What could be more indulgent than sipping pink Champagne in the afternoon? Somehow, if you're sipping it in the producer's cellar and you've cycled up and down hills for an hour or two to get there, it feels like you've deserved it. If you find yourself in the Champagne region and you have half a day to spare, why not hire a bike and see if you agree?
The first thing to be aware of is that the Champagne-growing area is large and divided into two main zones. The Cote de l'Aube to the south east of Troyes is the smaller of these, but the larger region around Epernay and Rheims is better known Champagne country. Rheims is quite a sizable city and is where much of the business of the wine industry is conducted, whereas Epernay is also a commercial centre but has more of a market town atmosphere and is surrounded by vineyards. Cycling is by no means impossible in Rheims (which the locals pronounce something like "Ronce") as there are good traffic free routes along the river, but Epernay would be my first choice for an excursion by bike.
The Epernay Tourist Information Office has leaflets with suggested cycle routes. They appear to be aimed at young, fit cyclists on mountain bikes, but are still worth a look for ideas if you are not quite so young and fit and would rather do a leisurely 5 mile ride to a Champagne house than a 40 mile round trip. While you are in Tourist Information, pick up the booklet listing all the local producers and their opening times. Note that the majority will close from 11.30am or noon until 2 or even 3pm for lunch, and the number that will accept visitors without appointment is fairly limited. If there is a particular producer you want to visit, perhaps because you already know and like their Champagne, then ask a member of the multilingual staff in the tourist office to make an appointment for you before you set off. Better still, if you drank a bottle over dinner in your hotel the night before, ask the hotel owner to make the reservation for you. Even a snooty Champagne house (and some of them can be snooty) will try to accommodate the wishes of its local customers in the hospitality trade.
The area surrounding Epernay is very hilly and the weather in summer can be blazingly hot, so don't be too ambitious in your route planning. For a short ride with a pleasant riverside picnic spot, I would head northwestwards out of town on Avenue Jean Jaures. This is a steep and busy Route Nationale, but you won't be on it for long. At the top of the hill, shortly after passing the sign denoting that you have left Epernay, look out for a couple of tracks on your right, immediately before a layby. Take the smaller, leftmost route down through the vines to the valley bottom, bearing left wherever you choose to head towards the centre of the village of Mardeuil. The Champagne house Beaumont des Crayeres can be visited on Monday to Friday without an appointment, free of charge, and you will find them on rue de la Liberte. They are the proud owners of both the largest Champagne cork and the largest Champagne bottle in the world, the latter holding 260 ordinary bottles.
But such attractions are not needed to lure buyers to their door because they produce well-respected wines. The rose, in particular, makes a wonderful drink for a picnic and they will understand if, being "a velo", you don't want to buy more than a bottle.
Afterwards, find the road heading north out of Mardeuil and follow it across the railway line and onwards until it joins a slightly larger road that crosses the River Marne at Cumieres. Once you have crossed, turn left and take the riverside path past 23 modern steel sculptures of vineyard tasks -- a clue that this is another Champagne producing village. There is a pleasant grassy spot for a picnic near the bridge and you can even take a boat trip from here on a paddle steamer. If you don't feel like returning to Epernay the way you came, you can keep to the flat by crossing back to the south side of the river and following the Allee de Cumieres.
On a hot day, an even better picnic spot is the Sourdon park near St-Martin-d'Ablois. Cycle south from Epernay through the undulating vineyards of the Cote de Blancs, where mostly Chardonnay grapes are grown. You could stop to visit the 18th Century Chateau de Pierry in the first village you come to. As well as touring its grand reception rooms visitors will learn about viticulture. In the centre of Pierry itself is the Champagne house Vincent d'Astree which is open for visits without appointment every day except Sunday. A small charge is made, but you can look around the shop for free. Like Beaumont des Crayeres it has its own "world's largest", in this case a Champagne flute that is over 2m tall. Pick up a bottle of fizz for your picnic and then pop across the road to the boulangerie where they will make you up a sandwich in half a baguette. If you feel the need for something sweet, ask for directions to the Thibaut chocolate factory, also in Pierry, where you can take a guided tour, taste the produce and buy if you like it.
Now you are provisioned, continue on the back roads through the small villages of Moussy, Vinay and St-Martin-d'Ablois. Eventually you will climb a hill and find the entrance to the Parc du Sourdon at the top on the right hand side. This contains the source of the River Sourdon and its cool waters will chill your Champagne to perfection, so prop the bottle in the flow and leave it to cool while you explore a little. The park is wooded and full of shady paths and clearings rather than manicured lawns. It isn't hard to get away from everyone else and, this being France, there are picnic tables aplenty. When it's time to return to Epernay, follow the track of an old railway from near the park gates to Moussy rather than going back down the hill to St-Martin on the road.
Whether you choose one of the excursions suggested above or find your own route for a ride in the Champagne region, you will return to town with a better understanding of the villages and winegrowers that produce the world's greatest sparkling wine.
If this article interests you then our Champagne Guide should be worth reading.