In 1868, when Mme Pommery built her winery near the city walls of Reims, she seemingly thought of everything. Vast, blue, neo-Gothic buildings, still startling today, full of winemaking equipment for her Champagne; beneath them, medieval chalk quarries smoothed into 18km of cellars, with bas-reliefs carved into the walls. Beyond her imposing gates, she helped pay for the north–south route between Reims and Epernay. In this, more than in any other area of her impressive tenure, she was far ahead of her time, ensuring more than just easier transportation for her wares.
Any visitors to the city would necessarily pass by her door, and by viewing that as an opportunity rather than an imposition, she was surely Champagne’s earliest promoter of wine tourism. I suspect Mme Pommery would have been unimpressed by how long it has taken everyone else to follow her lead. For while there can’t be many Western drinkers who haven’t heard of Champagne, until recently, the drinkers didn’t translate into visitors – not welcome ones, anyway. In wartime, the area was frequently ravaged by occupiers: the vines churned into battlefields, the cellars pillaged. Peacetime tourists leaving Paris usually headed south, not east.
But the allure of the region increased sharply in 2018, when the Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa opened in Champillon: an easy drive to either Reims or Epernay, and a pleasant 20-minute e-cycle ride through the vines to Hautvillers, the village where Dom Pérignon lived and died. Owned by the American proprietors of Champagne Leclerc Briant, this deeply luxurious update of a coaching inn where Napoleon apparently paused, has pools with vineyard views and a rooftop bar where you can taste a wide range of Champagne houses – including those that don’t accept visitors – simply by beckoning a waiter. And while one hotel can hardly be held responsible, the whole region does seem to have unfurled since its opening, like a vine budding in the warmth of the spring sun.
I didn’t stay at Royal Champagne on this visit; instead, I slept in President Eisenhower’s bedroom. Germany’s surrender in 1945 was signed in Reims under American supervision, and Eisenhower (at the time only a general) lodged in a gracious mansion on Boulevard Lundy. Now it belongs to the owners of three Champagne houses, including Charles Heidsieck, who have converted the building back to its former glory, even renovating the old lift, with its wooden doors and plush seat. Dwight probably wouldn’t recognise much of his old digs – the elegant double staircase, maybe – but he would surely appreciate their comfort.
Champagne is a place of contradictions: a place synonymous with luxury that resists being seen as frivolous; a region of small producers and big profits, of softly curved vine-covered fields that have frequently become battlefields. At the end of World War I, 80% of Reims had been bombed, and the town was empty. It is hard to reconcile this with a drink that is the liquid quintessence of celebration.
Or is it? Generations of French kings were crowned amid the magnificence of Reims’s 13th-century cathedral, and isn’t a celebration partly also a reminder that times aren’t always this good? Built on the spot where an early Christian bishop, Nicasius, was supposedly decapitated by encroaching barbarians, the cathedral is packed with reminders: the beautiful stained- glass windows by Marc Chagall, who escaped both Stalin and the Nazis; the magnificently carved facade’s smiling angel, which was gravely damaged by the bombs (only temporarily, though – that smile is back in place). Still, this is a place that has alternated bubbles and rubble, where heads have been both crowned and lost.
Champagne is also France’s northernmost wine region, whose growers learned long ago – possibly from the monk Dom Pérignon, although who really knows? – how to turn the high acidity in their barely ripened grapes to effervescent advantage. In our warming world, the grapes ripen just fine (although frost is still a serious issue). And the sunshine has brought the tourists.
Ruinart, like Pommery (its next-door neighbour), has deep medieval cellars carved from the chalk, and the different ways they choose to showcase them say a lot about the two houses’ divergent styles. At Pommery, there is an exhibition of contemporary art among the caves, neon and lm lighting up the pick marks of centuries-dead miners. Ruinart leaves the cellars to the bottles, with one gargantuan exception: a tower with a dramatic light display by artist duo Mouawad Laurier, reaching 38 metres up to the quarry’s original opening.
I tasted Ruinart’s non-vintage Blanc de Blancs, with its baked apple and lemon notes topped with fresh pastry, beside an autumnal, richly mushroomy Dom Ruinart 2010. And then the rosé. Did Champagne houses initially avoid making pink wines out of fear of seeming too frivolous? (Or, in the case of Bollinger, because its formidable proprietor Lily considered them suitable only for courtesans?) In any case, they are making up for lost time now, and while Ruinart’s lightly strawberry non-vintage was good, the tawny, nutty 2009 was fantastic.
In the centre of Epernay there’s a vast tethered balloon that rises for a panoramic view of the vineyards – Unesco-listed, as every single person I meet proudly reminds me – when the weather permits. It didn’t on my visit, so I walked up the town’s Avenue de Champagne, a boulevard famous both for the money above ground – Pol Roger is here, as is Boizel; Moët & Chandon has buildings on both sides of the street – and the miles of bottle-stacked cellars below. One of the wealthiest streets in the world, it was once known as Avenue de Commerce. I stopped in at Perrier-Jouët’s delightful Art Nouveau bar, its gardens tracing the cellar shapes below, for refreshment. The glasses are decorated, frivolously, with Art Nouveau-style enamelled flowers coloured according to the contents.
The launch of this bar – and of the very di erent 19 Avenue de Champagne across the street – is the best indicator of Champagne’s newly opened arms. Le 19 is the bar of Champagne’s regulatory body. There is no enamelled glassware here – instead, there’s a rotating selection of 100 bottles, each from different winemakers. I hadn’t heard of most of them; in fact, they hadn’t necessarily heard of each other. Lots of producers drop in to open their wines and talk to customers, and watching three of them introduce themselves to one another was a reminder that, while the great names hog the spotlight, there are lots of far smaller growers – more and more of whom are récoltants- manipulants, or RMs – producing their own Champagnes rather than simply selling their grapes.
Other than this rather extraordinary bar, the best places to try those sorts of Champagnes are the restaurants. At Château de Sacy, a smart hotel-restaurant 20 minutes’ drive from Reims, in an all-glass conservatory with vineyards visible in every direction, I drank Jacques Picard’s Blanc de Noirs, a racy blend of Pinot Noir and Meunier from a single plot, with pumpkin soup. At Loisium, a giant new hotel near Epernay, Augustin’s 100% old-vine Blanc de Noirs went very well with roast chicken and vegetables that are so local the producers’ names and locations appear on the menu. Chef Christophe Bernard of La Grillade Gourmande marinates his foie gras in the sweet Champagne offshoot, and he serves the last strawberries of the season dusted with black pepper – a flavour enhancer so perfect it makes sugar seem vulgar. A brut rosé from Vautrain-Paulet, another RM, matched beautifully.
Some smaller producers do, however, open their doors to visitors; some even roll out the yoga mat. In another conservatory, at Champagne Louis Brochet, Smahane led me through a series of stretches with very local quirks (‘hold yourself upright, like a Champagne glass’) that ended with an actual, full Champagne glass. This may be avant-garde, but the rest of the business is not – unless you consider an old-fashioned wooden wine press to be so retro it’s modern. On 13ha, siblings Hélène and Louis Brochet make a particularly fine Extra Brut, as well as smaller cuvées; that old press is for their Extra Noir.
Charlotte Le Gallais’s situation is unusual: Champagne Le Gallais is in a clos, a walled vineyard, but she only owns a quarter of its 20ha, which France’s intricate inheritance laws have divided between four relatives. I get the impression this is… complicated. But the wines are excellent, and there’s a great distraction in the form of a glorious château (also shared) that looks out over the Marne Valley. Built by Mme Clicquot Ponsardin, better known as la veuve Clicquot, for her granddaughter’s marriage, it has twice been a wedding present and twice a military hospital – that peaceful valley was a frontline during both world wars.
The four Le Gallais wines are all excellent, but I especially like the slightly smoky, very saline zero-dosage Cuvée des Cèdres. And Charlotte resembles her wines: focused, lively to the point of effervescence and great fun to spend time with. Between the small producers and the giants are Champagnes such as de Venoge. In an elegantly appointed salon of its mansion on Epernay’s famous avenue, I tried cuvées including a couple from the rare ed Louis XV series: beautifully made vintage grand cru Champagnes. These are small- production, prized wines – and yet, while nobody shouts about it, the house is owned by Lanson, with all the commercial advantages that brings.
Champagne has spent years fighting anyone who uses the word as a descriptor. That’s understandable, even if you believe that imitation is flattery. However, the real solution is not shutting others down, but opening themselves up: nobody who visits will ever again confuse Champagne with any other fizz. I ended my visit at Pressoria, a new, artfully animated wine ‘experience’ that is determinedly multisensory, with root systems made of light that follow the visitor, slightly creepily, across the room; areas scented like oak barrels or lit to resemble the seasons; and fascinating old photographs donated by locals. Here is the best kind of frivolity: an enjoyable reminder that Champagne is a wine made with the utmost seriousness for people who want to have fun. And now, so long after the murderous barbarians departed, it’s an enjoyable place to visit as well.
Wineries and bars to visit in Champagne
- Champagne Le Gallais Charlotte Le Gallais’s 5ha once belonged to the famous widow known as la veuve Clicquot, but hers is a much simpler operation, with just four elegant, understated wines. The château overlooking the Marne Valley isn’t understated, but neither is it currently open for visits (unlike the winery). Let’s hope that changes.
- Champagne Henri Giraud Located a few miles outside Epernay, this family-owned estate offers a fascinating tour that includes a look at its barrels, deliberately chosen from specific parts of the nearby Forest of Argonne to impart individual wood aromas that are beautifully balanced by the salinity of the estate’s chalky terroir. It has recently installed five comfortable bedrooms (two with terraces), plus a kitchen and a small spa.
- Champagne Louis Brochet, Ecueil This family-owned winery makes excellent Champagnes, some of them in a proper old-fashioned wooden wine press. It also o ers yoga sessions in the conservatory or the garden, followed by a tasting – a surprisingly good combination.
- Champagne Pommery From the fairy-tale castle exterior to the contemporary art in the cellars below, Pommery is designed for tourists as much as for wine lovers – although both are welcome to try the house wares at the bar.
- Champagne Ruinart Founded in 1729, Ruinart prides itself on being the oldest Champagne house, a fact showcased by a painting on display that features the earliest- known depiction of a Champagne bottle. Visitors also have the chance to compare two of Ruinart’s gorgeous Champagnes side by side.
- Champagne de Venoge, Epernay In a 19th-century mansion on Avenue de Champagne, you can still see the rst ever colour Champagne labels and a 1921 stained-glass window depicting victory in World War I (the town church, then still bomb-damaged, is visible). The lovely garden rolls almost to the River Marne, and the former stables are now a bar and shop.
- 19 Avenue de Champagne, Epernay, On the famous avenue, this bar offers a changing array of 100 Champagnes, most from smaller producers who don’t have the facilities to welcome visitors. A degustation of three wines costs €24, and the maker may be on hand to talk about them. The staff all speak English, even if the winemakers don’t.
- Le Cellier Belle Epoque, Epernay, Champagne Perrier-Jouët has opened this bar above its cellars – the paths in the garden actually trace the route of the tunnels below. In the green space dotted with artworks, glasses are prettily enamelled with owers, and there are four Champagnes by the glass and many more by the bottle, plus small plates available.
- Pressoria, This is not a winery or bar but an interactive experience designed to appeal to all five senses. It’s well worth visiting, since it’s inventive, fun and carefully pitched to entertain experts, novices and even children. Every element is bilingual (English and French). Adult €16, child €8.50
Top accommodation in the Champagne region
- Domaine du Chalet, Chigny-les-Roses. A gorgeous 19th-century five-suite house in the Montagne de Reims regional park, this was once Mme Pommery’s country estate and is now owned by Champagne Palmer. It has beautiful grounds and fine dining from the superb on-site chef. Rooms from €225 including breakfast
- Résidence Eisenhower, Reims The EPI group, which owns Piper- Heidsieck, Charles Heidsieck and Rare Champagne, has restored this beautiful hotel that once hosted General Eisenhower (before he became the 34th US president). They will happily organise anything from wine tours and restaurant bookings, to on-site cookery classes. Rooms from €350 including breakfast
- Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa, Champillon. A sumptuous all-suite hotel with bistro, rooftop bar and Michelin-starred restaurant, where even the swimming pools and Jacuzzi overlook a vista of vines – as do the individual balconies. Rooms from €569 including breakfast
Restaurants to have on your radar, from Reims to Epernay
- Château de Sacy, Sacy. The biggest attraction at this hotel is the conservatory restaurant, with spectacular views of the surrounding vines. The menu is classic French, with meat carved at the table and a substantial cheese trolley. Of course, there is also an excellent Champagne list, including several by the glass.
- La Grillade Gourmande, Epernay. Christophe Bernard is the kind of chef-patron who appears at every table to make sure his guests are content. And they generally are, thanks to his inventive twists on classic French cooking and superb wine list.
- Hostellerie La Briqueterie, Vinay. The best kind of old-fashioned, with plush maroon decor and white tablecloths, this Relais & Chateaux hotel and restaurant offers superb classic dishes, a large wine list and exemplary service.
- L’Horisium, Mutigny. The lobby and restaurant in this strikingly modern new hotel have vast windows offering views of the vineyards – and possibly, of some of the farms from which they source their ingredients, since as many as possible are local. The menu is as modern as the decor.
- Version Originale, Reims. Situated opposite the central market, this charming restaurant has an ever-changing menu chalked on the blackboard and a rotating duo of Champagnes by the glass, as well as an extensive list by the bottle. It has been here for 20 years – it’s not hard to see why.