met the police the first night I was in France.

Well I saw them, in the lobby of the hotel I was staying at. Arresting three men.

I arrived in Reims, to tour the vineyards of Champagne and was tired from a long day of travel. Not only was I carrying my backpack, but also two bags under my eyes, as I searched the town for a place to sleep.

The sun was going down, I was in a strange town where I knew no one, and no one knew where I was. And what’s more, I hardly knew the language.

Armed with what I could remember of my high school French, I managed to find a room in the main district of town.

I went upstairs to check out the room, and upon my return to the lobby, I was greeted with two police officers apprehending the three men in the lobby.

Between yelling at the men and the police, the clerk managed to check me in. Only after seeing the hesitation on my face did he throw in a free breakfast.

Welcome to France I thought; try the Champagne.

And that was what I had come to do.

Not just the Champagne, but as many wines as I could. I wanted to bike through the world’s greatest vineyards, eat the grapes, try the wine, and expand on my French. So from London I found a cheap flight to Reims, and thought that I would start my oeno-trip, as an aperitif, in the region of Champagne.

With a population of just under 200,000 Reims is only an hour flight from London and at 145 kilometres from Paris, is just over an hour on the train.

It is home to many of the major Champagne houses, including Krug, Louis Roederer, Piper Heidsieck, Pommery, as well as Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin – all of which offer tours and tasting at a nominal fee, although many are by appointment only. Most are closed between noon and 2 p.m. for lunch, so it is best to call ahead. Otherwise you will end up like me, lost, in the pouring rain, wondering why these people take so long to have lunch.

The receptionist at Piper was kind enough to let me wait in the lobby, as I was completely soaked, and a little chilly.

Such was the beginning of my first tour of a French winery.

Welcome to France, I thought.

The next day I boarded a train to Epernay, the other main town of Champagne. It is less than 35 km from Reims, through the lush vineyards growing the three grapes used in champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and the lesser known Pinot Meunier.

Just as in Reims, there are many famous Champagne houses in Eperany, most of which are found on Avenue du Champagne. Located side-by-side are Moet & Chandon, Perrier-Jouet, de Vouge, Pol Roger and Demoiselle.

Across the street from Moet et Chandon, is a classic French garden and guest house that was built for Napoleon, who frequently came to visit. Owned by Moet et Chandon, it is still in use, but only for private functions.

The most impressive of all is de Castellane. With its huge, cathedral-like bell tower over looking the town it is worth the walk from Avenue du Champagne.

Again, all have tastings and tours, with Moet et Chandon being the most popular and most informative. Look for the large statue of the Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon, just outside the main doors.

The remains of Dom Perignon can be found in the abbey where he lived, in a small town called Hautvillers, a short bike ride from Epernay.

Epernay is the best place to rent a bike and get out into the vineyards and see the grapes in action. There is a wonderful bakery in Epernay, just off the main square, that has some of the most mouth-watering breads, cheeses and meats in town.

Hop on a bike and eat in the vineyards of your favourite champagnes, all of which are conveniently marked at the road in front of the vines. Veuve Clicquot there, Moet et Chandon here, Louis Rodier around the corner.

For me it was like I was having lunch with my favourite celebrity, except I could not ask any questions; just sit and admire. And once in a while, have a grape or two.

Welcome to France I thought.

 

Originally published here in Pique Newsmagazine