From a luxury hotel to a treetop bar, Zoë McIntyre finds the best places to find a cool glass of bubbly in where else but Champagne
Domaine Les Crayères, Reims
A torrent of rain beats on the window pane. But what do I care? It’s four in the afternoon and I’m swathed in bathrobes reclining on a four-poster bed in my room in Domaine Les Crayères. The former home of the legendary Madame Louise Pommery, of the eponymous champagne house, is now a grand hotel, tucked away on the fringes of Reims in seven hectares of manicured gardens. The ghastly weather relieves me of any obligation to go for a brisk walk, so I settle in for an afternoon of guilt-free hedonism.
My reveries are interrupted by a knock at the door and an impeccably dressed waiter appears. “Une coupe de champagne, Madame?” he enquires. I take myself and my flute to the bathroom, to soak languorously in bubbles of a different kind – Hermès scented with sweet orange blossom.
Away from my own lap of luxury, I explore the rest of the hotel; 19 other bedrooms and suites are impeccably decorated in a variety of regal colours, each individually furnished with period pieces. Sashaying down the grand central staircase, I find the two Michelin-starred restaurant Le Parc, sumptuously panelled, chandeliered and gilded, where chef Philippe Mille offers stellar haute cuisine and the wine list includes 600 different champagnes.
My friend and I are booked into the less formal brasserie Le Jardin and there is time to enjoy an aperitif in the bar. In its graceful, bell-shaped conservatory, we snuggle into soft leather armchairs and enjoy the riffs of rain accompanying the gentle jazz on offer. Instantly, a waiter in a bow tie appears at my side. “Une coupe de champagne, Madame?” Oh dear, I could get used to this.
64 Boulevard Henry Vasnier
Tel: (Fr) 3 26 24 90 00
Rooms from €395 per night.
Aux Crieurs De Vin, Troyes
Drinking fizz like the locals doesn’t come any better than at Aux Crieurs de Vins. Fitted out in bare brick, wooden furniture and concrete flooring, this no-nonsense bistro in central Troyes serves fizz with a hearty plat du jour and lashings of character.
With champagne by the glass for €6.50, it’s easy to linger over lunch. You’re likely to catch owner Jean-Michel Wilmes flitting back and forth from the kitchen, where his mother Françoise creates simple and superbly executed dishes. It’s a good opportunity to try Troyes’ speciality andouillette (tripe sausage); a fixture on the regularly changing menu. Its rich, rustic flavours are perfectly complemented by the crisp acidity of the excellent champagne.
Before leaving, investigate the well-stocked shelves and racks beside the door. The knowledgeable staff can tell you all about the local vignerons and their champagnes, rare cuvées and organic wines.
4 Place Jean Jaurès
Tel: (Fr) 3 25 40 01 01
Le Café du Palais, Reims
What a divine existence it must be to spend every lunch break sipping champagne at Le Café du Palais. I reflect on this as I take a seat among the well-heeled local diners who, deep in conversation, seem unmoved by the art-deco surroundings or the effervescence of their champagne flutes. It’s the tipple on tap in this part of the world, after all.
My dining partner and I, on the other hand, are heady at the mere prospect of bubbly on a weekday. Sitting beneath a stained-glass cupola, we gawp at the menu’s page-long champagne list that ranges from the house bottle to an eye-watering splurge at €205.
The 1930s-themed décor, decked out in eclectic artefacts, features crimson wallpaper crammed with sketches, paintings and photographs, dimly lit by glass lamps and tiered chandeliers. On a nearby table sits a life-size sculpture of a naked horned deity – perhaps a subtle warning about the dangers of over-indulgence.
To accompany the free-flowing refills, lunch consists of substantial house specials including creamy blanquette de veau and a tasting plate of thick cuts of jambon de Reims and local cheeses (from €22). A quick glance at our horned neighbour makes us decide against the heady baba au rhum and opt for a strong, black coffee instead.
14 Place Myron Herrick
Tel: (Fr) 3 26 47 52 54
Perching Bar, Versey
You’ll certainly feel elevated by the fizz at this unusual bar, which is slung across the tree tops, seven metres above ground.
Locating the venue is an adventure in itself. Amid thick forest in the Montagne de Reims regional natural park, directions take you orienteering along leafy trails and clambering up rope footbridges before you reach the rustic tree house. Tastings are hosted by champagne connoisseur Olivier Borneuf, who offers the pick of both well-known labels and local vignerons. Guests can enjoy their fizz on the futuristic swing seats of the interior bar or outside on the wraparound balcony offering dazzling views of the Champagne vineyards.
Tel: (Fr) 6 07 67 94 42
Open Apr-Nov, Wed to Sun. Prices from €44, reservations 48 hours in advance.
Au 36, Hautvillers
When it comes to champagne tasting, any images of dusty cellars and old mansions are blown away at Au 36 – a contemporary bar in Hautvillers’ main street, named after the ‘founder of champagne’ Dom Pérignon.
The lower-floor boutique stocks 150 varieties, ranging from €15 to €280 a bottle. Wall displays decorated in an assortment of fruits and spices offer a visual description of the aromas specific to the various blends.
Seating is upstairs in the laid-back café-bar (an outside terrace is available in warm weather). Tastings can extend to two flutes at €11 or three flutes for €15, and if you arrive at midday, they can be drunk alongside the Assiette de Champard’ises (€15) – a platter of regional delicacies including chaource cheese, Jambon de Reims, boudin blanc and a pink macaron.
36 Rue Dom Pérignon
Tel: (Fr) 3 26 51 58 37
La Maison des Vignes, Verzenay
The tiny village of Verzenay south-east of Reims is recognisable from its hilltop moulin standing out among swathes of geometric rows of vines. In one of the sleepy streets lies Maison des Vignes, a charming chambre d’hôtes and champagne winery.
Its affable host Catherine Pithios welcomes us in to her gorgeous home, distinguished by soft hues, decorative details and natural textures. The flea market finds and vintage-style objets d’art that festoon the salon, dining room and three double bedrooms create an atmosphere that is both rustic and chic. Guests have en-suite facilities, with tea- and coffee-making facilities, and an outside terrace and pool.
While Catherine prepares dinner, her husband Émmanuel takes us on a tour of the 150-year-old cave that has been in his family for five generations. In the dark recesses of the brick cellars we encounter an ancient grape press, stacks of dust-caked bottles and table and chairs set out for subterranean tastings.
Over a sumptuous dinner, we sample the Pithois-Rigaut label. The Cuvée Vieilles Vignes (€22.40 at the estate), is made from vines 35 years old, and perfectly accompanies the buffet of home-made salads, quiches, charcuterie and cheeses that Catherine had laid out for us.
Champagne Émmanuel Pithois
4-6 Rue Veuve Pommery
Tel: (Fr) 3 26 49 48 63
Rooms from €105, including breakfast.
Chamapgne G. Tribaut, Hautvillers
While the sleek operations of the grand champagne houses are certainly impressive, there’s something special about seeking out the small, independent vignerons where generations of the same family work together.
This is the case with the Tribaut family, based in Hautvillers – the idyllic village where, the story goes, Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon created champagne in the 1600s. The domaine sits on the edge of village and alfresco tastings enjoy uninterrupted views of emerald-green trestles of vines.
Here we meet Valérie Tribaut who, along with her brother, took over the business from their father, who in turn had inherited it from his father. We follow pungent aromas past a crimson-stained wooden press downstairs to the pocket-sized area where production takes place. Here, father-and-son Tribaut are hard at work unscrewing taps and filling buckets to test the first fermentation. It’s a reminder of the humble origins of the world’s most glamorous drink.
For the tasting, Valérie brings out a splendidly light chardonnay blanc de blancs followed by a fruitier pinot noir blanc de noirs. The Grand Cuvée Speciale is our favourite; a blend of chardonnay and pinot noir that has a classic taste and costs €17, a fraction of the price in the UK.
88 Rue d’Eguisheim
Tel: (Fr) 3 26 59 40 57
C Comme Champagne, Épernay
The self-proclaimed capital of champagne is famed for its central avenue lined with majestic mansions housing the world’s most famous bubbly brands. The nearby C Comme Champagne prides itself on being the exact opposite – a bar celebrating all things small and local. Manager Frédéric Dricot worked in a big champagne house before going it alone eight years ago. “I took everything I learnt and did the opposite,” he says. “Here it’s not about the label but the taste.”
His vaulted caves stock nearly 400 champagnes, sourced from 35 villages, and the walls are lined with pictures of the family producers. The potentially overwhelming selection is condensed into a tasting menu featuring six blends that change weekly. Visitors can opt for one glass (€5.50), or the full six (€33) to appreciate fully the range of flavours that terroirs and blends can produce.
Food and wine pairings are also on offer, with the chocolate and champagne proving an irresistible combination for me and my companion.
The sharp freshness of a chardonnay blend was subtly toned down by a vanilla ganache, while the strong hit of coffee chocolate with a pinot meunier champagne satisfied the most enervated tastebuds.
8 Rue Gambetta
Tel: (Fr) 3 26 32 09 55
Champagne Drappier, Urville
Nowhere presents the glamour of champagne quite like Maison Drappier in the Côte des Bar. In its cellars, dug by 12th-century Cistercian monks, the family business produces the kind of liquid luxury that makes world leaders order in bulk.
The Drappier family established their domaine in the southern outpost of the Champagne region in 1808. Seven generations later, the debonair Michel Drappier is at the helm. After a tour of the cellars, where we walk between vast oak barrels and witness thousands of bottles being stacked, labelled and corked, we meet Michel and his 87-year-old father André in their stately wooden-panelled drawing room. In front of a crackling wood fire, we settle in for an hour of intoxicating storytelling. André describes how Drappier came to be the tipple of choice of President Charles de Gaulle after being introduced to it by his butler. Drappier paid homage to the general in 1990, with the creation of a cuvée named in his honour.
The business, however, has not rested on its historical laurels. While pinot noir dominates its blends, Drappier has reintroduced the ancient grape varieties of petit meslier, blanc vrai and arbane, which are rarely found on other champagne labels. The Brut Nature is deliciously modern; naturally produced sans dosage (meaning no added sugar) and without sulphur, to cater for the more health-conscious bons vivants.
Laden with beautifully wrapped bottles, we reluctantly leave Drappier wondering how long we can hold out before we find an occasion special enough to pop the corks.
Rue des Vignes
Tel: (Fr) 3 25 27 40 15
Champagne Vueve Clicquot, Reims
Everyone recognises Veuve Clicquot – it’s that bottle being shaken up at racing finish lines and rapped about in music videos. But there’s more to Veuve than its iconic yellow label, as a visit to the company’s sprawling mansion on the outskirts of Reims reveals.
The portrait of a stern-faced woman stares out from the wall of the museum. It’s the vivacious Barbe-Nicole Ponsadrin, who in 1799 married François Clicquot, heir to a champagne dynasty. His sudden death six years later made her a ‘veuve’ – a widow – aged 27. It was thanks to Madame Clicquot’s formidable business head and invention of a new stage in champagne production that the small Clicquot business had become a global empire by the time of her death, aged 89.
We descend 20 metres down a steep, neon-lit staircase into the cavernous gloom of the crayères – cellars carved out of former chalk quarries that keep wines cool during the maturation process. I’m overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of Veuve Clicquot’s cellars, which stretch for 24 kilometres. Dwarfed by a figure of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, carved into the stone above us, we notice the red crosses and inscriptions scratched into the walls, a legacy of World War I, when the cellars were turned into an infirmary.
As we uncork a bottle, I notice for the first time the face of Madame Clicquot printed on the cap. I pocket it as a keepsake of the remarkable vaults and the champagne heroine to whom I’ll drink a toast the next time I spy that familiar yellow label.
1 Place des Droits de l’Homme
Tel: (Fr) 3 26 89 53 90
A one-hour tour with a glass of champagne costs €16.
GETTING THERE: Zoë travelled by train from London to Reims via Paris with Voyages-SNCF.com. Return fares start from £88 (tel: 0844 848 5848, www.voyages-sncf.com).
TOURIST INFORMATION: Champagne-Ardenne tourist board, www.tourisme-champagne-ardenne.com