We continue our series of tips and recommendations for trips to wine regions with a flying visit to Reims, Epernay and the vineyards of Champagne, which lie to the north east of Paris.
Champagne is the most exciting and seductive of wines. In the words of Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, “Every bottle of Champagne should be a celebration and a ceremony.” A few days spent in the home of the world’s best loved sparkling wine are guaranteed to be both.
If the dazzling range of Champagne houses offering tastings and visits isn’t enough to tempt you, the region is also endowed with a glittering array of Michelin-starred restaurants and a spectacular 800-year-old cathedral in Reims. Reminiscent of the rolling wood-topped hills of the Côte d’Or, the vineyards will look beautiful anytime from spring through to late autumn. October would be particularly beautiful as the leaves are turning gold.
What to do:
Having just returned from a visit to Reims with Taittinger, to celebrate the upcoming launch of their prestige cuvée, Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2008, we cannot recommend a visit to their spectacular UNESCO World Heritage protected chalk cellars (crayères) highly enough.
Do book ahead, and double check opening times. Many cellars will be closed at the weekend.
The extraordinary gothic Cathedral, historic coronation site of the kings of France, is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is worth organising a guided tour from the adjacent Tourist Office for the inside track on the history, the exquisitely intricate carvings and statues of the façade and the wealth of stained glass windows, from the stunning traditional Rose window, the much-loved Chagall triptych and the more controversial bright modern windows designed by Imi Knoebel.
If you are based in Epernay, which is smaller than Reims, and lies in the heart of the vineyards, you should certainly visit the cellars of Moet & Chandon. Weather permitting, a trip in the Ballon Captif, a tethered hot air balloon, allows incredible views at sunrise or sunset. Or simply head out into the villages of the Côte des Blancs and visit the myriad small producers, restaurants and bars that line the road.
Where to eat:
L’Assiette Champenoise on the outskirts of Reims is widely considered the best restaurant in Reims, modern, experimental and supremely accomplished with an epic wine list. Equally gorgeous rooms and a lovely pool make this a great hotel choice.
Also in Reims, set in beautiful grounds, is Domaine Les Crayeres with its two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Le Parc and the charmingly relaxed, yet still delicious, little brother, Brasserie le Jardin. You can also stay in lavish rooms with wall to wall toile de Jouy!
Racine, in Reims, run by a couple, a Burgundian wife front of house and her Japanese husband in the kitchen, has gorgeous food and fantastic wine list.
Le Boulingrin, established in 1925, claims to be the oldest brasserie in Reims and is famous for its classic regional dishes and towering plateaux of fruits de mer accompanied, of course, buy a bottle of Champagne from their very decent list.
The food at the restaurant Les Berceaux in Epernay is delicious and wonderfully old school, but best to steer clear of their hotel rooms!
Back in Reims, The Glue Pot is open late and the perfect spot for a bubbly night cap. Don’t look at the interior design but at their impressive and very well priced Champagne list. (49, place Drouet d'Erlon 51100 Reims)
Where to stay:
In addition to L’Assiette Champenoise and Domaine Les Crayeres, if you want to base yourself in Reims, the Hotel de la Paix is conveniently located bang in the centre and extremely comfortable, although it lacks the romance of some of the boutique hotels.
La Villa Eugène in Epernay is a more understated, yet absolutely charming hotel at the far end of the Avenue de Champagne. Highly recommended.
Les Grains d’Argent is another excellent Hotel-Restaurant located just outside Epernay, in the village of Dizy, with many of the rooms overlooking the vineyards.
Finally, boutique family-owned Champagne house, Henri Giraud, have just launched a luxury spa with a handful of gorgeous rooms in the heart of Ay, a Grand Cru village lying just where the Vallée de la Marne, Montagne de Reims and Côte des Blancs meet.
Getting there: Around 45 minutes from Paris by TGV or a more leisurely train drops you in the centre of Epernay. Trains depart from the Gare de l’Est.
Getting around: you will need to hire a car or get a driver
What to wear: Most importantly take practical (flat) shoes for cobbled streets and possibly muddy vineyards, and something warm to wear – these are not only the most northerly vineyards in France but the subterranean cellars are distinctly chilly all year round. It is also worth taking something fairly smart if you are heading to some of the grander restaurants.