It’s those sparkling bubbles that set Champagne apart from the quiet universe of still wines. And Champagne was once a pretty ordinary still wine itself until the sparkle was sealed into the bottle thanks to the rediscovery of the cork as a stopper by, according to the most popular accounts, Dom Pérignon, a Benedictine monk who was the cellar master at the abbey of Hautvillers not far from Epernay in the late 17th and early 18th century. Today, Hautvillers is one of the world’s most famous vineyards, and it lies just 145 kilometers northeast of Paris—begging travelers to head up the A4 for at least a day trip if not a weekend or longer.
By the 18th century, as sparkling Champagne, it had become the wine of the regency and was savored at the private suppers of Louis XV. It was an integral part of the fabulous feasts of the French empire and while 300,000 bottles were produced during the age of the French Revolution, this number became 30 million on the eve of World War I and grew to some 293 million bottles towards the end of the first decade of the 21st century. It should be clear by now: This is a beverage that does not seem to be going out of style.
Hundreds of years after Pérignon's lucky discovery, the champagne-making houses, cellars and hillsides of the Champagne wine region have been inscribed on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. The site is made up of three distinct ensembles: the historic vineyards of Hautvillers, Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Saint Nicaise Hill in Reims, the Avenue de Champagne and Fort Chabrol in Epernay.
These three ensembles encompass the historic hillsides, the production sites with their underground cellars, and the Champagne houses overlooking the entire champagne production process. They embody an environment where people live and work but also showcase traditional know-how and testimony to what the hand of man is capable of.
For it was three centuries of labor by men and women that turned a cold, humid landscape of relatively poor soil of almost pure chalk, responsible for the wine's distinctive taste, into a world-famous beverage synonymous with celebration that's an international symbol of festiveness and reconciliation.
The Champagne producing district or "appellation d’origine contrôlée" is very carefully defined. Champagne is made from the fermented and re-fermented juice of (largely) Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes grown on a group of select hillsides and slopes, the vast majority of which are concentrated in the department of the Marne, in and around the cities of Reims and Epernay.
Reims, where no less than 14 houses of Champagne can be visited, is one of the great historical places in France for it was here that the country’s kings were—by and large—coronated.
Meanwhile, in Epernay more than 60 miles of underground cellars house the champagne. Above ground, private mansions line the aptly named Avenue de Champagne where many of the houses are headquartered.
Epernay is home to the venerable house of Pol Roger, who holds a Royal Warrant from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and whose Brut Réserve Non Vintage was served at the reception following the wedding of Prince William of Wales to Miss Catherine Middleton. The English connection remains strong, for their 2015 Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, the house featured the vintage Sir Winston Churchill 2004, which was aged in the house’s cellars for over 10 years.
Charles Mignon, located in Epernay, is a family-owned house, founded just 20 years ago in 1995. The house’s 2015 Premium Réserve Brut, which brings together the three most prevalent grape varieties in Champagne, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, was awarded a gold medal in the sparkling wine category at the prestigious Lyons International Competition.
Nestled in the historic and now world heritage vineyards of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, the family-owned house of Billecart-Salmon, founded in 1818, is currently managed by the sixth generation of the family. Among their mythical champagnes is the Elisabeth Salmon 2006, elaborated in honor of one of the house’s founders.
Founded in 1729 in Reims, Ruinart is regarded as the oldest of the Champagne houses. The 8-meter long cellars of the house, now part of the world’s heritage, descending an astonishing 38 meters into the ground are reminiscent of a cathedral and offer ideal conditions for aging sparkling wines. The Ruinart champagnes are characterized by the Chardonnay grape variety, a rare, complex and fragile variety.