As I have chronicled here countless times, I used to be a European cycling tour guide. I say “European” since I also led trips in various parts of Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Spain, but the bulk of my trips were in “L’Hexagone” (how the French occasionally refer to their hexagon-shaped country).
Once knowing about my touring experience, people will inquire as to my “favorite” region. I would follow this question with several of my own since what they are really asking is “Where should I go?” I would try to determine what they valued: history? Gastronomy? Natural beauty? Wine?
Based on the answers provided, I would try to steer them in a direction or two since the truth of the matter is that it really does not matter to me what area of France I go to–I know I am going to enjoy it. I mean, riding my bike, eating great food, drinking fabulous wine, what’s not to love?
If forced to choose one “last ride” in all of France, however, I would not hesitate: Champagne.
While I consider Alsace my “home” (I studied there in college), Champagne is certainly my first “love.” When I started my own personal wine journey, I started with champagne and ventured out from there. And given its proximity to Paris, it is particularly easy to add on a couple of days in the region on any trip to France.
Most of my trips to Champagne start by cycling through the Valley of the Marne. Once I hit the statue of Urbain II in Châtillon-our-Marne I know two things: I am just a few kilometers from Epernay and I am about to have some champagne.
If I happen to have the foresight to contact him well in advance, I’d visit Daniel Collard of Collard-Chardelle, in Villers-sous-Châtillon, just a kilometer or two from the statue.
I always leave Collard-Chardelle with a heavier bike.
On those occasions that I drive up from Paris, I always stop at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, where over 2,000 American soldiers who died during WWI are buried.
Arriving in Epernay, one of the capitals in Champagne, I’d quickly store my bike, shower, and head out. I’d stroll past the main church in town, Notre Dame d’Epernay on my way to…
…the best champagne shop not just in Champagne, but likely in the world. Sadly, Madame Salvatori died a few years ago, at the age of 89.
A quick stop at Moët to pay homage to the Dom…
…and likely a tour of a large producer. This is a photo from the caves at Moët—not my favorite tour, but a popular one. These are magnums of Dom Pérignon, resting peacefully until it comes time for their disgorgement.
There are hundreds of kilometers of limestone caves in Champagne (the Romans mined for salt and chalk) with millions (billions?) of bottles of champagne in them. The wooden “V” in the middle is where one of the bottles exploded.
Gosset has recently moved their production to Epernay (from Aÿ) and a visit to the house is usually on the docket.
After a day or two in Epernay, I’d be back on the bike, riding up to Reims, through the greatest vineyards in Champagne. Although a bit out of the way, making a detour to one of my favorite towns, Bouzy, is always on the itinerary.
There is not a whole lot to see or do in Bouzy (other than several of my favorite producers), but the chapel in town is a good picnic spot.
And if you are going to be in Bouzy, just another few kilometers along is Ambonnay. Although I have never had the wine (it goes for about $2000/bottle) this is the famed Clos d’Ambonnay.
Back on the route, Mumm’s Moulin-à-Vent (windmill) in Verzenay is a great photo opportunity.
Arriving in Reims (the main capital in Champagne), I head straight for the cathedral and the afternoon light.
Taking in the Son et Lumière show at the cathedral is an absolute MUST.
My favorite producer in Reims is no doubt Bruno Paillard, now headed by Bruno’s daughter, and one of the nicest people one could ever want to meet, Alice Paillard.
Another favorite, Mailly Grand Cru, is just outside of Reims and if my buddy Xavier is in town, I will certainly drop in.
Not much oak is used in Champagne these days, but all of the better producers will incorporate some wine aged in barrel into their champagnes.
Gorgeous skies accentuated by green vineyards abound in Champagne. This is in Mailly-en-Champagne.
Have kids? EuroDisney is not far (but it is pretty much exactly the same as every other Disney park).
One of my favorite photos: can you tell what it is and how it relates to champagne?
Good advice these days.
About the drunken cyclist
I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.