Touring Champagne

Northern France is home to great bubbly and a bucolic wine country that has upped its game
Robert Camuto, Alison Napjus
Issue: December 15, 2013

Few products in history have been more associated with the good life, glamour and celebration than Champagne. Yet in modern times, even as the sparkling wine boomed, the Champagne region itself—one of France's most historic and bucolic wine countries—remained a sleepy backwater.

Up until recently, locals in Champagne didn't pay much attention to creating a travel experience worthy of the name. With the eponymous bubbly easily traveling the planet, the thinking seemed to be, why show off Champagne wine country?

That approach has taken a dramatic turn. In the past decade, the quality of Champagne as a destination has risen with a wave of hotel renovations and new vineyard accommodations, an influx of creative chefs, the area's first Champagne bars and more opportunity to tour Champagne houses large and small. A high-speed train line put the regional capital of Reims a mere 45 minutes from Paris.

A symbol of the attitude shift is Champagne's very public campaign to have its historic houses, cellars and prime vineyards classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. A response is expected sometime in 2014.

"In Champagne, wine tourism is just starting," grower-producer Antoine Chiquet tells a group on a tour he leads through the centuries-old cellars of Gaston Chiquet in Dizy (pop. 1,700) where tractors now share the road with locals and tourist vans.

In an ironic twist, attention to wine tourism has been given a big boost by the 2008 financial crisis that spawned Europe's long recession. Simply put: With belt-tightening and even the French government scaling back Champagne orders, the region is doing more than ever to welcome wine-loving visitors.

"Before the crisis it was too easy to sell Champagne," adds Chiquet. "Now, everybody is opening up."

Though it's sometimes hard to tell from its popular image, Champagne, like all wine, is an agricultural product tied to a place. And Champagne the region remains—in contrast to the high-flying image of its wine—decidedly laid-back, friendly and rural.

Champagne's principal city, Reims, is home to some of France's oldest royal treasures and a cathedral in which French kings were crowned for centuries. Twenty miles to the south in Épernay, great Champagne houses in the 19th century built some of the world's showiest wine châteaus and cellars.

In the countryside around the cities, rolling hills and valleys are punctuated by storybook villages, windmills, ancient abbeys, dense forests, farms and—on the best exposed chalky slopes—vineyards of grapes used in Champagne bottlings: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

The picturesque heart of Champagne country beats in and around the village of Hautvillers, where Dom Pérignon's tomb—in the church of the Benedictine abbey where he served as cellar master until his death nearly 300 years ago—is a pilgrimage site for wine lovers.

Even more than on most treks to French wine country, you'll need to go armed with reservations and a map. Unlike in Burgundy or parts of Bordeaux, dining options here are limited, and finding that dream spot around the corner can be difficult.

Traditional cuisine—influenced by nearby Belgium—is a hearty mix of stick-to-your-ribs specialties such as stews, wild game, pig's trotters, white boudin sausage and local cheeses, reaching its apogee in fall hunting season. At cafés in Reims, the drink of choice is beer.

The culinary landscape has been altered dramatically by a generation of chefs whose goal is not to produce regional cuisine, but, instead, inventive dishes that pair seamlessly with Champagne.

To achieve that, they may sample Champagne's products, pick through local traditions, and then toss them into a creative mix of gastronomic influences from the rest of France, Southern Europe and the world.

In Champagne-area restaurants, which typically offer hundreds of selections from producers of all sizes, Champagne is now sipped from the beginning of the meal to the end. Sommeliers explore the full range of Champagnes, serving pure Chardonnay blancs de blancs with fish and lighter fare, and more structured Pinot-dominated bruts with foie gras, traditional fall game and local cheeses.

"The idea is to show Champagne as a wine, just like other regions," explains Philippe Jamesse, head sommelier at Reims' Les Crayères hotel, home of two-Michelin-star Le Parc restaurant.

Though restaurant meals can be very expensive, Champagne the wine is a bargain by U.S. standards, with vintage bottlings typically starting at about $80. At the same time, Champagne glasses are getting bigger, as in the line designed by Jamesse, to better savor aromas and flavors.

The wine region is divided into four growing zones bisected by the Marne River. For a three-day visit, plan on taking in the historic monuments and Champagne houses in Reims, the extravagant Avenue de Champagne in Épernay, and two of the most important wine zones: the Pinot Noir–dominated Montagne de Reims south of that city, and the Chardonnay vineyards of the Côte des Blancs south of Épernay.

The most popular time to travel is also the sunniest in this high-rainfall region: from May through September's harvest.

Note: When calling the following establishments from North America, dial 011, then the telephone number. Prices in this story have been converted to U.S. dollars using the exchange rate at press time ($1 equals 0.74 euros) and rounded to the nearest dollar.

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK

C. COMME CHAMPAGNE
8 Rue Gambetta, 7 Rue Jean Moët, Épernay
Telephone (33) 3-26-32-09-55
Website www.c-comme.fr
Open 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Sunday to Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., Thursday; 10 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday
Credit cards All major

Frédéric Dricot opened this wine bar and boutique six years ago to show off Champagne's independent grower-producers in a friendly, casual setting that makes you feel like you've entered a wine-loving pal's home den. The retro-hipster decor features bronze-colored lounge chairs, glass tabletops held up by giant replica Champagne wire muselets, and lamps fashioned from empty nebuchadnezzars (15-liter bottles).

The bar features Champagnes from 36 producers, including Maurice Vesselle, Hervé Dubois and Robert Moncuit. Every week, six Champagnes are offered by the glass ($7) or bottle ($49). Or you can choose a bottle from the attractive vaulted brick cellars below, which hold more than 200 selections from featured producers.

HOSTELLERIE LA BRIQUETERIE
4 Route de Sézanne, Vinay
Telephone (33) 3-26-59-99-99
Website www.labriqueterie.fr
Open Lunch, Sunday to Friday; dinner daily
Cost Entrées $57-$65; prix-fixe lunch $54; prix-fixe dinner $108; tasting menu $149
Credit cards All major

On first impression, this Côte des Blancs roadside inn a few minutes' drive southwest of Épernay appears classically Old World and staid. The dining room is done in regal colors of gold and burgundy, a large bay window looks out to fountains and a manicured rose garden, and the black-suited staff quietly delivers dishes under silver domes.

But the action starts as the lids come off, revealing the innovative, modern cuisine of 30-year-old Belgian chef Michael Nizzero, whose flavor combinations offer perfect foils for pairings from among the list of 300 Champagnes.

Savor Alfred Gratien Brut 1999 ($177), served in ample wineglasses, with taste bud-teasing amuses bouches. (Was that a mouthful of beef tartare blended with raw oyster? Indeed.) A list of colorful starters includes Nizzero's riff on Italian gnocchi—rolled into thin leaves, sauced with a cream of seasonal greens and topped with girolle mushrooms and truffle shavings.

Don't miss the signature pan-roasted lobster, shelled and served on a bed of chickpea puree and surrounded by dollops of rich bisque. Cleanse the palate with an offering of rose petal sorbet before you ponder pastry chef Christophe Le Grouyer's artful desserts fashioned from seasonal fruits, chocolate, garden herbs and more. In summer, visitors may dine on the garden terrace under the shade of a mulberry tree.

LA GRILLADE GOURMANDE
16 Rue de Reims, Épernay
Telephone (33) 3-26-55-44-22
Website www.lagrilladegourmande.com
Open Lunch and dinner, Tuesday to Saturday
Cost Prix-fixe menus $26-$77
Credit cards MasterCard, Visa

This convivial grill run by chef Christophe Bernard with his wife, Kristel, is the best dining experience in town, combining traditional recipes with tasty, unfussy twists. The elegant, red-walled dining room spills out onto a sprawling wooden deck in summer, but the Bernards maintain quality—and stay fully booked—by limiting every service to 50 comers.

Service is casual and quick. Amaury Merchez, a young, affable sommelier, is happy to recommend local grower-producers. Much of the food—including beef, rack of lamb, pata negra pork and sea bass seasoned with fennel—is grilled over wood coals on the dining room hearth.

Bernard does double duty, appearing in chef whites to take table orders and chat with customers about local products. When a diner hesitates over ordering, Bernard proposes whipping up an off-the-menu dish. It arrives later as perfectly grilled fillets of local pike-perch, the skin blackened around the edges, surrounded by a delicately frothy pool of Champagne sauce and accompanied by a serving of lightly seasoned local blonde lentils.

A popular appetizer of deliciously sweet and spicy butter-baked escargots is tuned with just the right touches of tomato confit and Pernod to make you return for more. Or try the regional classic of duck foie gras seasoned with sweet ratafia, a liqueur made from unfermented grape juice and brandy.

Finish the meal with a sweet, spicy and tart dessert of strawberries sprinkled with black pepper and topped with a granita of blanc de blancs Champagne. The wine list covers more than 150 Champagnes, including a versatile house favorite in De Sousa & Fils Brut Cuvée 3A ($84), harvested from grands crus vineyards.

L'ASSIETTE CHAMPENOISE
40 Ave. Paul-Vaillant-Couturier, Tinqueux
Telephone (33) 3-26-84-64-64
Website www.assiettechampenoise.com
Open Lunch, Thursday to Monday; dinner, Wednesday to Monday
Cost Prix-fixe menus $92-$269
Credit cards American Express, MasterCard, Visa

Graceful gardens adorn the stately mansion that is the exterior of L'Assiette Champenoise, a 39-chamber hotel located just outside of Reims; but inside, it is sleek and modern, with warm wood and lots of light in the airy dining room, and impressive artwork and bright furnishings in the hotel's public spaces and rooms—all renovated in 2005.

The interplay of classic and modern is also a theme in chef Arnaud Lallement's thoughtfully prepared and beautifully presented cuisine. Langoustine à la plancha finds an intriguing match when served with a carpaccio of marinated Wagyu beef, and a delicately grilled turbot from Breton is accompanied by pillowy gnocchi and a mouthwatering vin jaune sauce. This young chef has made the dining room a destination for food lovers.

Born and raised in the Champagne region, Lallement enjoys a close friendship and working relationship with many of the area's producers, and his food is typically designed with Champagne pairing in mind. The restaurant offers special events and dinners that match his food to Champagnes from a single producer, and the staff is equally adept at suggesting something from the restaurant's 3,000-selection list to accompany the restaurant's à la carte and tasting menus. The list includes offerings from more than 100 different Champagne producers, with breadth and depth from Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhône, among other regions.

LE MILLÉNAIRE
4-6 Rue Bertin, Reims
Telephone (33) 3-26-08-26-62
Website www.lemillenaire.com
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Entrées $45-$68; prix-fixe menus $43-$68; tasting menu $120
Credit cards American Express, MasterCard, Visa

In the heart of historic Reims, this modern, high-design two-level restaurant of blond woods, bare walls and strips of architectural lighting is more festive than most of its regional Michelin-starred peers. This local favorite has a nice buzz, too, which seems elevated by the waitstaff's shockingly bright green ties and the constant flow of bubbles.

Chef and owner Laurent Laplaige takes classic French gastronomy and adds his own riffs, along with touches from Southern Europe, and then he changes it all every two months. From plancha-grilled fish to sautéed and roasted meat dishes to fanciful desserts, Le Millénaire is all about precise execution and original winning combinations.

Refreshing palate-revving starters include pairings such as cold, spicy gazpacho with shrimp, and roasted duck magret with ripe melon. The complexities intensify in simple-looking dishes that offer an explosion of rich, earthy aromas and flavors—as in slow-cooked veal medallion served on a bed of creamy risotto and topped with cooking juices, pine nuts and truffles.

Finding the right bottle for the meal, which is completed by colorful desserts, isn't hard. The 500-label wine list with more than 250 Champagnes holds treasures such as Comte Audoin de Dampierre Brut Family Réserve 2000 ($162).

PERCHING BAR
Parc Abroxygene, Verzy
Telephone (33) 6-07-67-94-42
Website www.perchingbar.eu
Open Noon to 8 p.m., Wednesday to Sunday; noon to midnight, Saturday
Credit cards MasterCard, Visa

Where else would you find a Champagne bar set in a solar-powered tree house? Getting to the Perching Bar, inside a tree-activity park in the Faux de Verzy woods southeast of Reims, is a bit of an adventure, involving driving up dusty vineyard roads, hiking a couple of hundred yards and bouncing on foot across a wooden suspension bridge. The management suggests bringing a flashlight after dark.

Once you get there, though, you'll have the satisfaction of being somewhere unique. Sit outside on a wooden observation deck or inside on swings, which, along with the Champagne buckets, are suspended from the ceiling of the small wooden cabin. After you adjust to the concept, for which you've paid a $20 entry fee, your first glass of Champagne is free. Choose either a Bollinger or Mumm brut, or select an offering from nearby family-run producers Pehu-Simonet or Louis de Sacy.

WHERE TO STAY

A. BERGÈRE
38-40 Ave. de Champagne, Épernay
Telephone (33) 3-26-32-07-19
Website www.champagne-andre-bergere.com
Rooms 4
Rates $190-$257

One of Champagne's best new addresses is this beautifully renovated bed-and-breakfast opened by the Champagne-producing Bergére family in 2011 next to their boutique in the heart of Épernay's Avenue de Champagne. Upstairs from its light-filled white marble lobby, the 19th-century guest house blends period antiques with colorful modern fabrics, furnishings and vineyard photography for a clean, modern look and feel. Large rooms include marble bathrooms, with a choice of shower or tub. The small but helpful staff arranges tastings in the cellars below, which abut those of neighbor Pol Roger.

LA VILLA EUGÈNE
82-84 Ave. de Champagne, Épernay
Telephone (33) 3-26-32-44-76
Website www.villa-eugene.com
Rooms 14
Suites 1
Rates $202-$528

The most elegant lodging in Épernay, this mid-19th-century mansion was built as a home for the Mercier Champagne family. Villa Eugène opened in 2005 after painstaking renovation by local hoteliers. The five-star hotel, at the edge of Épernay's Avenue de Champagne, shows a harmonious mix of light marble, antiques, period art and modern touches. Rooms are appointed in a classic gold-accented Louis XVI-style or with tasteful modern decor of leather furnishings, light walls and wood.

Start the day with breakfast in the light-filled glass conservatory, which features original ceiling frescoes and floor mosaics and looks onto the hotel's park and swimming pool. End an evening in the hotel's bar, in a converted stable, where nearly 50 Champagnes are served. A fine choice is the Legras & Haas Brut Cuvée Anniversaire 2006 ($62).

All rooms in the "superior" category and above feature antique-style, footed iron tubs and marble bathrooms, and "deluxe" rooms also have large walk-in marble showers. Some rooms have private park-view terraces. The sprawling suite is Louis XVI-style, featuring a bathroom larger than most Paris doubles.

LE CHÂTEAU LES CRAYÈRES
64 Blvd. Henry Vasnier, Reims
Telephone (33) 3-26-24-90-00
Website www.lescrayeres.com
Rooms 17
Suites 3
Rates $535-$961

Overall the most important tourist property in Champagne, Les Crayères sets the standard for the region. The château, more than a century old, was built as the monumental home of the De Polignac family, which presided over Pommery (just across the street) until 1979. Les Crayères' image has been burnished in the 21st century by the Gardinier family, who also own the St.-Estèphe château Phélan Ségur and Paris' landmark restaurant Taillevent.

Set in a 17-acre park and surrounded by towering chestnut, maple and fir trees, the neoclassical mansion is filled with polished marble, winding staircases and period art. Opulently decorated rooms feature a range of classic wall fabrics and colors, antiques and marble-lined bathrooms. Suites offer private garden terraces and both tubs and oversized showers. There is no spa or pool, although the property offers a tennis court and practice putting green.

Two-Michelin-star chef Philippe Mille, 36, presides over two restaurants—both of which promote local suppliers and provide options of eating indoors or outside on garden terraces. The gourmet restaurant, Le Parc, is lined with elaborate wood paneling and period tapestries. Here, Mille serves his creative cuisine, topped by a rich four-course menu ($257) that includes caviar, beef and lobster.

The modern-design brasserie Le Jardin is set in a flower garden and features simpler fare at moderate prices. The wine list features some 600 Champagnes with light markups. A strong collection of local grower-producer bottles includes Jean Milan Terres de Nöel Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru 2007 ($122) served in a line of large, drop-shaped glasses designed by Les Crayères sommelier Philippe Jamesse.

LES AVISÉS
59 Rue de Cramant, Avize
Telephone (33) 3-26-57-70-06
Website www.selosse-lesavises.com
Rooms 10
Rates $311-$514

One of the Champagne region's newest additions is the boutique hotel Les Avisés, opened in 2011 by owners Corinne and Anselme Selosse, of Champagne Jacques Selosse. Along with architect Bruno Borrione, the couple renovated an early 19th-century manor house, creating a light-filled, 10-room hotel and accompanying restaurant.

Corinne explains that upon first seeing the property, "I immediately thought of combining the luxury of a hotel with the warmth of a guest house." And in fact, the lobby space feels more like a stylishly decorated living room, while the 20-seat restaurant evokes a cozy, finely detailed dining room. Both the public spaces and guest rooms deftly blend artistic accents and decor with modern furniture and antique pieces from the 1940s and '50s. The result is charming, combining a calm, relaxing atmosphere with an overall sense of elegance and finesse.

Many guest rooms overlook the vineyards, and each is named for an expression of celebration in various languages—"Cheers," "Salud," "Salute" and "Prosit" among them. Decorated in subtle gray hues, the rooms boast wine- and Champagne-themed artwork, queen- or king-size beds and slate-tiled bathrooms with large walk-in showers. Hotel guests may participate in a tour and tasting in the cellars adjacent to the hotel. Conducted by Anselme Selosse himself, they offer a rare opportunity to understand the philosophy of one of Champagne's premier grower-producers and to taste some of his hard-to-find bottlings.

The dining room, presided over by chef Stéphane Rossillon, is open to the public as well as to hotel guests, but due to its intimate size, reservations are recommended. (An outdoor terrace expands capacity during warm weather.) The menu changes regularly, with a focus on local ingredients, and though originally from southern France, outside of Grenoble, Rossillon shows international flair in his cuisine. Though still firmly French overall, don't be surprised to find Asian five-spice blend flavoring one dish, or a garnish of German muesli adding a crunchy accent to another. The range of the menu provides a fine opportunity to explore pairings with the restaurant's 500-selection wine list, which emphasizes local bottlings from Champagne and also shows strength in Burgundy and the Rhône.

ROYAL CHAMPAGNE
Bellevue, Champillon
Telephone (33) 3-26-52-87-11
Website www.royalchampagne.com
Rooms 25
Suites 3
Rates $379-$880; closed December to February

On a clear day, it's hard to beat this hilltop setting in Champillon, north of Épernay, amid Pinot Noir vineyards as far as the eye can see. Originally a Napoleonic-era carriage house, the property was first developed by the Mercier Champagne family in the early 1900s, and was purchased by Italy's luxury Baglioni Group more than a decade ago.

The five-star hotel spreads over three hillside buildings that have been meticulously renovated. Each room has a unique decor in a variety of styles, from period French to modern, even a Japanese suite with red-lacquered walls and a small enclosed garden. All but four of the rooms feature private panoramic terraces, and deluxe rooms have both baths and separate showers.

The main building, with its intimate salons and a dining room with a wall of picture windows over some of Champagne's best vineyards, is outfitted like a regal country inn, from its wall fabrics and brocade curtains to its collection of antiques. The classically French gourmet restaurant gets uneven reviews from travelers, but the wine list is beyond reproach. The more than 300 Champagne selections are topped by Moët & Chandon Cuvée Dom Pérignon Vintage 1964 ($2,572).

France-based Robert Camuto is a frequent contributor to Wine Spectator.

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