By Kent E St John
Could the world turn without an occasional sip of real champagne? I doubt it.
Reims (or Rheims) is synonymous with champagne, or so I have always thought.
It is no doubt where you should start, especially considering that below the streets deep in the chalk soil are caves connected with miles and miles of tunnels. Nestled below are bottles and bottles of champagne, lovingly cared for and meticulously counted.
Troyes likewise was a definite stop when I headed to France’s Champagne region. But on this trip to the area, I also wanted to explore some of the hidden gems, lesser-known places with age-old traditions.
I wanted to find wines and villages of mythical status even if only in the minds of connoisseurs. In other words, I wanted to be coddled much like a Count of Champagne, devoid of duties.
As often happens in France, treasures are found everywhere even off the beaten path; indeed I hope to share a few.
Reims and the Secret Smile
One’s head seems held a bit higher when visiting Reims. I am not sure if it is because it is where most of France’s kings were crowned or if it is just majestic in its position as home to a lot of the best champagne houses.
Tough choices had to be made, though, due to the time constraints; stops missed on past trips took precedence.
I am fond of the yellow label of Veuve Clicquot found in the US, so it was my first pick to visit. The Widow Clicquot inherited the business after the death of her husband in the late 1790s and played a huge role in the making of today’s champagne.
Beneath the modern house are 11 miles of caverns carved out of chalk, some 2000 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of bottles of perfection are stored for three to nine years and ensure many toasts worldwide.
Going into the caves 150 feet below is a thrill in itself. The silence is only broken occasionally by a passing forklift. After a glass of the Grande Dame in the tasting room, I silently thanked Madame over and over.
For so long I have heard the praises of Chateau Les Crayeres, so it was my choice as a place to regally dine. One of the world’s finest culinary spots seemed to fit in the capital of champagne drinking and the aperitif of Rose Ruffin was eye popping.
The Chateau is located on seven superb acres once owned by the Pommery family and oozes stylish luxury. Time is taken as course after course of dishes such as foie gras de canard and tender legs of frog pass by; I feel as a Count of Champagne if not yet a Duke of Burgundy.
My last stop in the city was to France’s Royal Cathedral, the Notre Dame de l’Epine basilica, carved as if out of delicate sponge cake. This place of majestic royal French history is inspiring as well as uplifting.
Perhaps most unusual, yet fitting perfectly, is the glass work by Marc Chagall inside. I stifle a laugh when I walk by the Smiling Angel, a statue well known for centuries on the cathedral’s exterior. The Angel seems to understand my desire for less visited places, it is understood.
Champagne’s Other Capital, Back Past the Musketeers
The half-timbered houses of the center of Troyes echo the days of a royal decree as a market town resounded in prosperity.
I found the wines as different from Riems as was the mood, low key and confident, like an aged grandparent, satisfied.
As I entered the ancient but lovingly restored Maison de Rhodes, an inn of only 11 rooms, I felt blessed. It was as if I was one of the Knights of Templar who called it home 500 years ago, safe within its thick walls.
Out of my window the steeple of one of two cathedrals could be seen and the bells heard.
A walk around Troyes captures the past; strangely the city is built in the shape of a modern day champagne cork due to the waters’ flow.
I finally reached a place with an amazing past; its current pulls you in, leaving the modern day behind.
Countless days could be spent wandering Troyes’ time machine to the past, and that would be enough; finally a treasure that doesn’t blow a horn but just invites.
Truth be told with its array of gothic churches and time-worn narrow streets, Troyes would be one of my top ten places to go while visiting Paris; it is only a short train trip away.
Fine restaurants invite respite and chalk white or yellow champagne is replaced by a local red just as tasty. Our departure was sad but the promise of a visit to one of only two champagne houses allowed to use the term chateau softened the blow.
Bubbles to Remember
For centuries vineyards in the hills around the Chateau Bligny have provided wine in the Cote des Bers. The magnificent chateau rises nobly over the small village, built in the 18th century on the site of a feudal fort.
As you walk through the chateau, paintings of the Marquis des Dampierre and family stare down on you, matched by royally decorated chambers.
Indeed one can put on royal airs as soon as one sips the first glass from one of the six different bottles produced from the château’s vineyards. The 70% pinot noir and 30% chardonnay blend provided streaming shafts of minuscule bubbles.
We were to taste all of the different bottles over a fantastic lunch served in the main dining room, including a non-sparkling red wine called Bouzy.
After dessert a perfectly chilled bottle of Bligny Rose Champagne was served out in the splendid grounds of the chateau. Reservations for visits must be made in advance but it is that special.
With a driver handling the roads we then headed to another very special house that happened to become my favorite, Drappier.
From Roman times vineyards covered the hills around Urville but it was Saint Bernard who firmly planted the place as an annex of the Clairvaux Abby and the Cistercian monks produced wines well known in their day.
By 1155 huge vaults were built to handle the wines, still below the house today. Fast forward centuries and we find Charles de Gaulle stopping by from his local residence to purchase champagne with finesse.
Today a vintage with his picture on the label is available, 80% pinot noir and 20% chardonnay. Monsieur Drappier himself provides us with tasting samples, all exquisite. See the links below for more information. Neither house should be missed.
Rising In Les Ricey and Ecstasy in Essoyes
Dinner in the ancient brick vaulted basement at the Hotel Le Marius in Les Ricey was one of fine food, wine and laughter, the kind of meal that lingers in the mind, perfect yet unpretentious. Around our table were local vintners — a better clue to a great place than Michelin stars.
The town itself is located in the Aube and is small and ancient with a church set in the middle, perfect for an after dinner stroll. After a day of tasting great champagnes and blushed wines, this country retreat enabled one to sink into a slow pace, making the feather cover wonderful but unneeded.
After another early walk through the surrounding countryside it was time to visit a true artistic genius’s studio. On to Essoyes!
Essoyes is picture perfect and not only by my standards: Pierre-Auguste Renior himself moved to the village and painted it often. He also stated often that the bread and wine was much better than in Paris.
Memories of the painter are found not just in his remaining studio and home. Throughout the village huge poster size replicas of his paintings stand right where he would have painted them. It was awe inspiring to stand and see just what Renoir saw; little has changed to the eye in Essoyes.
That itself is a recurring blessing of traveling through lesser- known Champagne. Though the region has all the modern day accoutrements, it is off the beaten track that Champagne’s subtle magic bubbles up, as from the bottom of a glass of its best known wine — sure to whet an appetite for further exploration.
Happily it was on to Burgundy’s hidden treasures, but that is another story.
Where to Start:
I am constantly amazed how little travelers use the best resource materials available to them, the tourism departments. France’s are uniquely filled with useable information.
Maison de France is the government’s website and filled with usable info and links. When going to France this is always my first stop.
Often when traveling to France I find myself flying on Air France; it has always served me well. The food and wine are equal to the task of getting me in the mood to explore France. The service and comfort level will exceed expectations.
As I have found throughout France, hotels are a wonderful part of the experience. From luxury to budget most hotels greatly add to the visitor’s enjoyment, Champagne certainly maintained that finding.
Chateau Les Crayeres is the embodiment of luxury and a testament to the tables of France. In Reims one can do no better. Perhaps one could not do better anywhere in the world.
Maison de Rhodes fits Troyes to a tee; it evokes a past that charms visitors. Its rooms are a perfect blend of modern set within ancient walls. It took three years of preparation and two years of restoration to create.
Hotel Le Marius is a country hideaway set in the midst of Champagne’s hidden heart, the perfect place to base when looking for out-of-the-way vineyards. The bellman/bartender hade some amazing choices in local wines to test. The setting in the middle of an ancient town steeped in tradition was perfect.
The beauty of the Champagne Region is the amazing number of houses and vineyards to visit; secrets are yours to discover. A good book on vineyards can be indispensable; Michelin’s Book on French Vineyards was perfect.
Kent St John
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