What could be more fête-tastic than Champagne? Popping the cork on a bottle of bubbly translates to “celebrate!” in any language around the world. Legend has it that when the monk Dom Pérignon discovered la méthode champenoise, he shouted, “Come quickly, brother, I am drinking the stars!” You can discover the real origins of this sparkling beverage on a quick trip from Paris, as Champagne country is less than one hour from the French capital by TGV. Tours of the world-famous wine cellars can be paired with visits to important historic sites followed by nights in sumptuous hotels.
The big Champagne houses have headquarters in the city of Reims, where the UNESCO-listed gothic cathedral hosted the coronation of 25 French kings. Beneath the city, 75 miles of underground tunnels called crayères hold a real treasure trove: tens of millions of aging Champagne bottles.
Guided tours are arranged by appointment. We highly recommend Pommery, which holds court among the most prestigious maisons. Built in English Gothic style, the turreted red-brick castle looms over a 123-acre estate. Inside the cavernous reception room, an effervescent crowd sips bubbly at the bar while surrounded by art exhibits, including a taxidermied elephant standing upside-down on its trunk.
Founded in 1836, Pommery rose to glory because of Madame Pommery, one of France’s first great businesswomen, who took over the reins upon her husband’s death. She innovated by creating the first Brut vintage in 1874, and by opening her cellars—housed in ancient Gallo-Roman quarries—to the public. She recruited sculptors to carve Bacchic reliefs in the caves by candlelight, and today Pommery continues the artistic tradition with year-round installations by prominent contemporary artists like Daniel Buren. Note that access to the cellars is down 116 steps and it’s quite chilly, so dress warmly. Saturdays are quite busy with guided tours.
Right next door, Veuve-Clicquot is likewise impressive and has a similar history of female leadership (hats off to Madame Clicquot). A tour of the cellars, carved into limestone quarries, concludes with a Champagne tasting. Like Pommery, Veuve-Clicquot has reception rooms that can be privately booked. Another one of the flagships is Taittinger, owned by the family that once built up a hotel empire encompassing the Crillon and Lutetia hotels in Paris.
While in Reims, stock up on the famous pink cookies that the locals dunk in their Champagne coupes. The Maison Fossier creates this regional specialty, called the Biscuit Rose de Reims.
History buffs shouldn’t miss the Museum of the German Surrender, where General Eisenhower set up his headquarters during WWII. The map room has been left untouched, covered with large charts showing supply routes and enemy lines, all marked with pins. This is where the Third Reich’s German armies signed the unconditional surrender, officially ending the war.
The Wine Route
|La Maison de Rhodes is a five-star hotel in Troyes with foundations dating back to the 12th century.|
The Route du Vin winds south from Reims through the vineyards. More than 15,000 wine growers cultivate 90 percent of the Champagne appellation region, and many of these small producers welcome visitors. The official Champagne website, www.champagne.fr, is a wealth of information; it’s best to call ahead to arrange an appointment.
Rising from the Montagne de Reims, a plateau cloaked in grape vines, the Verzenay Lighthouse is an excellent wine museum with 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside. It abuts the regional nature park, where a fantastic Champagne bar is perched in the treetops. The aptly-named Perching Bar (perchingbar.eu) is accessed by bridge walkways and powered entirely by solar panels. Inside, white leather swing seats are suspended from the ceiling along with hanging ice buckets.
Continue on to Epernay, the unofficial Champagne capital which has the largest number of cellars in the region, many concentrated along the Avenue de Champagne. Moët & Chandon—famous for its Dom Pérignon prestige label—offers an interesting tour of its labyrinthine cellars.
Southeast in the Côte de Bar, Drappier Champagne is a must-visit because of the witty and welcoming patriarchs who own it. André and Michel Drappier are the sixth and seventh generation of Champagne grape growers, and André was recently awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government. Tour the limestone vaults, made into proper cellars by Cistercian monks in the 12th century, and see the largest Champagne bottle in existence. Invented by Drappier, the Melchisedech contains the equivalent of 40 bottles and weighs 30 liters. (Drappier sold two of these bottles last year for the christening of the new Silversea cruise ship in Miami.)
A lucky few get to bed down at the Hotel du Marc, the private mansion exclusively reserved for guests of Veuve-Clicquot. Located at 18 rue du Marc in Reims, the house unveiled a staggering renovation in September 2011 that made waves in the design world. Architect Bruno Moinard (responsible for the look of Cartier’s shops worldwide) recruited a legion of renowned designers (like the Campana brothers) to create the avant-garde look. There’s a 3D portrait gallery of Veuve-Clicquot’s founders; a fantastical, grapevine-inspired bench by Pablo Reinoso; and a bedroom called “Once Upon a Dream” by designer Mathieu Lehanneur, styled to cocoon weary guests in sleep-inducing bliss.
|La Maison de Rhodes rooms exude an aura of mystery and intrigue.|
But for those who are not Veuve VIPs, the crème de la crème of lodgings in Reims is the Chateau Les Crayères. With manicured garden grounds enclosed behind castle walls, the property has the feel of a country estate, spread across 17 acres. A member of Relais & Châteaux, the hotel is owned by the Gardinier family and helmed by Director Hervé Fort.
There are 20 rooms and suites decorated by celebrity designer Pierre-Yves Rochon in a classic style that befits a grand chateau. Insiders tell us that Rooms no. 25 and 14 are the most requested by clients. Contact Accommodations Director Marie Liesse Mantsch ([email protected]; 011-33-0-3-26-24-90-00) with questions.
Even if you’re not spending the night, a meal at the chateau’s Michelin two-starred restaurant will linger with you for a lifetime. Kick things off with flute of Champagne at the bar La Rotonde, overlooking the gardens. The gracious staff will then usher you to Le Parc for delicate amuse-bouches paired with wines selected by Sommelier Philippe Jamesse. Inspired by the seasons, Chef Philippe Mille bases his menu on regional products. “You can re-create the Champagne landscape on the plate,” he says, mentioning noble ingredients like truffles, crawfish and saffron. Each dish is a work of art; we loved the millefeuille de volaille, in which layers of chicken, foie gras and girolle mushrooms were presented in the shape of the beloved millefeuille dessert, atop a bed of gnocchi.
|Pommery, the red-brick Champagne house built in English Gothic style, looms over a 50-hectare estate in the city of Reims.|
Other Relais & Châteaux properties in Champagne deserve a mention. Le Royal Champagne, managed by Baglioni Hotels, was once a favorite stopover for Napoleon on his way to Reims. The 28 guest rooms—some outfitted with period furniture, some with contemporary furnishings—look out on the vineyards surrounding Epernay.
Nearby, La Briqueterie is a five-star hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant and a spa complete with indoor pool, sauna, hammam, and beauty treatments by Carita and Decleor.
A noteworthy new addition on the Champagne hotel scene is the Chateau de Rilly, with a picture-perfect location on the Montagne de Reims. The hotel manager is Patricia Dottore ([email protected]; 011-33-0-7-88-19-70-28).
|Chateau Les Crayères rooms have been decorated by designer Pierre-Yves Rochon in a classic style that befits a grand chateau.|
Directly south of Reims at the edge of Champagne country, the medieval city of Troyes makes an exceptional pit stop because of its perfectly preserved historic core: lined with 16th-century half-timbered houses and 10 heritage-listed churches. La Maison de Rhodes is a five-star hotel that embodies this history: with foundations dating back to the 12th century, it once belonged to the Knights Templar of the Order of Malta. It was acquired in 1998 and underwent a meticulous, five-year renovation; it still exudes an aura of mystery and intrigue.
We were enchanted with our room (De Malte), nestled under the eves with exposed wood beams. Though uniquely different, each of the 11 suites showcases these historic details (like a fireplace or original stone). Breakfast comes with French press coffee, freshly squeezed juice, homemade jams and breads. Keep in mind that it is a small hotel and therefore lacks the facilities possessed by larger five-star establishments. (There is no elevator to access upstairs rooms.) However, a pool will be opening in spring 2013.