Champagne is a land of wide skies and deep cellars. The chalk slopes of the hills are covered with verdant vines, and cellars for aging Champagne are dug deep into the hillsides as well as beneath the streets of the villages and cities. Regal chateaus and atmospheric manor houses set the stage for a destination that’s refined and distinctively French. But whether your interest is gastronomy, history or discovering how a magical, bubbling drink is created in a cold, northern landscape, Champagne, only 45 minutes by train from Paris (35 minutes from Charles De Gaulle Airport), is a must-see—and convenient—choice for savvy travelers.
Where to Dine:
Le Grand Cerf, in Villers-Allerand between Reims and Épernay, is loved by the locals. In the summer, climb and cross wooden walkways to the Perching Bar—literally a tree house/tasting bar at the highest point of the Montagne de Reims, which serves hot and cold dishes and, of course, Champagne. For the ultimate in dining, it’s Château les Crayères in Reims—a chateau set in a park that serves classic French cuisine.
Where to Stay:
La Briqueterie, in Vinay, is a hotel and spa surrounded by Champagne vineyards. In the heart of Reims, the Hotel Azur is a good value and located close to the cathedral. La Villa Eugène, in Épernay, is a townhouse converted into a luxury bed-and-breakfast, and is close to Mercier, Castellane, Perrier Jouët, and slightly further afield, Moët et Chandon and Leclerc-Briant.
Gilles Dumangin of Champagne J. Dumangin Fils says, “One of our favorite walks is to the Faux de Verzy on the Montagne de Reims.” The Faux is a one-kilometer-long area in the forest of very old stunted trees, like bonsai. “Nobody knows what happened. Some people believe it’s where a spaceship landed.”
To immerse yourself in the history of Champagne, visit the Porte de Mars, the city gateway built by the Romans, and the medieval cathedral of Reims, where the kings of France were crowned. For wildlife lovers, the Lac du Der is the largest reservoir in Europe and an important staging post for migrating birds.
In the summer, go on a treasure hunt around the vineyards, oriented with a GPS. The Champagne-Ardenne Tourism Bureau arranges this fun activity that ends at the Verzenay windmill.
Where to Taste:
Many of the large Champagne houses, such as Louis Roederer in Reims, receive visitors, but it’s just as much fun to visit smaller growers. Pommery is located in a beautiful park in Reims, displaying majestic architecture and some of the largest caves (crayères), which are dug out of the chalk and date back to Roman times. Look for the bas-relief sculptures by Gustave Navlet. At Erick de Sousa’s winery in Avize on the Chardonnay-dominated Côtes des Blancs, enjoy a family-style welcome and taste the wines from biodynamically grown grapes. In Épernay, visit Champagne de Castellane for one of the best introductions to the process of Champagne production. Climb the winery tower (a local landmark) to get a great view of the vineyards.
Prominent Grape Varieties:
Champagne is usually a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Champagnes labeled Blanc de Blancs are pure Chardonnay. All Champagnes are classified by designations, or styles, that indicate either the amount of sugar added and contained in the dosage (the small amount of still wine added to Champagne immediately before the cork goes into the bottle) or by the types of grapes used. Champagne styles range from extremely dry (extra brut) to very sweet (the rare doux). Champagne is categorized as “vintage” or “nonvintage” depending on whether it originates from a single year or is a blend of several different years. Most Champagne is nonvintage. Special Champagnes, which can be vintage or nonvintage, are described as prestige cuvées and are the priciest of all Champagnes.
When to go:
Visit in late spring or early autumn. Champagne houses close in August.
Champagne-Ardenne Tourism Bureau: www.champagne-ardenne-tourism.co.uk
Champagne de Castellane: castellane.com
Champagne de Sousa: champagnedesousa.com
Champagne J. Dumangin Fils: www.champagne-dumangin.com
Hôtel Azur: hotelazurreims.free.fr
La Briqueterie: labriqueterie.fr
Lac du Der: lacduder.com
La Grillade Gourmande: lagrilladegourmande.com
Le Grand Cerf: le-grand-cerf.fr/
Château les Crayères: chateaucrayeres.com
Perching Bar: perchingbar.eu
La Villa Eugène: villa-eugene.com
Try this recipe from Champagne:
Fillet of Venison with Chervil and Truffle Sauce
Courtesy of chef Dominique Giraudeau at Le Grand Cerf Restaurant in Montchenot, France
Chervil, on stalk
1/3 stick unsalted butter, divided
2 teaspoons peanut oil
11/3 pounds fillet of venison cut into four pieces
2 teaspoons Ruby Port
2/3 cup veal stock
2 tablespoons salted butter
1 pound fresh small curly leaf chervil
1½ ounces fresh black truffles (or Portobello mushrooms)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 teaspoons truffle oil
Preheat oven to 425°F. In a medium pot, add chervil on the stalk to salted water. Once cooked, strip the leaves from the stalk and set aside. Melt half of the unsalted butter in a pan and heat until lightly brown. Add peanut oil and heat. Fry the venison fillets in the pan for 2 minutes on each side to seal the juices and place on a wire rack to drain.
Deglaze the pan with the Port wine, add the veal stock, reduce by half and add the other half of the stick of butter. (The sauce should be slightly thicker than necessary because it will be diluted with truffle oil later.)
In another skillet, heat the salted butter and add the chervil leaves until brown. Baste the venison with some of the unsalted butter and put in the oven to finish heating. They should be hot and rare to medium rare. Warm the truffles, covered with foil, in the oven for a few minutes.
To serve: Place chervil on four warmed plates, cut each piece of venison into three further pieces, season with salt and pepper and sea salt. Place the sliced venison next to the chervil. Slice the truffles and top the venison with the truffles. Over medium heat, dilute the sauce with the truffle oil and pour around the dish.
Wine Recommendation: This strong-flavored meat dish pairs well with a dry style of rosé Champagne, balancing red currant and pink grapefruit fruit flavors with the freshest acidity. Try Billecart-Salmon NV Brut Rosé or Ayala NV Rosé Majeur Brut.