is ready to be disgorged.

(Yes, yes: silence forever, and then suddenly a whole slew of posts at once. That’s how I roll.)

Last weekend, I escaped to Reims, France, for a weekend of champagne tasting. It’s something I booked months ago – literally, in June or July, very soon after I arrived in London – and had been looking forward to with great enthusiasm. I know so little about the wine regions of Europe, and getting to explore them is something I’m very excited about.

(Especially in person. Especially when I’m with someone who knows what they’re doing.)

I found this tour through one of my meetup groups. The man who runs the group does that as a sideline, with his primary occupation being wine tourism. Which is a thing. Of course it is.

Anyway: Christos (the wine guy) knows his stuff. I’ve been on a number of his meetup events, and they’re always great: good wine, good company, and often good food as well. And, importantly, not always ridiculously expensive. (There was one event which I did not attend, which was £100 a head, and involved the opening of 5 or 6 bottles of 1980s vintage Bordeaux, but that is unusual.)

We met at 7am on Friday morning, which meant leaving home soon after 6. I was… well. We’d had a work corporate away day the day before, which was followed by drinks, and while I only had three drinks (one was a large, so perhaps that’s four), whatever their cheap red was hadn’t terribly agreed with me. I was Not Well, but also Determined To Work Through It. Getting to Victoria involves two buses for me, but I elected to use the cold morning air to clear my head, and walked from Westminster to Victoria. It helped. At least a little, anyway.

Reims is a seven or eight hour drive from London, by coach, once you include waiting time for the train beneath the channel. I actually hadn’t paid much attention to how you drive to France; I knew you could, because there was a tunnel, but I’d not really thought it through, or recognised that it involved a train. A train that large coaches can drive onto. That is an experience: driving onto a train, man. We stopped at the terminal for coffee (I really needed it by then) and bathroom breaks (there was a bus on the coach, but…) and then it was straight onto the train, which we celebrated with, of course, champagne. Christos runs two of these tours each year, and opening champagne at that point of the trip is tradition. I approve wholeheartedly.

The train beneath the channel takes about 30 minutes, I think. I ventured off the coach to use the bathroom, believing we were closer to the front than the end (we weren’t), which meant I walked through ten or twelve compartments before finding to the bathrooms (there is one at each end of the train). It’s very disconcerting, because you know you’re moving, but you also don’t feel like you’re moving – a bit like being on an airplane, I suppose, but beneath the water.

And then, suddenly, we were in France. My second time in France, but my first spending time outside of Paris! We drove on, stopping for lunch after two hours, and then driving one more hour to arrive in Reims. Our first champagne house was the next stop: Champagne Charles de Cazanove, located within the city centre. I was, I admit, not especially impressed by their champagne, which wasn’t to my taste, and the cellars were a little too modern to feel ‘right’. Still, champagne is champagne!

We stayed at the Hôtel de la Paix, which is a Best Western, but really lovely despite the chain ownership. It has a lovely bar (very important), serves a lovely buffet breakfast, and the rooms were nice. I was sharing (I had the option to pay more for a single room, but preferred to spend that money on food/champagne) with a woman named Pam, who was lovely. We had two single beds that were a little close together, but they were comfortable, and the shower was utterly amazing.

There was a group dinner that night, where I got to know a few more members of the thirty-odd others within the group. I had foie gras, which was (of course) amazing, plus steak and potatoes, and a chocolate mousse for dessert. Plus champagne, of course, and wine.

Each trip Christos plans involves visiting different champagne houses, so that no one ends up seeing the same ones twice (where possible). The first house is always one of the larger ones, and after that they always visit some of the small ones, but always grand cru or premiere cru rated. The two on Saturday were vastly superior to the one on Friday: both small, family-owned operations where you could see that they loved their product, and were personally proud of it. The first was Champagne Francois Seconde (where they had the cellars I had hoped for out of the first house); the second Jorez Le Brun.

We tried between four and six champagnes in each house; needless to say, there was not a lot of sobriety, and very, very little spitting of wine following tasting! Despite not really having intended to buy much, I ended up buying a couple of bottles at each place, including a bottle of ratafia (my regency romance reading self wiggles in delight at the latter), which proved surprisingly delicious.

Seven of us went for dinner together that night, which, again, was lovely. French food is amazing!

Sunday took us to one final champagne house, where the product was delicious, and superbly enhanced by the tradition of opening bottles with a sabre! Four members of our group were randomly selected to perform that honour, and it was fascinating watching it, and then seeing the bottles afterwards, glass clean sheared away.

We had time after that final house to have lunch in Reims and explore the famous Christmas markets, which I was delighted to see. My halting French was enough to let me buy what I wanted to buy (things to take back to work, and send elsewhere), and then I ended up meeting up with some others from the group for lunch, before we headed back to the coach.

It was a long trip home, despite my efforts to sleep along the way; going home is always longer than heading out, I suppose. We arrived back at Victoria just after 9pm, which wasn’t too bad, but then I had to lug my bottles of champagne (and my suitcase) on two buses in order to get home. I could have called an uber, I suppose, but it didn’t seem too heavy and unwieldy at the beginning… the same could not be said of it by the end.

Still: I managed.

It was a wonderful weekend, and I will very gladly go back to Reims. I’m so glad I decided to go– I know a lot more about champagne now! (As if that were the only plus.)

Weekend travel to the continent is one of the best parts about living in London. There are so many places that you can get to so easily! I see many more trips in my future.