Jun 14, 2016
While a glass of Champagne has all the hallmarks of elegance, there’s a charmingly earthy side to the famed French region that produces it. Tyson Stelzer explores the food, wine and terroir of Champagne’s villages.
Champagne is the most glamorous of drinks so it seems fitting that the Champagne houses of Reims and Épernay are decadent, accommodation is six-star in places and some restaurants are truly world-class. But there’s another side to the region: quaint villages dotted with fairytale steeples, meticulously pruned vines that etch their lines into gentle hillsides and the quiet pace of country folk.
Just a 40-minute high-speed train ride from Paris, Champagne is a sparkling world all of its own. Today, there are around 4500 growers bottling their own Champagne. And while it’s possible to zip from one village to the next to experience the personality of each area, tasting the drops produced there is a little trickier – most Champagne growers and houses don’t open like cellar doors in Australia.
But there are other, more inventive ways to soak up both the region and the celebrated beverage. Here are a dozen different ways to savour it…
La Boutique du Club Trésors de Champagne, Reims￼
This recently opened tasting room and shop in Reims is one of the few places where you can taste a range of Champagnes. The shared project of 28 grower members of the Champagne Special Club is a cool space where visitors can attend a masterclass, buy some 170 different grower Champagnes and try a selection. As with all visits in the region, be sure to book in advance.
The Perfect picnic
On the narrow road just east of Épernay that winds between the vineyards from the grand cru village of Aÿ to the tiny hamlet of Mutigny is a lookout with one of the most spectacular views in all of Champagne. It’s perched high on the edge of the Montagne de Reims and takes in the full panorama of the region’s three most important districts: the Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs and Vallée de la Marne. Stock up with picnic supplies ahead of time at Épernay’s best bakery, Danis-Ova, and don’t forget your Champagne flutes.
Danis-Ova +33 3 26 55 29 75
Restaurant Les Avisés, Avize
This immaculately restored and luxurious hotel south of Épernay is a surprising venture for Champagne’s most influential grower, Anselme Selosse of Champagne Jacques Selosse. His wife Corinne’s tasteful decoration is an experience in itself but it’s the cuisine of chef Stéphane Rossillon that makes Restaurant Les Avisés a must-visit. Rossillon is a true culinary genius, whose daily set menu emphasises fresh local produce, yet he still manages to interact with guests from his open kitchen. I toured it with him on one visit, saw the cellar on another, and inspected the garden on a third. The restaurant features a central table for diners who want company and intimate tables for two, all anchored by an imposing chandelier. This is a rare chance to meet Selosse and buy his scarce Champagnes.
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The finest fizz
Les Crayères, Reims
With towering marble pillars flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows that rise out of painstakingly manicured gardens, the grand château of Les Crayères is the finest of Champagne’s restaurants and is among the world’s great dining experiences. Coarsely woven tablecloths add an element of informality to otherwise uncompromising silver service in grand rooms of elegant drapes, subtle lighting and refined grandeur. The waitstaff float around the room with seamless precision – yet without pomp – and always have time to stop for a chat. Every course is a “best-ever” – from black truffle lobster as a starter to lemon soufflé with tarragon sorbet to close – and the Champagne list is truly awe-inspiring, shamelessly plundering the cellars of every worthy house and grower. To make the most of Les Crayères, budget for around $300 per person; to really do it properly, be prepared to double that.
De Sousa, Avize
Over the past 25 years or so, third-generation Champagne grower Erick De Sousa has revitalised his family estate, making it one of the finest on the Côte des Blancs. He welcomes guests over his enormous oak tasting table then leads them through the cellars, which tunnel directly under the square in the heart of the quaint village of Avize, and up to his fermentation room behind half-metre-thick walls on the far side of the square. Here, De Sousa shows how he handcrafts his cuvées to capture the personality of his family’s vineyards, which he painstakingly tends according to biodynamic principles.
L’Assiette Champenoise, Tinqueux
Arnaud Lallement presents Champagne’s most exciting contemporary cuisine from this three-Michelin-starred restaurant. Immaculate silver service delivers a modern take on French food that highlights fresh, lively flavours and refreshing balance. The seasonal menu is complemented by a Champagne list eclipsed only by that of Les Crayères, presented in a tome-proportioned book.
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Visit with verve
Veuve Clicquot, Reims
The grand house of Veuve Clicquot is a juxtaposition of old and new, with a reception room in the trademark Clicquot mango-orange livery located directly above its splendid fourth-century crayères (chalk cellars). A dizzying annual production of 18 million bottles makes this the second-largest Champagne house. La Grande Dame is arguably the most affordable of Champagne’s prestige cuvées, while a rare privilege of visiting the house of Veuve Clicquot is tasting its enchanting Cave Privée range of vintages released after more than two decades in the cellars.
￼Under the careful yet daring oversight of Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger and his children, Clovis and Vitalie, the Champagnes of the revered house of Taittinger are more refined than ever. A tour of its four kilometres of fourth-century Roman crayères is only topped by a taste of Comtes de Champagne. Three million bottles of this cuvée reside in these galleries for more than a decade. It ranks among the world’s finest blanc de blancs.
Tour of duty
Last year, the vineyards, houses and cellars of Champagne were awarded UNESCO World Heritage status but only the crayères of Ruinart are classified as a national monument. This is the most established Champagne house of all and the first to use its third-century Roman chalk mines under the city to age its Champagnes.
A visit to the region is incomplete without exploring its deepest and most spectacular cellars, topped off with a tasting of the graceful chardonnay-focused cuvées of this house.
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In the premier cru village of Vertus at the southern end of Champagne’s famed Côte
des Blancs, no grower is more lauded than Pierre Larmandier. His regime – one of Champagne’s most sensible and diligent – is based on the principle that the soil is the most important thing and focuses on every nuance and detail in the vineyard and the winery. Make an appointment to visit the Larmandier-Bernier estate, where Pierre or his wife, Sophie, will personally introduce you to their cuvées and show you through their biodynamic vineyards. Their Champagnes are proof that diligence counts even more than grand cru classification in defining Champagne’s finest growers.
Flavour to savour
Fifth-generation vigneron Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy is the finest grower in the premier cru village of Cumières in the Vallée de la Marne. But such is his success that in 2008 he moved to an enviably large production facility in Aÿ. Here, his wines express the generosity and purity of pinot noir-focused blends. His wife, Karine, themed their contemporary little tasting room, where she or Jean-Baptiste will guide you through their extensive range of Champagnes.
Perching Bar, Verzy
High in the verdant forest atop the Montagne de Reims, which overlooks the grand cru village of Verzy, a network of suspended rope bridges leads you to the coolest treehouse ever: a Champagne bar perched amid the foliage. The bridges are easily negotiated, although only by one person at a time. You’ll be rewarded with the sprawling view from an outside deck. Or swing in a chair that’s suspended from the ceiling in the Scandi-cool interior – with a glass of Champagne, of course.
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