Touring the Great Champagne Houses


is one of the world’s most iconic wine regions and also incredibly accessible, at only 30 minutes by train from Charles de Gaulle and 45 minutes from Paris Gare de l’Est. The region makes a great getaway throughout the year (with the exception of January and February, when houses close for vacation), but summer, spring and fall are all ideal times to visit when the vines are in full bloom.

While many may picture it as a pretentious and ostentatious wine region, Champagne is quite the opposite. The area is also vastly different from wine regions elsewhere in the world (including elsewhere in France). In Champagne, it’s less about the vineyards and the grapes, and more about the blend and what's going on in the caves. Many producers actually buy grapes directly from farmers rather than growing their own. This is for a variety of reasons, but primarily because of the strict regulations put into place by Le Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC); the committee controls who can own what and who can produce where in the region. All of this is to say, that in many cases, when you show up to a Champagne house, you are typically visiting only a house and production facility versus a sprawling, stunning vineyard. Additionally, the region—as France’s unfortified northeastern borderlands—resulted in widespread destruction during the wars of the 20th century. Due to this, while lovely historic pockets do exist, much of the architecture is mid-20th century and not the grand, Loire Valley-style châteaux that may form the basis for one’s image of the region.

With 318 villages, the region is vast, so it's best to carefully plot your touring and visits to Champagne houses to limit car time and assess what can realistically be covered. Appointments are essential at the region’s houses, especially during peak summer months and harvest season, and reservations must be made well in advance, particularly for private tours. This is not a region where you can simply show up at a tasting room.

An exception to this is Veuve Clicquot, which is one of the only houses in the region with a drop-in tasting room (tours here must still be arranged in advance). Many houses are also not open to the public, as they only welcome visits from those in the industry without exception (Perrier-Jouët follows these strict rules); there are also houses that accept limited visits per year, such as Billecart-Salmon, Krug, and Dom Perignon. Indagare can help with arranging tours at these difficult to get into houses.

Related: Indagare Matchmaker: French Wine Regions

In Champagne, you can, of course, spend your time visiting the large brand-name houses that offer more formal, commercial experiences. Moët & Chandon and Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart, Taittinger and Pommery (to name a few) all offer scripted tours taking you through extremely impressive caves that go on for miles beneath the surface. While visiting the large houses is interesting, what makes Champagne special is paying a visit to the region’s smaller producers. At the smaller houses, the experience is incredibly intimate. Here, you are often meeting with a member of a very small team, sometimes meeting members of the family who have owned the house you are standing in for centuries, and with that, comes an enormous amount of pride and genuine passion. At the smaller houses you will learn how each house’s Champagne style differs, as well as every detail about the production process; you are actually able to watch and observe this process firsthand, depending on what is going on at the house during your visit.

There are countless small- to medium-sized producers in Champagne. Below is a list of a few of our favorite houses, alongside recommendations for which of the larger houses to visit. It’s essential to visit at least one house in Reims where you can see the UNESCO designated crayères, which are the famous cellars built into old chalk quarries, creating mesmerizing galleries filled with millions of bottles of Champagne. Beyond a visit at one or two of the large houses, we recommend focusing attention on the smaller producers.

  • Ployez Jacquemart: This is a small-to-medium producer with extremely impressive chalk caves. Ployez offers a very casual, informal yet informative tour on a lovely plot of land. You can access and see the vineyards from this property, and they are producing zero-sugar Champagnes that are excellent. This is a family-run (and -managed) house.
  • Alfred Gratien: This is a small-medium producer that still produces a lot of wine in barrels (which is uncommon in Champagne). The barrel room and tasting room do not produce any sort of "wow factor," but the tour is extremely informative, the caves, massive, and if you are there at the right time, you can watch the machines riddle the Champagne (when the bottles are moved and rotated to loosen the sediment).
  • Moët & Chandon and Dom Perignon (LVMH): Moët is by far the largest producer in Champagne and perhaps the most well-known internationally. Dom Perignon started as a label under Moët and then split off to become its own brand with its own winemaker. If only visiting one large house, Moët & Chandon or Dom Perignon are strongly recommended, as the history of the brand is deeply connected to the region, with many interesting anecdotes included in the tour that date back to the years of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Moët & Chandon and Dom Perignon tours are through the same caves, but depending which house you book with, you are given a different tour (one more focused on the history of Dom Perignon, and one on Moët & Chandon). Tastings here are offered in multiple salons and reflect the tasting of the tour you booked. Moët & Chandon and Dom Perignon are located right off the UNESCO listed Avenue de Champagne in Epernay. The caves are impressive, but not quite as jaw-dropping as the crayères in Reims.
  • Taittinger: Located in Reims, Taittinger is only worth a visit to see the UNESCO crayères. Ruinart, also owned by LVMH, is typically considered the top house to visit for its caves, but it’s closed in the winter months making Taittinger the next best option. The caves are truly impressive and worthwhile, but the tour at Taittinger may feel a little bit "Disney." Pommery is the most commercial visit of all the houses and, again, while the caves will be impressive, visits here are not typically recommended.
  • Henri Giraud: This medium-size producer is one of the few aging wine in new barrels from a forest south of Champagne (versus reused barrels from Burgundy). This house is high-design and very unique for Champagne, from its labels to its winemaking and philosophy. Henri Giraud is located in the village of Aÿ, which is a famous Grand Cru village.
  • Le Gallais: Le Gallais is a small and independent producer, meaning everything is done on the site of the Champagne house, from the grape-growing to the bottling. This is one of the few houses that you can visit that offers amazing vineyard views and a tour through the actual vineyard while in Champagne. Madame Clicquot used to own the lands here and you can visit one of her chateaus on the plot, now owned by the Gallais family. Note: Le Gallais is currently under renovation, as they are building a new tasting room to be completed by spring 2020.
  • Leclerc Briant: Owned by the same owners of Royal Champagne, they are one of the few producers creating biodynamic Champagnes. Leclerc Briant offers a fascinating tour, as the brand’s philosophy and highly innovative techniques are very unique to Champagne. Be sure to try Leclerc Briant’s Champagne called Abyss, which is aged underwater off the coast of Normandy.
  • Philipponnat: This is a small-medium producer. The caves here are very impressive as are the Champagnes. The roots of this house go back to 1522.
Contact Indagare for assistance with arranging tours at any of these houses and for planning your trip to the region. 

Published onFebruary 18, 2020

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