France's Champagne Region

Explore France's romantic Champagne region, and treat yourselves to plenty of the world's best bubbly.
By: 
Jeryl Brunner
article-145

Everything about Champagne is elegant, from the metallic foil on the neck of the bottle to the soft pop of the cork. And there’s nothing that builds anticipation quite like the symphony of those delicate bubbles. So it should come as no surprise that this refined drink hails from one of the most refined places in the world: the Champagne region of France. Located 90 miles northeast of Paris, this quiet stretch of farmland extends up toward the Belgian border, and it’s the only place in the world that produces true Champagne.

In honor of the lovely bubbly, I decided to visit the region where it’s made and tour the wineries of famous Champagnes, such as Veuve Clicquot, Champagne Taittinger and Laurent- Perrier. I would walk through the vineyards where the grapes are grown, and explore the caves, where the wine is stored and aged. Meanwhile, I would also get to experience some of my favorite things about France, like the comfortable inns and the amazing food (paired with Champagne, of course).

My itinerary: I would fly into Paris, and have a car pick me up at the Charles de Gaulle airport, since I don’t drive. From there, I’d ride an hour and a half to the town of Reims, the largest city in the area. I’d spend a few days visiting the wineries there and in several other Champagne-making towns, including Epernay and Aÿ, before heading back to Paris for several nights in the romantic “City of Light.”

All that Sparkles

My first glimpse of the Champagne region proved to be as beautiful as I’d imagined. Although it was winter and there were no grapes on the vines, I was immediately struck by how green the landscape was. On the way to Reims, I passed magnificent châteaux, golden wheat fields and valleys planted with rows of vines.

After checking into my hotel, I visited Reims’ famed Veuve Clicquot winery. I entered through the imposing wrought iron gates—labeled with the company’s insignia—and walked up to the buildings that house the winery. I admired the limestone façades, then walked into the visitor’s center, where I met Isabelle Pierre, the company’s historian. During a tour of the mini-museum, where she showed me Madame Clicquot’s impressive mahogany desk, she explained that in the 17th century, a monk named Dom Pérignon developed and perfected the art of Champagne making. The bubbles were created with an extra fermentation step, which converted sugar in the wine into carbon dioxide. Today, sparkling wine is made in the same way all over the world, but what differentiates Champagne from other sparkling wines is terroir, a combination of the climate (cold) and the soil (chalky) that the French believe cannot be duplicated.

Next, we visited the blending room, which was so white and sterile that it reminded me of a laboratory. Here, winemaker Frédéric Panaïotis took over. He explained that Champagne is made from three types of grapes: white chardonnay, black pinot noir and black pinot meunier. Each house uses a different blend of grapes, which is why Champagne tastes are so varied. Veuve Clicquot has a big, bold taste because of its blend of two parts red and one part white grapes. Champagne Taittinger’s Champagnes have a high proportion of chardonnay, which makes them light and delicate. Laurent-Perrier has a pinot-noir-filled rosé that’s full bodied and rich with the taste of black cherry, but the Champagne’s hint of chardonnay keeps it light.

The variations became clear to me when Panaïotis set out samples from six different bottles. First, we inspected the color. Some were golden, and some were pale—more of a straw color. Then we smelled and tasted them. One had notes of lemon and grapefruit; others had biscuit-like flavors or traces of apple, pear or peach.

After the tasting, we said good-bye to Panaïotis and Pierre took me down into the caves, where thousands of bottles are aged in a constant 55°F climate. I wandered the cool hallways of the labyrinth, which spans 15 miles and is filled with rows of bottles. I looked around at the pristine, white stone walls, with their rounded archways. It was so dark, peaceful and quiet, and so much like a temple, that I felt like I should tiptoe and whisper.

Pierre and I climbed the many stairs that lead out of the caves, and decided to drive into the center of town for lunch. We passed the city's famous gothic cathedral and the ruins of an ancient Roman stone marketplace, and parked near Café du Palais, a bistro that's a local favorite. Inside, it looked exactly as every bistro should, with a stained-glass ceiling and plush, red banquets. I couldn't help but stop and admire the stunning black and white photos on the walls—images of the owner and his son, taken by famed French photographer Gérard Rondeau—and an interesting bronze statue of Cupid.

We settled in at a table, and Pierre suggested that I order a smoked duck salad. The salad was the perfect choice, with sweet duck and crisp haricots verts dressed with vinaigrette. It went beautifully with the bottle of Veuve Clicquot rosé Champagne that Pierre ordered. We clinked our glasses together. As the liquid slipped past my tongue, I noticed that it tasted like strawberries, raspberries and pomegranates—and I felt as though I were drinking Champagne for the very first time.

Tales from the Crypt

The next day, I met Rémi Krug, president of Krug, at Les Crayères, a massive château that's home to one of Reims' most famous hotel restaurants. I had booked a room in the hotel as well but, even if I hadn't, I would have dined there anyway—the restaurant's reputation is just that good.

As I walked into the opulent dining room to meet Krug, I started to understand why this restaurant is so well-known. The windows were draped with heavy curtains, and the walls were hung with gold-framed portraits. This was old-fashioned elegance at its best.

Krug's family has been making Champagne for five generations. As we feasted on truffle salad and grilled lobster, we drank some of his family's famous wine. I sipped it slowly, noticing the peach and apricot flavors and the touches of hazelnut, honey and candied fruit. Thrilled with my new palate, I asked Krug why he thinks Champagne has become synonymous with romance.

"With a great Champagne, all the senses are satisfied," he replied. "You can look at it, smell it, touch it and, when the bubbles tickle your mouth, you can even hear it. It transports you from life into a world of beauty. Over lunch, Krug explained that the flavors of a Champagne with good structure and the right balance of sugar, acidity and fruit will last longer in your mouth than you might expect. I took a sip, and began to count the seconds that the taste stayed on my tongue and palate. Five seconds passed, and I could still savor the sweetness. Ten seconds passed, and the pop of the bubbles lingered. Even as you swallow," Krug said, "the enchantment continues, and every sip is a thrill. It's theater."

Later, when I saw my room at Les Crayères—the Princess Victoria suite—I was totally seduced by the magic of the hotel. As I looked up at the high ceilings, which were set with elaborate inlays, I felt small, but absolutely regal. There were an enormous canopy bed, a giant marble fireplace and an imposing baroque armoire—I was enveloped in French baroque style. I could even see Reims' spectacular cathedral from my window. Sighing happily, I realized that I had never felt so much like a princess.

High Spirits

On my final day in the Champagne region, I visited Aÿ, a tiny town (population: 4,300) with some of the best vineyards in the province. There, I walked through the village, past Champagne houses and boutiques in stone buildings. I passed a bakery, a butcher and a crêperie. Shoppers greeted friends and neighbors as they passed, and it seemed like everyone knew each other. As five o'clock approached, the streets emptied as people headed toward home to prepare the evening meal.

I had reserved a room for the night at the Hôtel Castel Jeanson, just a couple of blocks from the shops, on the edge of the grape fields. It had sounded like just the kind of place I was looking for, with caves near the property and vineyards all around. When I walked through the front door of the art nouveau building, I stopped and stared in awe at the stained-glass windows and high ceilings. After I checked in, the owners showed me to my chamber. I dropped off my bags next to an enormous armoire in the French-country- style room, and paused to admire the floor-to-ceiling windows.

I then decided to explore the surrounding vineyards. I hiked up a hill for a view of the valley, catching my breath as I reached the top. I breathed in the fresh air, and admired the rows of vines that snaked around the hillsides, painting stripes on the landscape. The town below was quiet now; most people had returned home for dinner. As the sun set behind Aÿ's church steeple, I looked forward to my own, Champagne-filled, dinner, and remembered what I'd learned on my first day in the region.

"You don't need a special moment to drink Champagne," Panaïotis had told me. "Drinking Champagne makes the moment special."

Sweet Rewards

After several wonderful days in Champagne, I headed back to Paris, where I would catch a direct flight back to New York. For these, my last nights in France, I checked into the Plaza Paris Vendôme, a stylish boutique hotel located just a short walk from the Louvre. I listened to the car horns and sirens on the street and, suddenly, I felt overwhelmed by the city after my time in the quiet French countryside. Fortunately, right off the hotel's foyer was a library-style lounge with a cozy black fireplace. I sat down on one of the overstuffed brown couches and warmed up before heading back out for an afternoon of shopping.

That night, I dined at the Plaza Athénée hotel's famed Alain Ducasse restaurant, an opulent homage to all that is dramatic about Paris. A gigantic baroque-style chandelier adorned with Swarovski crystals hung from the gold-leaf ceiling, and it was clear that no detail had been overlooked, from the shiny silver-and-marble cheese cart to the handy tray that slid out from the side of my chair to hold my purse.

The sommelier brought me a glass of rosé Champagne, and I watched the bubbles dance in the glass, thinking of all the people who had made this moment possible. It all started with some soil, a few vines and a whole lot of passion. I hadn't even taken a sip, and yet I was already drunk with happiness.