In 1991, 21 year old Amanda Pickering is travelling from Australia to Germany for the beginning of a backpacking trip around Europe when she finds she is seated on the plane next to a handsome, lanky, dark-haired Frenchman. That man, Corsican native Philippe Reboul was to become her husband.
Fast forward a few years, and the couple are living in Belgium, with Champagne, where Philippe’s sister-in-law lives just a 3 hour drive away.
“We spent many weekends there and the more I visited, the more I learned about the process of making champagne and my love affair was ignited,” Amanda says.
Twenty years on, Amanda is back living in Australia, but her passion for champagne burns bright. As well as having become a champagne educator, sharing her knowledge with others, she represents some of the grower champagne houses. She also leads tours to Champagne, and in 2016, created Australia’s first champagne festival, Effervescence (August 11-13, 2017).
We can’t think of anybody better suited to give hints and tips on travelling in Champagne than The Bubble Diva, Amanda Reboul– what are must do champagne houses, where to eat, drink, and stay. So here are her insights into this beautiful region.
Anytime is a good time for Champagne! Each season has a different personality. I love going in the spring – May/June. The weather is usually quite good by then and you can see the early bud burst on the vines – the promise of the bubbles to come! Late October is interesting – it is just after harvest, and when you visit the cellars, you can actually feel the wines fermenting. There is also usually still quite a bit of activity in the vineyards. Late September/Early October is a very busy time with the harvest going on and while interesting to see, it is very busy and can be hard to get accommodation. It’s also not a good time to visit the growers because they are busy with the harvest.
Which champagne houses would you recommend visiting?
There are so many houses to visit in Champagne – you could spend weeks there and still not see everything. However, if you only have a day or two, I would recommend going to the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, where many of the older houses have their ‘caves’. Mercier is a great one to start with – it has a wonderful underground train set up to take you through their cellars and has the tour in English. After learning all about their history and visiting the cellars, you get to taste the champagne. Moet et Chandon has great guided tours in English. If only for the extraordinary history of the house, it is lovely to visit. Taittinger in Reims has a lovely visit, and can be booked online. A lot of the houses offer guided visits of their cellars by appointment. Check out their websites for details. After visiting the large houses, it is also interesting to go and a visit a grower champagne. No appointment is necessary, you can just drive around and see the signs in the villages that say “degustation.”
Where’s the best place to base yourself?
Champagne is full or picturesque villages. One of my personal favourites is Avize in the Cotes des Blancs – famed for its Grand Cru vineyards and excellent chardonnays. There is a lovely new Guest house/hotel ‘Les Avisés’ run by the enigmatic Anselme Selosse and his wife Corinne. His champagnes are some of the most sought after in the world, and staying at his hotel may give you the opportunity to meet the man himself. Tours are not guaranteed, though, and are only in French. I also love the village of Etoge with its 17th century chateau that was once the playground of the kings of France. You can stay in the castle, which also has an award winning fine dining restaurant. in the Montagne de Reims, the Village of Rilly is beautiful and also has a chateau that was once a champagne house, very well situated between Epernay and Reims. Equally pretty is the Foret de Verzenay – there you can visit a tree top bar, the Perching Bar, while sipping champagne on a swing!
What restaurants would you recommend in the region?
There are so many restaurants to choose from in Champagne. For very high end – Les Crayères would have to be the pick. It is a two Michelin Star restaurant in a luxury chateau in Reims. It has a brasserie ‘Le Jardin’ attached to it for the more budget conscious. For the middle range – Bistro Le 7 in Epernay – great food and an enormous selection of champagnes on the list. If brasserie eating is more your style, Le Boulingrin in Reims is the oldest brasserie in Reims and offers a real French Brasserie experience. I couldn’t really pick a favourite dish from any of these restaurants. They are all so different and are always beautifully matched with the champagne. Sommeliers really know their stuff in champagne and I have always just asked the sommelier what champagne he would suggest to go with the menu choice. It is a great way to discover new champagnes.
What else can you do there when you’re not tasting champagne?
Although the Champagne region is mostly about champagne, there are plenty of other things to do. A visit to the Catherdral of Reims is a must – it is where all the kings of France used to be crowned. In 1429, Joan of Arc lead Charles VII to his coronation, on horseback, after leading the army to defeat the English in Orleans, and effectively bringing to an end the 100 years war. This is historically and culturally very significant. Champagne slopes, cellars and houses were World Heritage Listed in 2015. This has taken many years to achieve, and validates that Champagne is a very unique place that has historical and cultural significance. Even a drive through the countryside is a wonderful thing to do. More information of why Champagne is so unique is available on the Unesco World Heritage Site.
And if you want a taster – to have Amanda and other experts guide you through the region’s most iconic and small grower wines, with leisurely lunches, dinners and even champagne breakfasts over an indulgent weekend, there are still some places left to join her and other champagne lovers for the Effervescence VIP weekend experience at Spicer’s Hidden Vale August 11-13.