Ever wondered how Champagne is made? Ever wished you could drink Champagne more cheaply? In this article we’re going to show you five of the best France Passion sites in Champagne, where you can enjoy a first class experience on a modest budget, using a campervan or motorhome.
Champagne… Just the word conjures-up feelings of luxury and celebration, the sound of corks being popped and the fizz of bubbles frothing over the rim of a glass. Unfortunately for most of us, including Lou and I, this particular sparkling wine is out of our price range on all but the most special of occasions.
It might surprise some of you but when we were originally planning this six month trip across France in our little campervan, we didn’t include the world famous Champagne region of France in our original itinerary. Our main concerns were:
1. Would frequent purchasing of Champagne fit in with our budget conscious lifestyle?
2. Would our, loud and proud campervan and, “happy to go a few days without a shower”, attitude to life, fit in with the Champagne region’s upmarket stylings?
After all, if a five pound bottle of supermarket Prosecco is like chowing down on a Big Mac at McDonalds, then Champagne is the equivalent of taking high tea at the Ritz.
As it happens, with my background in wine retail and the fact my wife Lou and I live full time in a tiny house on wheels, we’re perfectly positioned to guide you on a trip through some of the world’s most prestigious vineyards.
Planning our journey to the best France Passion sites in Champagne
Lou and I tend to plan as we go, allowing for a certain amount of spontaneity. When we do any forward planning, we have several things in mind. These are:
a) Where can we stay as cheaply as possible?
b) How far apart will our parking places be?
c) Where can we find services like electricity and water?
d) How beautiful and/or interesting will the area we’re going, be?
We’ve found a simple way to answer most of the above questions:
We are members of the France Passion scheme. This means for one night you can park your campervan or motorhome on a participating host’s land for free. Frequently these places are farms or vineyards. You get the opportunity to sample their goods and get a little insight into the French way of life. There’s no obligation to buy from them although it’s usually possible to do so. There is no catch. You simply pay the yearly membership fee. (Around £30).
France Passion is what underpins our entire trip as it enables us to travel on a small budget. Yes, we could park night-after-night in a free ‘Aire’, but often, these are little more than glorified car parks. France Passion sites are often quite idyllic in comparison and usually come with a feeling of tranquillity and potentially, an insight into different cultures.
There are thousands of France Passion hosts across the country and this dense network means we can slow travel in our campervan. You are never far away from a free overnight stay. So rather than blasting down the motorway, we usually take the scenic route. To give you an idea of the pace we’re going at, it’s taken us seven weeks to reach the Champagne region from Calais. A journey that takes most people only a few hours when driving direct.
Our budget for finding the best France Passion sites in Champagne
We have two budgets. A financial budget and a mileage budget. (You can read more about them HERE). Of course, to make the most of our visits to the Champagne houses, we wanted to buy a bottle at each place and this was way outside our normal spending. (We’ve existed on 3 Euro bottles of red for most of the trip so far).
To stay within budget we estimated we could visit a maximum of seven or eight Champagne houses in a two week period. This would be interspersed with wild camping and the occasional ‘necessary evil’ of a campsite or paid Aire for things like electricity and showers.
We weren’t entirely sure how much a bottle of Champagne was going to cost, (although we certainly found out), but we knew we could offset it against not purchasing those daily essentials, cheese and wine, which amount to around 5 Euros a day. We were also confident we could underspend our daily budget on the next leg of our trip from Champagne to Alsace.
Narrowing down our search for the best France Passion sites in Champagne
A quick flick through the France Passion guide, (2017 edition) reveals approximately 65 Champagne producers that welcome campervans and motorhomes for a night. Lou and I aren’t going to hide the fact we cannot speak French.
A convenient way to narrow down our search for the best France Passion sites in Champagne was to pick only one’s that were listed in the guide as having hosts who spoke English. Obviously, Champagne tastes the same in any language but we hoped a host that spoke the same language would give us the best possible experience too.
Selecting our route to the best France Passion sites in Champagne
The length from West to East of Parc Naturel Montagne de Reims is a driving distance of only a bit less than 70km, much less than we would normally do in a two week period. This saving on petrol, seemed another way to offset the price of Champagne. So it was the Marne Valley, (Vallee de le Marne), that we chose to focus on for this journey through Champagne.
Note, the Champagne region stretches a long way South East of of the Marne Valley, but we are heading to the Alsace in the East of France and we felt that it wouldn’t be possible to visit these more Southerly places without busting the budget both in terms of finance and fuel.
Below is a map that broadly shows the route we took. Although, we drove North of Epernay along the D1 road, known as the Route Touristique du Champagne. Additionally, you can see Reims marked. One of the powerhouses of Champagne, where many of the big names such, as Krug, Veuve Cliquot, and Taittinger are based. Part of our budget conscious travelling is to avoid larger towns and cities in favour of more rural locations so we skipped Reims. We did however visit Epernay prior to following this route and we’ll talk about that later.
We entered the Champagne region via Chateau-Thierry a small town to the West of the Montagne de Reims Natural Park. Whether you’re coming from the Belgian border like we were, or driving straight from Calais or Paris to Champagne, this is an appropriate gateway to the region. Indeed, the town is surrounded by a number of Champagne producers and the long stretch of grape vines begins.
Here is our list of the best France Passion sites in Champagne, we visited. Our thoughts and opinions about them. They are listed in the order of visitation, rather than preference:
Located in BRASLES, just a minute’s drive to the East of Chateau-Thierry. The first thing that struck us driving up the steep slope was the sharp contrast in style. Compared to France Passion sites we’d visited previously there was nothing rustic about this palatial villa. The sun was bleaching the newly laid, perfectly flat concrete and we were basking in its radiant heat. There wasn’t a spot of yellow paint missing on the house itself. Even the creeper on the side wall looked as if it had been perfectly manicured. It felt like we’d teleported to Beverly Hills. You could almost smell the wealth. Welcome to Champagne!
Wondering where exactly to say hello, (one of the rules of France Passion membership), we came across a reasonably clean toilet. Facilities! This was also a first for us when at a France Passion site. Then, the tinted glass door opened and we were greeted by Alice, the daughter of Philippe Deschelle. She welcomed us warmly and showed us a place to park on grass, amongst trees where it was a bit cooler.
We undertook our tasting as soon as we arrived. We were a little bit surprised that there was a 5 Euro charge per person. (In the guide it was described as ‘degustation gratuite’ – free tasting). Was Alice trying to make a little extra pocket money while her dad was away? It didn’t matter to us as this was our first tasting in Champagne and we’d forgotten what it said in the guide.
In any case Alice was extremely knowledgable. We got to taste four different blends, although the amounts poured seemed a little stingy on reflection. However, I was used to this from going to various wine tastings in London. It is a sign that the producer values their product. Alice obliged with a brief tour of their production facilities located right next door. Nothing was working that day so primarily we saw lots of stainless steel vats and thousands of stacked bottles. This is a very modern facility.
Champagne Philippe Dechelle owns nine hectares of vineyeards and produces about 80’000 bottles a year. They do not export. All of their champagne is drunk in France. We bought a bottle of the ‘Brut Prestige’, which cost 18 Euros. Made from 90% Meunier and the rest Pinot Noir. This is a robust Champagne with a medium intensity of flavour, which has hints of red berries and toasted nuts.
We also bought a pair of gorgeous champagne flutes for only 2 Euros each. They are of the style I was regularly asked for working in a wine merchant and at this price I would recommend going to Champagne Philippe Deschelle for these alone.
In total we spent 32 Euros here so we were a little concerned for our budget. As it happened we needn’t have been, because our next experiences were even better.
Our hunt for the best France Passion sites in Champagne continues with this small producer located in the village of VERNEUIL. The Champagne house is described in the France Passion guide also as a bar. The tasting room is considerably larger and in comparison purpose built, compared to the annexe at Philippe Deschelle. There are lots of products for sale including local artisanal beer, (4.50 Euros a bottle). They also sell Ratafia. A fortified wine, similar to Port, made from grapes grown in Champagne.
Again, this place seems lavish. No quite Scarface lavish but on the way. A little more tasteful. The parking grounds are nicely manicured and there is a patio with tables and chairs for sipping your purchases. We parked up opposite the tasting ‘bar’ and introduced ourselves to another young lady, Lucile. Her English is patchy but it’s enough. She seemed a bit confused about what to do with France Passion members because this place also operates as an Aire. Again, a first for us in terms of facilities provided.
The deal is that if you buy something from them, even a beer, you get free use of electricity, hot showers and a toilet. This is an amazing deal. A good quality Aire would be at least 8 Euros and a campsite with the same facilities, upwards of fifteen. If you do not buy anything you can pay separately for these facilities, 10 Euros. But that would be silly.
Champagne Jacques Copin also excelled when it came to the tasting. Lucile simply asked us what champagne we would prefer; Something fruitier or something more minerally? (We found this approach similar in most Champagne Houses. Rather than taking you through a pre-defined order). She poured very generously sized glasses.
We even got to try the Ratafia, yet another first for us. This is a sweet, straw coloured wine, with high acidity that stops it feeling gloopy in the mouth. The flavour has hints of sultanas and marmalade. Apparently it’s mainly drunk as an aperitif but it could be matched with a good quality vanilla based ice cream – one that’s not too sugary.
Quite tipsy, we purchased their cheapest blend, the Brut Tradition. Again, Meunier is the grape that dominates in this blend, reflecting the soil profile of the Marne’s right bank, where Meunier dominates the vineyards too. This cost only 15.50 Euros. We also bought an elegant glass for 4 Euros.
We really loved this place. It completely saved us a trip to a campsite so worked out very good value, as well as giving us a fun tasting. Total spend: 20 Euros
If we had known that the next stop on our hunt for the best France Passion sites also featured campsite facilities we may have done things in a different order.
Situated in the village of VANDIERES, this Champagne house runs a campsite and a gite in its grounds. We arrived and parked up near an electricity post and having spent some time using our levelling blocks to correct the sloping of the grassy garden, went to introduce ourselves.
We would describe the lady, Corrinne who greeted us as a little frosty. Being the start of high season they were quite busy. So we understand she may have been a little stressed. She saw where we had parked and asked us to move to a different spot as apparently it was a space for caravans. More shaded but on a major slope. This was a bit annoying. Champagne Nowack was also one of only two places in France that recorded our France Passion membership number. Good practice no doubt, but unnecessary.
There was no information provided about a charge for using the facilities. Unfortunately we were too late for tasting which stops at 7pm. But nevertheless we bought a bottle of the Brut Tradition, a blend of Meunier and Chardonnay, half and half. More lively on the palate than our previous bottles.
What was really great was the bottle came in a frozen cooler. Even when plugged into electricity it takes our fridge forever to reach a really cool temperature and while the other Champagne houses give you a cold bottle. By the time you get half way through, it’s too warm. So, this was really appreciated.
We asked for some information about Champagne Nowack in English but they only had it in French. Interestingly they make a still red wine here from 100% Meunier. We were a little sad we didn’t get to try this. Additionally the tasting that was just finishing was being conducted by Corinne’s husband Frederic in French. It is only Corinne that speaks a bit of English so you will have to catch her when she’s not too busy if that’s a concern to you.
Despite not getting our tasting we loved the surroundings of our parking – Tall trees with vines planted at the rear. The atmosphere was lively. Probably due to it being a paying campsite in high season but this provided a pleasant contrast to our previous stops. We would go back here for a tasting.
Having not paid for the champagne the previous evening, there was some confusion the next day and Corinne tried to charge us for camping. This was apparently eight Euros per person which is quite reasonable given the facilities. However, we reminded her we were France Passion members and she gladly rescinded the charge. Total spend 16 Euros.
In the tiny village of VILLERS-SOUS-CHATILLON this is a rather low key Champagne house. There are spaces for only two campervans and certainly no camping here. The grounds are very modern, similar to Philippe Deschelle. There is a gite available for paying guests but we stay here for free in our van with an amazing view overlooking the Marne Valley. There are no facilities to speak of other than the ability to purchase top quality champagne at amazing prices.
On the day of our visit only the senior lady of the family was available. Her tasting pours are generous and the tasting room is a lovely place full of old equipment. Despite not speaking English she is extremely patient and from what our limited ear could gather, Charpentier produce 140’000 bottles a year. Which makes them by far the largest producer we visited. They also export to thirty or forty countries.
A highlight of the tasting for us was the Brut Nature Blanc De Blanc. This is an ultra dry champagne because they have not added any ‘dosage’, (liquer added before second fermentation). Skinny champagne, if you prefer. The grape is 100% chardonnay and the precision is outstanding, as it exhibits fresh, pure, lemon and green apple flavours with a flinty minerality. Great for only 16 Euros!
Sunday Service is normal even for the best France Passion sites in Champagne!
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about travelling through rural France, it’s that nothing opens on a Sunday. The same is true of Champagne houses. We stopped in the village of Damery at CHAMPAGNE BLAISE LOURDEZ. Oddly the parking spot co-ordinates listed in the guide are a 20 minute walk from the Champagne House. This is not mentioned in the guide! (We were definitely in the right place as there we saw the distinctive France Passion green arrow signs). The walk along the banks of the Marne was pleasant but of course the village was deserted. When we got to Blaise Lourdez it appeared to be a modern house with a tasting room attached. There was no one around but there would have been plenty of space for campervans. We felt this was a little unwelcoming and decided to take our business elsewhere, hopefully exhibiting signs of life.
This meant leaving the Marne Valley and heading North East to the village of Bouzy. A name that always makes us chuckle. Hopefully we don’t need to explain why. We were headed for CHAMPAGNE REMY GALICHET. What we found was a massive warehouse style complex fronted by a huge windswept car park. It looked rather bleak and we couldn’t see any France Passion signs. We parked up and a lady from the house next door greeted us. She explained they were having lunch but we could have a tasting later. We feel a bit bad but we decided that actually the surroundings were too drab for us to park in so we left without saying goodbye. We didn’t want to disturb the family lunch!
Next stop in Bouzy was CHAMPAGNE HERBERT BEAUFORT. Just down the road from Galichet in the centre of the village. The buildings seemed more prepossessing but the gates were locked. No France Passion signs were displayed and like at Blaise Lordes we felt unwelcome. We made the executive decision to go to the next village, Ambonnay and give it one last try for the day.
We almost didn’t find this one. Which would have been a tragedy because it’s awesome! We had been following the Google maps directions to Champagne Dominique Foureur, which led us to a very narrow alley way where we could see no entrance to, or signage for the place. Driving down the alleyway looked impossible.
Feeling deflated by what we thought was our fourth failure of the day we made an exit through AMBONNAY intending to seek out some wild camping nearby. As it happened we found the actual entrance to Dominque Foureur, as we made our getaway. (Our mistake had been not to use the co-ordinates in the France Passion guide).
As the road was quite narrow and we had someone following us we had to do a u-turn further up and even better, when we returned to the entrance, Elisabeth and Dominique happened to be there. Our very own coincidental welcoming party was indeed very welcome.
This Champagne house is pure rustic charm. Parking up in the pretty surrounds of their courtyard, where a sleeping dog lay and numerous rescue cats washed themselves under the rays of the setting sun, we got straight on with the tasting. Elisabeth spoke excellent English and immediately poured a welcome glass, (a full one), of their Brut Tradition.
The soil in Ambonnay is different to the Marne Valley. Here it is chalk. Whereas the valley is sandstone. This means they do not grow Meunier. Here they grow primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The vineyards are designated Grand Cru. Basically that means they produce the best grapes you can get.
Foureur produces only 20’000 bottles a year from it’s 4.5 hectares of vines. But they sell some of their grapes to the big boys. You can find Foureur’s grapes in both Dom Perignon and Laurent Perrier’s Grande Siecle. Both of which retail for three figures.
Any trip to Champagne isn’t complete without a trip to the Caves. Elisabeth takes us down a steep flight of stairs into her rocky cavern, constructed in 1609! Here, they store 60-80’000 bottles because they age them in bottle for four years before releasing. If anything sums up the general demeanour of Champagne, it’s Elisabeth’s assertion that, “This is sleeping money”.
Elisabeth explains to us at length the process of making champagne; How the yeast is added; the neck frozen and the yeast removed; the ‘dosage’ added and so on and she shows us the tiny room they do all of this in.
One lovely bit of insight is that they drink 800 bottles of Champagne a year themselves. We imagine most of it at parties! Ahhh to be borne into a Champagne family. Living the dream!
Given Ambonnay is recognised for the quality of its Pinot Noir, Foureur also produces Ambonnay Rouge. This is a silky young red with lots of strawberry notes and a hint of forest floor on the palate. We ended up buying two bottles of this as we’d been missing red wine!
To cap it all, Elisabeth generously allows us to plug in to their electricity and there are also toilets and showers, albeit cold ones. Total spend: 60 Euros (we bought gifts).
Epernay: Putting our hunt for the best France Passion sites in Champagne into perspective
The visit of a friend and the need for a shower gave us the excuse, as if one were needed to pay a visit to Epernay. What was it like? Well we stayed in a campsite, (Price = 25 Euros) We totally avoided the famous Avenue de Champagne. A tour of Moet & Chandon, located on this street, tasting not included is 12 Euros per person! Waste of money. We were planning to visit C.Comme, a very reputable Champagne bar where they do tastings of a wide variety of producers but we decided not to when we realised they were 33 Euros per person. Instead we did a champagne tasting at The Great Wines of France which cost only 10 Euros per person. Total spend in Epernay: 45 Euros…. Not great value compared to the France Passion sites, which are much more personal to boot.
Conclusion to our search for the best France Passion sites in Champagne
Of course we’ve picked a very small geographical area for our search compared to the Champagne region as a whole. This is because we travel on a budget and Champagne is a luxury good that commands a high price. Including gifts we spent a total of 144 Euros not including food. If you are on holiday that’s not so bad. We have overspent our budget but overspent it living the good life.
What we can take away from this experience is that cheap Champagne is not bad Champagne. It is not worth paying big bucks for ‘Grande Marques’, (which retail for a similarly high price in the UK). You can get great tasting bottles for an average of 16 Euros at all of the best France Passion sites in Champagne.
Another point worth noting is Champagne is not as stuffy as it might seem. Hilariously I had a shirt packed and we pressed it under the weight of our roof cushions. This was a waste of time as no one batted an eyelid at our usual hippy attire. Ultimately the Champagne houses are just happy if you buy a bottle or two.
The best thing however, is that some of the best France Passion sites in Champagne have facilities far beyond those found on dairy farms for example. For a small fee, or sometimes in exchange for making a purchase, you can save yourself an entire trip to an Aire or Campsite where you would undoubtedly spend more money. This way you can both save money living in a campervan or motorhome and more thoroughly, although sadly not literally, immerse yourself in Champagne.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our guide to the best France Passion sites in Champagne. If you’d like to give us feedback, ask anything specific or give us advice on where we should go or what we should do next please leave a comment below, or email: antlou at vanutopia dot com