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Road Trip: Exploring Champagne by car

PUBLISHED: 09:40 30 July 2019 | UPDATED: 09:54 30 July 2019

The beautiful vineyards of Champagne. Pic: Pixabay

The beautiful vineyards of Champagne. Pic: Pixabay

Archant

Discover the Champagne region, a feast for all the senses, on this road trip

DAY ONE

Château-Thierry to Épernay 63 kilometres

Our tour of the Champagne wine region, which stretches out over 34,000 hectares, starts in Château-Thierry. We are at the region's doorstep, and the aptly named tourist office, Les Portes de la Champagne, offers plenty of ideas to begin our discovery.

Via the 13th-century Porte Saint-Jean, we make our way through the imposing ruins of the town's Medieval castle, stopping to admire the sprawling views over Marne Valley. In the distance, I spot Saint-Crépin, Château-Thierry's oldest church and the only one to have survived the wars. Our guide tells us that 80% of the town was ravaged during WWI. She also mentions that renowned 17th-century fabulist Jean de la Fontaine was baptised in Saint-Crépin in 1621.

Views from Chateau-Thierry's medieval castle. Pic: Hans WestbeekViews from Chateau-Thierry's medieval castle. Pic: Hans Westbeek

We head to his former home dating to 1559. The building has been a museum since 1876 and the beautifully restored period rooms showcase a collection based on La Fontaine's work. In the 17th-century room, I marvel at his portrait painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud upon his acceptance to the Académie Française in 1684 (entrance €4).

Eager to let Champagne's exceptional terroir tingle our taste buds, we follow the D1003/D320 to Barzy-sur-Marne for a dégustation at Lévêque-Dehan (2 Rue des Lilas), where we meet fifth-generation Champagne maker Eric Lévêque who explains the basics of Champagne. Most blends consist of three grape varieties: Pinot Meunier is predominantly grown in the Marne Valley (where most vineyards are planted), Pinot Noir in the Montagne de Reims and Chardonnay in the Côte des Blancs. Lévêque-Dehan's grapes are cultivated on six hectares and most blends consist of 70% Pinot Meunier, 15% Pinot Noir and 15% Chardonnay. Especially delightful is their Brut Rosé. Bursting with aromas of red fruits, this scintillating blend gets its boldness from 15% red wine (Coteaux Champenois).

Our next stop is the Premier Cru village of Hautvillers, approximately 40 minutes east following the D320/D1. G. Tribaut has a history that goes back to 1935. When we visit, the bright and airy tasting room is buzzing with excitement as people swirl, sniff and taste while reveling in the most splendid views over the family's 13 hectares of vineyards. Their range includes an elegant 100% Chardonnay Millésime 2008 with stone fruits and candied orange on the nose. Its zesty flavour immediately has me craving a tarte au citron.

After our tasting and a quick lunch of baguettes stuffed with jambon, we stroll through Hautvillers' pleasant streets. Known as the cradle of Champagne, it was here that Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon devoted his life to his faith and to perfecting the production of the sparkling drink. Therefore, it is fitting for our village tour to end at Église Saint-Sindulphe, where we visit his grave located in the choir.

Following the D386/D1/D951, we take an 11-minute drive to Épernay, Champagne's famous capital. Our B&B, Magna Quies (€180 per night) is conveniently located on Avenue de Champagne, home to some of the region's most prestigious names.

DAY TWO

The seemingly endless cellars at Boizel in Epernay. Pic: Hans WestbeekThe seemingly endless cellars at Boizel in Epernay. Pic: Hans Westbeek

Épernay to Reims; 54 kilometres

We wake up to a sumptuous breakfast served by our host François in his beautiful salon. There are buttery croissants, cheese, charcuterie, fruit, cereals and boiled eggs - plenty to keep us going for the experiences ahead.

Before leaving Épernay, we visit Boizel, just a 2-minute walk from Magna Quies. Established in 1834, Boizel carefully selects their grapes from Champagne's four viticultural regions, thus enabling them to choose from a large aromatic palate. Our guide, Leire, takes us on an awe-inspiring tour through the one-kilometre maze of historic cellars located 12 metres underground.

Waving Épernay farewell and following the D40/D10 south, we arrive in Cramant, one of Champagne's 17 Grand Cru villages. Voirin-Jumel is situated on the chalky hillsides of the Côte de Blancs, where Chardonnay is king. It is still early and there is a slight chill in the air as we make our way through the vineyards with the friendly Alice Jumel and her two little dogs. Together with her brother Patrick, Alice has been at the head of Voirin-Jumel for over forty years. Voirin-Jumel is a récoltant manipulant, meaning they only use grapes from their own vineyards and do not buy from growers. In total, Voirin-Jumel has 12 hectares of Grand Cru (highest quality) and Premier Cru vineyards. After a tour that leads us to the press and cellar, we end at the Champagne bar where I sample a selection of the range along with a plate of local duck charcuterie. Voirin-Jumel offers visitors everything from tastings of two to five Champagnes, to a two-hour brunch that includes a tour through the vineyard or cellar and three glasses paired with charcuterie, cheese and coffee with a pink biscuit. Spending time with Alice, who shares her winemaking philosophy with passion, is truly a joy.

Enjoying a tasting at Voirin-Jumel. Pic: Paola WestbeekEnjoying a tasting at Voirin-Jumel. Pic: Paola Westbeek

We take the D9/D112 to Mutigny, a small village situated at an altitude of 240 metres in the Parc Naturel de la Montagne de Reims. Leaving from Place de la Marie, we follow the 2.2-kilometre Sentier du Vigneron trail which affords sweeping vistas over the Marne Valley's rolling patchwork of vineyards (from €12). Our guide tells us about the region's soil, climate, grapes and production process. We learn that Champagne's hillsides, houses and cellars were declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2015.

Ending our Champagne adventure, we head to Reims, approximately 40 minutes north via the D1/D951. At our B&B, Le Clos des Roys (from €100), just a stone's throw away from the 13th-century Notre-Dame Cathedral, we are made to feel like family by owners Marie Anne and Gérard. Later that evening, while enjoying dinner at Au Petit Comptoir, an attractive restaurant serving artfully prepared dishes (menus from €23), we agree that Champagne's appeal goes beyond its famous drink. The landscapes, history, cuisine and hospitality make the region a feast for the senses.

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