Many of the Champagne houses offer visits, usually with a glass of Champagne thrown in. Some charge a nominal admission. Many cellars (caves) are quite spectacular, being set in old former Roman chalk mines (crayeres), with elaborate bas-reliefs carved into the chalk face, and others are so large you go round on a little train.
You will not see the grapes being pressed unless you go in September or October during the harvest (vendage), and even then, many houses' presses (pressoirs) are out in the countryside. Also, some houses do not offer visits during the busy harvest period.
You may well see giant stainless steel storage tanks where the grape juice (must) is stored prior to blending, and you will certainly see many millions of bottles of Champagne slumbering during the long maturation period. There are usually demonstrations of riddling (remuage) and disgorgement (degorgement) which are the unique features of the methode champenoise
Some houses require you to make an appointment (rendez-vous), and then you are more likely to be shown round in a small intimate group rather than with a coach party. I always think it is better to try and arrange a tasting (degustation) of a range of wines from a house to get the feel of a house style and to contrast different blends and vintages. Check out the details on the houses' websites
You are not obliged to buy Champagne, especially if you have paid for entrance, but it is rather nice to get a bottle or two having watched the manufacturing process. Also the houses have souvenir shops with all kinds of Champagne paraphernalia from ash trays to scarves to champagne buckets and bottle-stoppers.
Warning - after your fourth or fifth visit, one cellar starts to look very much like another!
Webmaster's choice: these are some of my favourite visits, but to find out about some others click here
Launois Père & Fils One of the best tours is at the small village of Le Mesnil sur Oger, on the Côtes des Blancs, a few miles south of Epernay. Here, Bernard Launois has assembled a magnificent collection of wine antiques and Champagne memorabilia for his museum of vine and wine. The visit takes two hours, touring the vast museum and cellars, followed by a tasting of their excellent Champagnes in the cellars themselves. FF30. Please pre-book. Not to be missed!
Mercier Epernay. The most popular cellar tour of all (Mercier is the best selling Champagne in France). Just turn up during office hours (closed 11.30-2 for lunch), and pay the admission fee of around FF40. Admire the world's biggest barrel built in 1889 - the visitor centre was built around it! There is a short audio-visual presentation and then you descend via a lift 30m into the cellars. Then board a laser-guided train for your tour of the 18km long galleries, which were once the scene of a car rally! Several elaborate bas-relief carvings. A Champagne tasting follows in the souvenir shop.
de Castellane Epernay. An interesting tour, which could be combined with a visit to Mercier over the road on the other side of the Avenue de Champagne. Although Mercier has bigger cellars, this paid visit shows you more of the production of Champagne, including bottling and labelling. There is a fine collection of antique mechanised riddling machines for the real anorak. Also the Castellane tower provides a panoramic view over the town of Epernay and the Marne valley and houses a small Champagne museum.
Alfred Gratien Epernay. A visit to this small house is very intimate, as one of the winemakers themselves is likely to be your guide. Please telephone for an appointment. This house is one of a handful that still carry out the first fermentation in oak barrels (a couple of others are Krug and Bollinger). Most houses have dismissed that method as being too troublesome and now use stainless steel vats instead. But for Alfred Gratien, the oak lends something special to the wine, and thus is worth the extra effort. This tour is free, and ends with a tasting of a couple of their very special Champagnes.
Perrier-Jouët Epernay. By appointment only. Free visit and glass of Champagne. If you are a fan of Art Deco/Nouveau, then the Maison de Belle Epoque on the property has a great collection. It is occasionally open to visitors with an appointment.
Pommery Reims. A spectacular visit. Just turn up any time between 11am and 5pm, pay the nominal FF40 admission. You descend the dramatic 101-step staircase into 18 km of cellars cut into and linking 120 former Roman chalk-pits and containing 25 million bottles! Bas-reliefs. Glass of Champagne.
Mailly Grand Cru Mailly, Montagne de Reims. Check the website for their opening hours and take a ride out to the Montagne de Reims to visit this co-operative. And co-operative they are when it comes to the tasting! You are supposed to pay a nominal sum for each glass you taste, but if you appear at all knowledgeable, they seem happy to let you sample their whole range for free. It would be churlish not to buy a few bottles after such hospitality, especially given the excellence of their 100% Grand Cru wines. Don't miss the Blanc des Noirs.
Ruinart Reims. By appointment only. Well worth the trouble of obtaining an appointment. These cellars are set in Gallo-Roman chalk pits, and the bas-reliefs carved into the walls are designated a French national monument. Paid admission, including a degustation of five wines for a bargain FF100
Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin Reims. By appointment only. Very stylish waiting room and salle de degustation. Cross the road and go to a small door in the hillside and down to the capacious cellars containing around 14 million bottles. Free tour and glass of champagne