“I drink champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty.”
~ Madame Lilly Bollinger
The Champagne wine region of France is magnificent. The scenery is superb, the history is compelling and above all, the Champagne is divine.
This is the region where the monk Dom
Perignon perfected putting bubbles into champagne, where conqueror
Napoleon Bonaparte would stop to drink with the Moët family.
This is the epicentre of a centuries-old love affair with a remarkable French wine.
The Champagne region is 1 1⁄2 hours east of Paris, and you really need at least 3 days to discover the delightful villages around Epernay and Reims that conjure up the world’s favourite drink of celebration.
There is a wonderful experience in Champagne that is the highlight of any trip to France. Imagine a beautiful Champagne chateau that has hosted royalty that you can now book, complete with a classic Michelin star restaurant and the most divine champagne you will ever taste.
This is the luxurious Chateau Les Crayeres,
a must on any visit here, with a chef who is a gastronomic genius
named Philippe Mille. More on that later.
The Champagne region is where you’ll find gorgeous chateaux with gourmet food designed around the champagne you’ll be drinking. And here in Champagne, you’ll find a treasure trove of small producers with beautiful champagne you just won’t find outside France.
The best champagne tour in France is
operated by a lovely lady named Sophie Sobreiro, who was born behind
Reims cathedral. She will take you to small producers with Grand Cru
champagne so fine that the big names won’t taste the same to you any
You can find Sophie’s tours at www.lesbullesdesophie.com which means “Bubbles of Sophie". Sophie's tours include wonderful small producers such as Leclerc-Briant in Epernay, where you’ll enjoy the historic caves before tasting. Janisson Baradon is also in Epernay, very much a family business with historic family posters on the walls. The champagne is memorable.
Then go to brilliant small producer Henri Goutorbe in Ay, where their 1997 vintage with the gold and silver label is superb. It tastes even better if you enjoy it with lunch at the superb Henri IV brasserie next door, another of Sophie’s little secrets. Henri Goutorbe’s grandson Etienne will happily show you their nice little hotel to complete your experience.
In Ay, Sophie even arranged a private tasting at the famous Bollinger,where the history combined with a tour of the caves and grounds are unforgettable. Bollinger has had the seal of the British royal family since Queen Victoria’s day, as well as an obvious association with the James Bond movies.
When you get Sophie together with Bollinger’s tour guide Caroline, you’re in Grand Cru heaven as they passionately describe this champagne with phrases such as “when it’s cloudy outside, this is liquid sunshine inside” and “Champagne is the diamond - each small producer has its own cut". Sophie’s tours include a visit to nearby Hautvillers to pay homage to Dom Perignon as you stand by his grave in the pretty little abbey.
Then go next door to the Hautvillers antique
shop for some beautiful artefacts including vintage Dom Perignon
champagne buckets and even a bargain-price Louis Vuitton handbag.
Here’s a great tip: in Epernay there’s a wonderful champagne shop called Le 520, run by the knowledgable Pierre-Yves Cainjo, who’s a former Champagne ambassador for France. He will select the most delicious champagnes for you from small producers at a low price.
Bring them home in your suitcase because you’ll never find them outside France. Dom Perignon, didn’t quite invent champagne in the 1600s as widely believed, but certainly refined and promoted champagne.
If you’ve ever wondered what “Grand Cru” means, it refers to the top Champagne vineyards in the region, followed in quality by “Premier Cru”, then “Best Cru”.
The powerful Moët et Chandon controls 15 of the 17 “Grand Cru” in the Champagne region. As such Moët et Chandon is the dominant champagne producer in the Champagne region, thanks to the efforts of patriarch Claude Moët who founded the company in 1743. Moët’s wine caves where the champagne matures run for 28 kilometres under the main streets of Epernay and are fascinating to explore in a two hour tour.
The sights include a grand cask with 1,333 litres of port presented to Napoleon by Jean-Remy Moët in 1810.
The insights include “riddling” or turning of the maturing champagne - placed neck-down in the racks. Moët’s skilful riddlers can turn 50,000 bottles a day by hand.
What to See in Champagne
The biggest town is Reims (pronounced “Rance”) which was bombed thoroughly in World War I. The magnificent Reims cathedral built at the end of the 12th Century has seen centuries of coronations of French Kings.
The beautiful rose window is a sight to behold, as is the Mars Gate nearby, built by the Romans in the 3rd or 4th century. For something seriously luxurious that you’ll remember for a long time, go to the famous Chateau les Crayeres. In Reims, try the wine houses of Mumm, Pommery and Veuve Cliquot for starters. It’s such a feeling of freedom to experience champagne tasting at those labels you’ve looked at longingly in liquor stores. Then move on down the “Route Touristique du Champagne” to Epernay for champagne tasting at Moët et Chandon (and Dom Perignon), Perrier-Jouet and Pol Roger.
Head north out of
Epernay on a pretty vineyard-rich drive to Hautvillers, where you’ll
find Dom Perignon’s grave.
The Bollinger champagne house is nearby too in the quaint village of Ay, near another pretty town, Champillon. Keep driving east though the aptly-named Champagne villages of Dizy and Bouzy, and you’ll feel at peace with the world.
And that’s what’s wonderful about the Champagne region – there are so many good small producers of champagne to discover which will absolutely delight you with taste, quality and especially price.
You can buy very good champagne everywhere in the Champagne region for as little as 20 Euros, often with a festival atmosphere at the cellar doors. These include J.M. Gobillard champagne just outside Hautvillers and Barnault Champagne. You’re likely to feel boozy by the time you leave.
Chateau Les Crayeres
Chateau les Crayeres has been at the centre of society life in Reims since 1904. It was the Pommery champagne house estate until 1979, when current owner Xavier Gardinier bought the property and transformed it into a classy hotel that became the gastronomic venue for the champagne houses.
Even today you can see where Madame Pommery
opened up the trees to allow a view through to the magnificent Reims
Today, you can luxuriate at this much-awarded chateau for as little as 300 Euros or as much as 575 Euros for one of the beautiful suites, including the one named after Princess Diana.
The classic French furnishings in Chateau
les Crayeres are certainly worth seeing before a stroll through the
beautifully manicured gardens of this private 17
acre estate. You can stay here
at a very reasonable price.
But it’s the gastronomic delights of Chateau les Crayeres’ casual restaurants Le Jardin brasserie and stylish Le Parc restaurant that make a visit here an absolute must.
Le Jardin is set as you would expect in the beautiful Les Crayeres garden with prices so reasonable that it’s outstanding value for the quality of food and service.
And Le Parc restaurant really is the best
experience in France. Don’t worry about the cost – once you taste
the cuisine of Michelin-starred chef Philippe Mille you’ll understand
that it’s worth every Euro.
There’s a set menu Monday to Friday for 65 Euros or an a la carte menu with main courses ranging from 60 to 80 Euros. If you want an experience you will remember for a long time, try the remarkable Menu Tradition de Champagne at 305 Euros, including fine champagne such as Dom Ruinart Rose 1996.
This comes with great service from the
beautifully dressed head sommelier Philippe Jamesse, a world leader
who has just developed his own beautiful broad-rimmed champagne
glasses that bring out the full flavour of the champagne.
Chateau les Crayeres' extraordinary champagne bucket at lunch or dinner is a life long memory offering superb champagnes, from the sensational Savant Cuvee Expression 2009 (sold out elsewhere) to the memorable Cuvee Grand Blanc 2006 by Philipponat (one of Philippe Jamesse’s favorites).
The wait staff here are perfect - formal yet very friendly, thanks to the expert guidance of the very kind general manager Herve Fort. Les Crayeres chef Philippe Mille’s bottom line is that the taste of his cuisine is paramount. His presentation is pretty well perfect too.
Here’s a brief description of some of Philippe Mille’s creations that are just superb. One of France’s favourite foods is the langoustine, half way between a lobster and a prawn.
At Chateau les Crayeres, try the four langoustine variations together, paired perfectly with the right champagne.
First, the grilled langoustine with a light red pepper oil. Second, the delicately fried langoustine with a saffron-perfumed mayonnaise. Then, the langoustine tartar marinated with avocado, apples, green mango and light peppers. And finally, the langoustine mouselline served with a textured ball with champagne inside that explodes in your mouth when you bite it.
This emulsion is a sensational climax created by the chef, thoroughly French and fantastic. The accompanying Louis Roederer 2008 Blanc de Blanc champagne is heavenly.
There’s also the Langouste-Coquillages - multi- coloured fresh pasta similar to lasagne covered with rock lobster, oysters, clams, fresh broccoli and almonds drizzled in
The Bresse chicken breast (Pointrine de
Volaille) is another masterpiece, stuffed with Spanish jabugo ham,
old county cheese, topped with a fresh black truffle sauce and a
cream of lettuce and pan-fried chanterelles. A cream of poultry
perfumed with a dry white wine called “vin jaune” is added.
The perfect champagne paired with this mouthwatering dish is the Laurent Perrier Cuvee Brut LP. Another superb dish is the Epais Morceau de Cabillaud, a hearty fillet of pan fried cod with a remarkable. puree of potato beneath and a broth of fresh ceps mushrooms on top perfumed with marjoram. With dessert, the perfect pairing of sweet vin rouge.
If you can’t quite afford Chateau les Crayeres, still go there for lunch to see the gracious building surrounded by acres of parkland, making you feel far away from the city even though you’re right there on the edge of Reims. For cheap accommodation near Reims centre, try Hotel Azure which is basic but bright for 55 Euros a night
In Epernay, there’s a great new little bed and breakfast called Magna Quies located right on the famous Avenue de Champagne and only 100 metres from the cellar door of Moët.
The family Rimaire run this charming establishment and for 100 Euros a night you’ll stay in a cute room on top of the Parva Domus wine caves that run under the Avenue de Champagne as well.
They bottle their own delicious champagne in these caves which you can buy for just 20 Euros. Their son Francois who speaks good English lives here with his family and happily offers guests a glass of Parva Domus champagne. This is great value for Epernay with famous champagne houses all around you.
At the other end of Avenue de Champagne is Villa Eugene, a well-run hotel with a pool and a price of 200 Euros a night. Rooms are spacious, comfortable and classy and the hotel is right next to the Mercier champagne house. A quick walk down Avenue de Champagne will take you past Pol Roger, the gorgeous Perrier-Jouet champagne house and up to the dreamy properties of Moët et Chandon.
Restaurants Near Champagne Vineyards
Go to nearby Mesnil sur Oger to La Gare, a new café with delicious food at a reasonable price. You’re surrounded by vineyards, as you are at the Michelin star Royal Champagne hotel, a lovely country place where they’ll serve you champagne in a Royal Champagne label bottle.
In Epernay, try Les Berceaux near the train station for regional fare including steak with delicious champagne sauces, mains from 15 Euros. La Coquille at 5 Rue de Reims is well known for its local fare and has the heavenly Zabaglione of Champagne with strawberries, mains from 20 Euros. Just off Avenue de Champagne is La Table Kobus with classic French cuisine including canard, or duck, mains from 20 Euros. Le Theatre is a classy restaurant with ambience and delicious mains that are a touch pricier.
In Reims, try La Table Anna, a cozy little café in an older building near the Cathedral that oozes charm, with main meals around 20 Euros. Restaurant L'Opera is centrally situated, with friendly owners, lovely ambience and very good local cuisine. Fresh local ingredients are used, with main courses including Coq au Vin and seasonal dishes of boar. Mains around 20 Euros. Restaurant le Foch at 37 Boulevard Foch is another superb restaurant with mains such as shrimp ravioli or pike roasted with wild rice. Mains from 30 Euros. Le Grand cafe is a cheaper place near the Cathedral and railway station, a traditional noisy brasserie specialising in seafood and pasta. Mains from 8 Euros. Le Brasserie du Boulingrin is a good choice on Rue de Mars (near the Mars Gate) with a wide choice of dishes including tender lamb accompanied by a glass of Pommery champagne. Friendly service and genuine owners, mains from 12 Euros.
The Champagne wine region of France is certainly the world’s best wine region because of the superior quality of its champagne, the beauty of the scenic little villages between Epernay and Reims and the grandeur of the powerful champagne houses.
Transport to the Champagne region is
Paris by car or the superswift TGV train which now has international
train connections straight into and out of the Champagne
As in much of France, the French cuisine here is “magnifique” and dining at the seriously luxurious Chateau les Crayeres in Reims with the perfect pairing of champagne is an unforgettable experience.
The Champagne region of France has it all, from the majesty of the Champagne chateaux to the smaller operators whose champagne quality is superb for just 20 Euros a bottle of champagne.
It’s a drink of celebration that is offered freely in champagne tastings everywhere, making Champagne the ultimate in Best Wine Holidays.
KL Asia stopover