By Susan McKee
Special to Road Trips for Wine
Champagne isn’t at all what I thought it was.
I’ll blame it on my favorite grocery store. One day, I picked up a package of champagne grapes at Whole Foods – thinking they were the source of that wonderful bubbly wine. It took a trip to France to show me the error of my ways.
Champagne is not made from champagne grapes. In fact, there isn’t actually a variety of grapes called “champagne”. Turns out that champagne is a particular kind of wine, produced in a particular way, in a particular region of France using different blends of three particular kinds of grapes -- specifically, chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.
Vintners will tell you that it’s the chalky subsoil deposited in the Mesozoic era that provides the perfect growing region for these grapes to produce champagne, combined with the annual average growing temperature of slightly less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This combination happens in its Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, a specifically delineated region of northeastern France comprising about 80,000 acres.
Autumn is the perfect time to wander the region. The harvest is finished, and the wineries are ready to welcome visitors, but there’s more to see in an area packed with history as well as vineyards.
The best-known town is Reims, an ancient Gallo-Roman city. It’s here that Clovis was first baptized and then crowned the first Merovingian king – and, therefore, the first French king – in 498. It’s here, too, that Charles VII was crowned in 1429, thanks to the intervention of St. Joan of Arc. In all, 33 French sovereigns received their crowns here.
The Saint-Remi Abbey Museum (a UNESCO World Heritage site) surrounds a cloister completed in 1709. Its specialty is history. For art, head to the former Saint-Denis Abbey, built in the 18th century and packed with works by Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse.
Surprisingly, Reims also has a Carnegie Library, endowed by Scottish-American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. There are 40,000 books inside, but architecture is the draw for visitors. Just a couple of blocks behind the cathedral, the semi-cylindrical library opened in 1928 is an Art Deco masterpiece with mosaic decorations in the library.
Troyes is another ancient crossroads in the region. Established some two millennia ago, it’s packed with historic buildings, including the most half-timbered medieval houses of any town in France. Huges de Payns, founder of the Order of Templars was born here, as was Crétien de Troyes, author of the book of verse about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table that gave a Christian gloss to the Celtic myth.
A visit to La Maison de l’Outil
will give you a much better idea of the kinds of tools used on a daily basis in preindustrial Europe. More than 20,000 actual implements are on display in the Mauroy house (built in 1556), divided by type of tool and craft. There are innumerable reference works in the library and a selection of more than 1000 tomes in the bookstore for those who want to learn more on how roofers, barrel makers, masons and more plied their trades.
However, the greatest lure of Champagne – the region – is champagne – the bubbly. Visits to the vintners are the best way to learn – and virtually all of ‘em require appointments in advance, so plan accordingly.
Stop in at Champagne Drappier
near Urville and you’ll find the eighth generation of the Drappier family racking bottles in cellars originally established by Cisterian monks in the 12th century.
If you visit the much smaller Champagne Guy de Forez
, near Les Riceys south of Troyes, be prepared to be surprised. Forget everything you’ve heard about American-made sparkling rosé and taste their Vin Rosé de Riceys. Cold Duck was never this good!
Champagne Château de Bligny
is located in an 18th century castle in the Côtes des Bar region. If you’re traveling in a group, you can arrange a lunch or dinner as well as a tasting here.
One of the best-known champagnes (at least to Americans) is Veuve Clicquot
, located in Reims. Its distinctive yellow-gold label is instantly recognizable worldwide.
Established in 1772 by Philippe Clicquot, the business was substantially expanded by his daughter-in-law following the death of his son, François (Veuve Clicquot translates as “Widow Clicquot”). A sticker for perfection, she invented the first riddling table, so that the yeast sediment could be concentrated in the necks of the bottles and removed before the final aging.
My favorite stop, however, was a new venture located in the center of Epernay with the unusual name of C comme Champagne de Propriétaire
. In order for a vineyard to justify tours or tastings, their production must be at a certain level (so most don't bother). The owner of this shop, Frédéric Dricot, markets more than 200 varieties of champagne from four dozen or so of the smallest producers – those too small to sell directly to visitors.
His place is a champagne shop with extras. You can taste first and then buy what you like. The shop set up almost like a nightclub, with groups of lipstick red leather chairs and couches arranged around black circular tables. Halogen lighting and dance club music add to the mood. It’s open from 10 a.m. ‘til midnight seven days a week, with tastings – or just a glass of your favorite bubbly – available whenever you want.
As Dricot notes, at the end of a tasting, you know the “style” of champagne you like best, and his staff can then point you toward the producers who make similar wines.
As long as you’re in Champagne, however, don’t miss the opportunity to dine at Château Les Crayères
. This Michelin two-star restaurant in Reims has a magnificent selection of champagnes and an exquisite cuisine (of course) but also a setting to be savored. Built in 1904, it was once the location of Champagnes Pommery. Seven acres of gardens surround the château, which now houses a restaurant as well as a Relais & Châteaux hotel.
There are many more wonderful hotels in Champagne. In Troyes, consider La Maison de Rhodes
, fitted into a half-timbered dwelling with 12th century foundations.
Four historic houses were combined to create the Hotel le Marius aux Ricey
, where they serve Rosé de Riceys (and more) in the atmospheric cellar restaurant.
A 19th century residence has been transformed into Le Grand Hôtel Les Templiers
in Reims. It has no restaurant, but it does have an indoor pool and a hammam.
Keep in mind that it’s really easy to get to Champagne from Paris, now that the TGV routes have expanded in France. The route from Paris Roissy Charles de Gaulle Airport whisks you to Reims in just a half an hour (the stop is called TGV Champagne-Ardenne). Once you arrive, renting a car is the easiest way to get from town to town and winery to winery.
For more information on Champagne, visit these sites:
, Champagne-Ardenne Regional Tourist Board
, and Champagne-Aube Regional Tourist Board
(Photo by Susan McKee)