And they're off. The champagne harvest is under way – and in accordance with the rules of the appellation that governs the world's favourite sparkling wine, the grapes must be gathered before the end of October. The patchwork of vineyards that texture the plains and rolling hills of France's most northerly wine-producing region is now gently bustling with about 100,000 pickers. The harvesting must be done manually – another of the strictly-controlled regulations.
The flower-filled village of Hautvillers, about 5km north of Epernay, is credited as being the birthplace of champagne. It was at the abbey here that the 17th-century Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon, perfected the technique of fermenting and bottling champagne. Wander the charming lanes hung with wrought-iron signs of local tradesmen, and visit Dom Pérignon's grave in the village church (in summer try to come on a Monday when tourists are fewer).
The area around Hautvillers and Epernay is particularly good touring country, offering lots of scope for visiting wine-producing villages such as Mareuil-sur-Ay and the appealingly named Bouzy and Dizy.
For a fascinating insight into the history and production of champagne, head to the Museum of the Vine (00 33 3 26 07 87 87; lepharedeverzenay.com; Tues-Sun 10am-5pm; adults €6) at Verzenay. The displays and films here will keep you entranced for a good two hours. You'll also get fabulous vineyard views: the museum is housed in a lighthouse that stands amid rows of vines. The property was built as a promotional ploy for the champagnes of Joseph Goulet and was completed in 1909 during a period of enormous growth for the industry.
Understandably, the world's most glamorous drink has zealously maintained standards over the decades: the champagne watchdog, the CIVC (Comité interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne), orchestrates the rules and decides the harvest start date. This year, it is exceptionally early – a good three weeks in advance of most harvests – which, they say, is largely the result of the summer-like spring.
Champagne is made from a blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grapes (or just one or two of these varieties), which must, of course, be grown only within the Champagne region. This lies between the Paris district to the west, Belgium to the north and Lorraine to the east. Given today's administrative divisions, the vineyards are spread over five départements: Marne and Aube, which contain about two thirds of the total number; and Aisne, Haute-Marne and Seine-et-Marne. About 100 big champagne houses (such as Krug, Lanson and Pommery) dominate the trade and are based in the Marne, a factor which slightly unfairly has lent that département a reputation for having the best vineyards.
The grapes are nurtured by about 15,000 growers across the region, of whom only around 2,200 make their own wine. The others are suppliers to the big houses and to the region's co-operatives. Only a small proportion of land in the historic province of Champagne is devoted to the cultivation of vines – a total area slightly smaller than the Isle of Wight. Elsewhere, this is a productive region for other agriculture.
For visitors, the Champagne region offers hills and forests to hike through, lakes to sail, cultured cities and towns to enjoy and pretty villages to explore. But inevitably the primary attraction is the wine made here. And it strikes a particular chord for the British – the UK is the top export market and buys 100,000 bottles on the average day.
If the idea of drinking champagne in Champagne sounds exorbitantly ritzy, think again. After all, this is the local brew for residents, an aperitif served as a matter of course in most restaurants. On home turf, it is not eye-wateringly expensive. A non-vintage bottle bought direct from the producer is priced from about €12.
If you plan to buy champagne in quantity for a special occasion, it makes sense to travel by car. The region is an easy three-hour drive south from Calais along the A26 motorway. Champagne is also easily accessible by train. Take Eurostar from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord, from where it is a short walk to Gare de l'Est – the capital's main departure point for trains to Reims, Epernay, Troyes and many other towns in the Champagne region. The writer travelled to Champagne with Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk), which offers return fares from London St Pancras via Paris to Champagne-Ardenne station from £91. If you fly to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, there is a direct TGV train to Champagne Ardenne station – a tram ride from Reims station. The website champagne-ardenne-tourism.co.uk has details of addresses and telephone numbers of the tourist offices in the region.
Today, Epernay is acknowledged as the capital of the champagne-making region. Moët & Chandon, Perrier Jouet, Pol Roger and other grand champagne houses line its handsome avenue de Champagne, stretching east from the town centre. Below them are about 100km of wine cellars. For details of tours and tastings, call in at the tourist office (00 33 3 26 53 33 00; ot-epernay.fr) at 7 avenue de Champagne. Mercier (00 33 3 26 51 22 22; champagnemercier.fr) has a slick tour for €10 that starts with a film about marketing maître Eugène Mercier, and includes a trip by "laser-guided" train through some of the 18km of tunnels.
But a visit here need not concentrate only on the big players: Epernay offers an enterprising champagne shop and bar-restaurant specialising in the produce of small makers from the region. C Comme Champagne de Propriétaires (00 33 3 26 32 09 55; c-comme.fr) at 8 rue Gambetta offers champagnes you are unlikely to find on the supermarket shelves back home.
Hôtel Jean Moët (00 33 3 26 32 19 22; hoteljeanmoet.com) at 7 rue Jean Moët is a small, stylish outfit with doubles costing from €140, room only. Around the corner is the restaurant La Cave a Champagne (00 33 3 26 55 50 70; la-cave-a-champagne.com), with a choice of well-priced set menus and accompanying champagnes.
In the Marne, Reims presents a fine combination of Gothic heritage and Art Deco architecture that replaced many buildings badly damaged in the First World War. The cathedral (00 33 3 26 47 55 34; www.cathedralereims.com; 7.30am-7.30pm; free), pictured, is celebrating the 800th anniversary of its foundation with amazing (and free) evening light shows over the western façade. Days and times vary; consult the Reims tourist office (00 33 3 26 77 45 00; www.reims-tourisme.com) for more details. This is the seminal church where the kings of France were crowned and its decorations are superb. More than 2,000 statues adorn the exterior, and the stained glass windows of the interior are fabulous: some from the 13th century, a window by Chagall in the east end and a new window by Stefanie Marq that was completed in June.
Adjacent is the Palais du Tau (00 33 3 26 47 85 65; palais-tau.monuments-nationaux.fr; Tues-Sun 9.30am-noon and 2-6.30pm; €7). This was the residence of the archbishop and is now a striking museum containing the cathedral's treasure and many statues from the exterior (originals that have been replaced by copies).
Nearby, the Carnegie Library is a glorious Art Deco building constructed with American money after the First World War. Step into the lobby to take in the decorated walls and wrought iron work (00 33 3 26 77 81 41; bm-reims.fr; admission free). Nearby, Taittinger (00 33 3 26 85 84 33; taittinger.fr) and Veuve Clicquot (00 33 3 26 89 53 90; veuve-clicquot.com) offer tours.
A taste of class
One of the great pleasures of visiting Champagne country is in learning about the region's famous produce from those who make it. The small and large producers present two very different tours. But note that not all champagne makers have scope to welcome visitors.
At the big champagne houses, you'll inevitably join a large group on a formal guided tour and won't get such personal passion reflected in what you are shown. But there's nothing quite like the drama of walking through cellars where millions of bottles of champagne are maturing. For instance, 25 million bottles lie in the 25km of cellars at Mumm (00 33 3 26 49 59 70; mumm.com) at 34 rue du Champ de Mars in Reims. You'll be led through just a small section, but what you see can't fail to impress (tours in English daily 9-11am and 2-5pm; closed Sundays Nov-March; adults €10 including a tasting).
The small wine producers give an intimate insight into champagne making. In the Marne, Champagne Tribaut (00 33 3 26 59 40 57; champagne.g.tribaut.com) at 88 rue d'Eguisheim in Hautvillers is open daily 9am-noon and 2-6pm (closed on Sundays Jan-March), although you need to call in advance for free tours in English and there may be a small charge for tastings. This is a charming, family operation producing particularly well-regarded blanc de blancs and vintage champagnes.
In the Aube, Celles Sur Ource is home to more than 40 wineries. Head to Champagne Richard Cheurlin (00 33 3 25 38 55 04; champagne-cheurlin.com) at 16 rue des Huguenots for a tour and tasting, €4.
Rooms with sparkle
For a rural retreat in the Marne, head to the village of Trépail where Pré en Bulles (00 33 3 26 53 50 00; pre-en-bulles.com) at 2 rue du Stade is an enterprising little complex of vineyard, shop, museum and chambres d'hôtes with doubles priced from €70 per night, including breakfast.
Or for sumptuous luxury, book one of the 28 rooms at Royal Champagne (00 33 3 26 52 87 11; royalchampagne.com) at Champillon near Epernay. Set amid vineyards and offering sweeping views, the property was once a coaching inn (and a favourite overnighter of Napoleon when en route to Reims). It is now a richly furnished Relais & Chateaux hotel with doubles from €260 per night, room only.
In Reims, visitors from the wine trade tend to book into the large and comfortable Hôtel de la Paix, complete with indoor swimming pool (00 33 3 26 40 04 08; bestwestern-lapaix-reims.com) at 9 rue Buirette. Doubles from €155, room only.
Nearby is the atmospheric Café du Palais (00 33 3 26 47 52 54; cafedupalais.fr), an Art Deco landmark open for lunches Tuesday to Saturday and dinner on Saturday (two courses €25).
At Troyes, Le Relais St Jean (00 33 3 25 73 89 90; relais-st-jean.com) is a small, modern hotel behind a timber-frame exterior. Doubles from €90 room only. In the courtyard behind is a real treat: Le Valentino (00 33 3 25 73 14 14) presents exquisite modern French dishes. Expect to pay from €40 for three courses.
More than 5,000km of sign-posted footpaths criss-cross the area, including a striking stretch of the GR7 running 107km through the Haut-Marne (details on tourisme-langres.com and on champagne-ardenne.tourism.co.uk/walks).
Further north, in the Montagne de Reims regional nature park (00 33 3 26 59 44 44; parc-montagnedereims.fr), the Forest of Verzy offers gentler walking and is home to the weird and wonderful "Faux de Verzy" – mysteriously and naturally stunted beech trees. But perhaps best of all in this forest is Arboxygene near the village of Verzy, an adventure park with high canopy walkways, monkey bridges, zip wires and more (00 33 6 89 44 73 68; arboxygene.eu; open daily 10am-7pm during the summer, shorter hours in autumn; adventure trails €12 adults). This summer, the enterprising park director introduced a champagne bar in the treetops, which is open until October, Wednesday to Sunday; noon-8pm.
In the Aube, east of Troyes, lie the three lakes of the Forêt d'Orient nature park (00 33 3 25 43 81; lacschampagne.fr), which together present about 12,000 acres of water where you can sail, windsurf and more while there is ample scope for walking and cycling around the shores. Among those offering sailing facilities is CNA Voile (00 33 3 25 41 27 37; cnavoile.com) at the village of Mesnil-St-Père on Lac d'Orient.
Un, deux, Troyes
In the Aube, Troyes (pronounced "twa") is a jaw-dropping treasure trove of a city, all winding streets and ancient timber-frame houses. Getting lost in the web of narrow lanes is part of the pleasure. Don't miss the fine, 13th-century Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul (more information from the tourist office 00 33 3 25 82 62 70; tourisme-troyes.com; daily 8am-7pm; free) and two outstanding museums.
The Museum of Modern Art (00 33 3 25 76 26 80; ville-troyes.fr; Tues-Fri 10am-1pm and 2-7pm; adults €5) at place St Pierre is set in the city's stunning 16th-century episcopal palace and contains works by Daumier, Gauguin, Degas, Bonnard and more.
The wonderful Maison de l'Outil et de la Pensée Ouvière (00 33 3 25 73 28 26; maison-de-l-outil.com; daily 10am-6pm except Tuesdays; adults €6.50) is a magnificent outfit devoted to craftsmen's tools and celebrates the heritage of the city's craftsmen with stunning displays in a beautifully preserved medieval building. More information: Troyes Tourism, 16 boulevard Carnot (00 33 3 25 82 62 70; tourisme-troyes.com).