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When you think of Champagne, you imagine a part of France that is the exclusive domain of an elite circle of initiates dedicated to the bubbly cult: golden gated mansions where entrance is denied to anyone without an invitation and restaurants where jeroboam bottles are being uncorked in rapid succession.
On the contrary, once you get there, you discover a region that is quite different from anything you imagined, an enjoyable place to stay even for those who are not champagne connoisseurs (on an unlimited budget). The famous bubbles are a more democratic and affordable pleasure than you think and Champagne is a terroir that seduces visitors with the discreet beauty of its countryside and the medieval charm of its villages, not to mention the (numerous) glasses you get through every day.
The Coteaux, Maisons et Caves de Champagne, which has been listed as a UNESCO world heritage site since 2015, represents the human and geographical landscape, which varies considerably from one area to another.
If you are on your first visit to Champagne, we suggest a short yet densely packed itinerary between the two main cities of the region, Reims and Eparnay: jump in the car and make sure you have plenty of space in the boot for the bottles you will want to bring back with you.
First stop: Epernay, the Capital of Champagne
The first mandatory stop is Epernay itself, officially acclaimed as the Capitale du Champagne. It is here that the first maison, Ruinart, was established in 1729, and it is also here that some of the most famous champagne houses, such as Perrier Jouët, Bollinger and Moët & Chandon are headquartered along the elegant Avenue du Champagne (under which there is a ramified network of cellars covering 110 kilometres).
You may be surprised to learn that almost all of them are open to the public and extend a warm welcome even to the profane. We stopped off at Veuve Cliquot: keeping within the limits of the more affordable gourmet experiences – for 40 Euro you are offered a guided tour of the cellars and boutique and a taste of their Cuvée Brut Yellow Label, for 50 Euros, you even get to taste the famous Grand Dame 2006.
Champagne Veuve Clicquot
13 rue Albert Thomas, Reims
Without falling into the stereotypical conception of champagne being an aperitif wine – a few days are sufficient to make you change your mind – there is no doubt that a tasting session makes you peckish. At a short distance from Epernay, in the middle of the countryside, stands La Briqueterie Relais & Châteaux with the sort of elegantly lavish environment you would expect to find in a traditional French restaurant.
The menu - Terrine of foie gras marbled with guinea fowl, Pigeon supreme stuffed with dates and candied thighs, Sweetbread heart sautéed in brown butter and truffle – meets our expectations. At lunchtime there is a 40 Euro menu, wine and beverages excluded, but the cost of an evening meal can rise to over 100 Euros.
Hostellerie La Briqueterie
4 route de Sézanne, Vinay
In Chouilly, the heart of Cote de Blancs
From the luxurious spirit of the champagne houses to the agricultural and artisanal world of the vignerons. A few kilometres away – at Chouilly, in the heart of the Côte des Blancs terroir, particularly suited to Chardonnay grape growing – stands the firm of Vazart-Coquart.
In a fine brick house, owned by the family since 1865 – the business itself was established in 1954 – it is possible to taste champagne in the company of owner Jean-Pierre Vazart. A perfect gift to take back home? The Special “foie gras” Blanc de Blancs Sec, a mono varietal Chardonnay with a pronounced sweetness which, as its name suggests, has been especially created to accompany goose liver paté.
6 rue des Partelaines, Chouilly
Dinner at Les Avisés
For dinner, you can head for Anselme Selosse, a fetish name for champagne enthusiasts. At Les Avisés, the neoclassical dwelling this producer has renovated with its 10 rooms and a restaurant, a taste of the legendary labels is beyond most people’s reach, but great consolation is offered by the cuisine signed by chef Stéphane Rossillon, who presents dishes such as Boudin blanc, sweet potatoes, figs and chestnuts and a comforting apple tarte tatin at the end of the meal.
Hôtel Restaurant Les Avisés
59 rue de Cramant, Avize
Tel. 03265770 06
A threefold champagne experience
Now that you have visited a maison and become acquainted with a vigneron, why not complete the threefold champenoise experience and seek out a cooperative? Mailly Grand Cru, founded in 1929 in the eponymous Grand Cru, is well worth a visit: take the guided tour around the chalk crayerès, then go up to the firm’s premises, designed by Italian architect Giovanni Pace, to taste their champagne.
We fell in love with the Les Èchansons, a Cuvée Millésimée (75% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay) with its perfect balance of corpulence and freshness along with intriguing buttery notes. Did you know that échanson used to be the title given to the courtier who served wine at the king’s table and looked after the wine cellars?
Champagne Mailly Grand Cru
28 rue de la Libération, Mailly
In Reims, not just for the cathedrals
The aisles of Notre-Dame di Reims, one of the most splendid gothic cathedrals of Europe, are of great historical importance: it was here that almost all French kings were crowned (with one exception), from 987 to 1825. And what better toast to mark the occasion than Champagne, hence its definition as “The wine of kings and the king of wines”? Having been badly damaged during the First World War, the cathedral was later rebuilt thanks to the financial support of the Rockefeller family, but also thanks to the contributions offered by the Champagne houses. In fact, one of its splendid stained glass windows depicts the grape harvest.
After your visit to the Cathedral, stop off for lunch at the nearby Café du Palais, where time seems to have stood still since 1930, when the bistro was first opened. The menu offers assiettes of local cold cuts and cheese specialities, mixed salads and simple dishes (many a nose may turn up at the tagliatelle with foie gras, but we assure you it is not at all bad). The desserts are a chapter apart: buttery crumbles, fragrant apple pies and above all, the Ile flottante aux biscuits roses de Reims, decadent and heavenly, a joy for both the eye and the palate. The biscuit roses are a speciality of the city, designed for dunking into champagne: you will find them on sale in almost all deli stores, presented in delightful tins of various pink hues.
Café du Palais
14 place Myron-Herrick
At the end of your first few days in Champagne you will be ready to draw your conclusions. Should your impressions be negative, let a lighthouse show you the way. We literally refer to the lighthouse of Vezernay which, originally built by producer Joseph Goulet, is now housed at the Vine Museum. Not exactly the last word in technology but useful from an educational point of view (and the sunset to be enjoyed from here is extraordinary).
Musée de la vigne
Phare de Verzenay