With France's grape-picking season in view, Relaxnews takes a look at some of the country's finest wine producing regions. The Champagne region, which gave its name to the world's most prestigious bubbly, has plenty to offer to wine-loving tourists, from Hautvillers, where Dom Pérignon is produced, to UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Four hundred million bottles of Champagne are uncorked every year, and they all come from a 33,000 hectare area that includes the town of Epernay, the Champagne capital of the world.
It's the region that gave its name to the Champagne label, and the region's climate is crucial to its production: since it is colder than in other wine producing regions in France, grapes mature differently. Bear in mind that "Champagne" is actually a label, which happens to be the only wine label in the region. Champagne houses can be compared with the châteaux of the Bordeaux region. Modest producers share the market with the big brands that have conquered the world, such as Perrier-Jouët, Piper-Heidsieck, Veuve Clicquot and Moët & Chandon.
Three grape varietals are necessary to produce Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The wine-producing region is divided up into four areas: Reims Mountain ("Montagne de Reims"), the Marne Valley (Vallée de la Marne), the Côte des Blancs and the Sézannais, and the vineyards of the Aube département, the Côte des Bars.
Wining and hiking
Tourists can discover the region by tackling some of its various wine trails. In Haute-Marne, a 15 km trail in the vineyards of the Côteaux de Champagne includes stops at the Cellier Saint-Vincent and its Musée de la Vigne et du Vin (Wine and Vine museum), as well as great viewpoints overlooking the region's vineyards.
In the Aube département, the Pierre-Auguste Renoir tour mixes wine culture and art on a 12 km trail through numerous vineyards, including Essoyes, where Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir is buried.
A visit to the land of Dom Pérignon, the famous Benedictine monk from the 17th century who imported a special technique from the southern Languedoc region that produces the wine's fine bubbles, later dubbed "méthode champenoise". Wine lovers can also head to Hautvillers (Marne) to tackle the "La Boucle de Bellevue" tour. The 8 km hike is a great way to discover the region's vineyards, and offers great views on the Marne valley and Epernay.
World Heritage wines and sites
Tourists in the region can seize the opportunity to visit UNESCO World Heritage sites Notre-Dame de l'Epine and Notre-Dame-en-Vaux in Châlons, as well as Clairvaux Abbey (Abbaye de Clairvaux), a Cistercian monastery founded in the 12 century.
The region's wine trails also lead to various historical sites, such as the châteaux of la Motte Tilly, Montmort, Chacenay and Condé-en-Brie.
Adventurous wine-lovers may opt for the motorcycle tours of the region. The region's tourism committee (Comité régional du tourisme de Champagne-Ardenne) drew up seven such trails that are detailed on its website, alongside with road books and GPS tracks, all available as free downloads.
Useful websites to plan your trip include Comité interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne, Winetourisminfrance.com (available in English) and Oenotourismeenchampagne.fr, a gold mine tourist information for the region.