If you fancy a mini-break centred around fizz and food, there is no finer place than the Champagne region of France. And if you drive your own car on an indulgent three-night whizz across the Channel, you can load up with wine, cheese, cured meats, pâté and baguettes to bring home with you.
Book priority boarding/offloading on a DFDS ferry crossing from Dover and you can also relax in the spacious premium lounge on board with snacks, beverages and – blasphemy! – prosecco included.
It’s an easy three-hour run from Calais on major toll roads to the town of Epernay, the centre of all things fizzy, including hundreds of champagne houses.
Grape expectations: Vineyards and the hilltop village of Mutigny
Accommodation-wise, you’re spoilt for choice. We stayed in a spacious two-bedroom apartment in quiet Cramant, a 15-minute drive from Epernay. The property wasn’t fancy but it had a well-equipped kitchen, a lounge/dining room, and a bathroom.
More to the point, it had a huge terrace with vineyard views, where we enjoyed post-prandial tastings of the spoils from our cellar visits. That way we could imbibe without having to argue about whose turn it was to be the designated driver.
It’s never too early for fizz, so the first stop on our mini-break was Champagne Voirin-Jumel (champagne-voirin-jumel.com) in Cramant, close to our holiday apartment. Handily, they were holding their annual Tasting Party, where €2 (£1.80) bought a champagne flute to keep and a first glass of wine. Free cellar tours are offered, too, and the festival included a food market, so we lunched on the hoof.
Next stop was Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, where you get an overview of the many cellars and their surroundings on an hour-long tuk-tuk tour (tuktukchampenois.fr). It costs from €15 (£13.40) per person. Then take your pick of the tastings on offer.
Celebrated: The charming village of Hautvillers is the final resting place of Dom Perignon
To start, we chose Champagne Boizel at Atelier 1834 (boizel.com/en), which opened its cellars to the public for the first time on April 30 this year. It’s chic and tasteful, with pristine cellars; visits with tastings cost from €22 (£19.60) per person for two champagnes.
Vineyards offer a variety of tasting packages at different costs, depending on the number and types of champagne you try.
You soon learn how different fizz can taste depending on the grapes used – chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier, or a mix. Fortunately, the excellent Epernay Tourist Office offers regular free – yes, free! – champagne tastings over the summer months.
Our best tasting was at C. Comme Champagne (c-comme.fr) under the excellent tutelage of Frederic Dricot. This characterful bar is stuffed with the creations of smaller producers – a birthday bottle of Alain Leboeuf Blanc de Blancs is chilling nicely in my fridge.
For dinner, we strolled to La Table Kobus (la-table-kobus.fr), an Epernay must-do apparently, but it was having an off-night. The food was ok, but the service was slow.
We headed for the charming village of Hautvillers, a 20-minute drive from Cramant, for a guided canalside and vineyard bike ride (from €55, or £49 per person) from the tourist office (tourisme-hautvillers.com). There’s good news and good news – the bikes are electric, which makes tackling hills easier, and the three-and-a-half-hour excursion includes a tasting at a champagne producer. For us it was a trip to Guy Charbaut (champagne-guy-charbaut.com) in Mareuil-Sur-Ay.
Pioneer: A statue of Dom Perignon in Epernay
Hautvillers is the final resting place of Dom Perignon, the monk who reputedly invented champagne – he didn’t, but he did perfect techniques used to create great fizz. He arrived at the abbey in 1668 and stayed for 47 years until his death – he’s buried in the abbey church.
Hautvillers is also celebrated for the wonderful iron signs signifying champagne-related jobs that adorn streets and houses. The Office de Tourisme Intercommunal d’Hautvillers runs guided tours (tourisme-hautvillers.com).
We had a lunch of tapas-style regional goodies at Au 36 (au36.net), plus a tasting of four champagnes. Afterwards, we visited the hilltop village of Mutigny, and walked the Sentier du Vigneron, a signposted, circular, 90-minute trail. Information panels in English explain the champagne-making process.
On our last night we drove to Le Mesnil-sur-Oger for dinner at La Gare (lagarelemesnil.com) and a final glass of champagne – santé!
The cellar at Champagne Boizel was opened to the public for the first time on April 30 this year
A three-night stay at the two-bedroom Appartement T in Cramant costs from €390 – about £350 – based on four sharing, including wi-fi and parking (champagne-voirin-jumel.com). DFDS ferry crossings from Dover to Calais cost from £39 each way (dfds.co.uk). For more information, visit champagne-ardenne-tourism.co.uk