In a previous post, I discussed the difficulties that wine tasting travellers may face whilst attempting to visit the region of Champagne. It’s not so straightforward as visiting many other wine regions around the world, and needs just a little foreplanning if you wish to do it properly. Many will be surprised by the lack of glitz and easy luxury to be found in the area, and those who do little research before visiting may discover instead that many parts they see more likely resemble an agricultural backwater or industrial wasteland. There are however very many beautiful areas within Champagne, some great hotels, a few noteworthy restaurants and a couple of interesting bars. You just have to know where to find them.
Most travellers will centre their stay around the two major centers of Reims or Epernay. Reims is by far the larger, with a famous cathedral, bustling, tight old centre and sprawling outskirts. Epernay is a smaller town surrounded by some of the other more popular villages of Ay, Dizy and Hautvillers. Both towns have many of the larger houses within them, a reasonable number of restaurants and contrasting accommodation options.
Where to stay
Despite being one of the world’s best known wines, the area does not provide the gourmet tourist set with the ease of stay that one might find in Provence or Bordeaux. The few large hotels are generally bland two-to-three-star establishments, catering to horticultural sales reps, barley traders and strictly budgeted MW students. More gentile stays are likely to be in family-run bed and breakfast or gite style accommodation, many of which have less than four rooms. This makes it nigh-impossible to book for a large family or group in peak season.
But what IS peak season? Despite Champagne being on the 49th Parallel, with mean yearly temps of 10C, it’s not summer, even if the tourists might think it is. That’s when the restauranteurs take a quick holiday down south with the kids, when winemakers take a break before the hard work begins in September. Peak isn’t at harvest time either – no vigneron in his right mind has time to show oenophiles around at that time of year. Spring is your best bet, or deep into Autumn, just before the leaves fall, so that the undulations of this chalky landscape are painted with corduroy stripes of fire. But pack your wellies.
Epernay and surrounds
- La Briqueterie: A classically styled Relais & Chateaux luxury property 7km from Epernay in Vinay, with spa, Michelin-star restaurant and 3 hectares of gardens. From around €210 per room per night.
- Hotel la Villa Eugène: The previous Mercier Champagne family house, 19C with just 15 rooms. Stunning breakfast room but no restaurant (a long walk or short drive down the Avenue de Champagne brings you to Epernay). From around €210 per room per night.
- Les Suites 33: Placed in the annexed buildings of Champagne Venoge on the Unesco listed Avenue de Champagne, this is as close you can get to living the Champagne life. Modern fittings in classic architecture, just 4 rooms. From around €190 per room per night.
- Hôtel Jean Moët: A renovated 18C building in town with well priced double and family rooms. Indoor pool and sauna, and back stairs leading into the cozy Champagne bar, C Comme. Excellent service. From around €150 per room per night.
- Au Coeur des Vignes: Your best budget bet at €72 per double. It’s walking distance from Epernay, but just far enough out that the lane backs onto the vines. Quiet, with free parking, pets allowed
- Le Clos des Armoiries – Gorgeous traditional manse within the vines. Rooms are large, and although retain a touch of the classic, have a crisp modern feel. Lovely views and easy access to the village of Hautvillers. Around €180.
Reims and surrounds
- Hotel Azur: Fabulous cheapie in the old centre of Reims. No spa, no frills, no elevator and only two stars, but has family rooms, doubles and singles from a tiny €55.
- Domaine du Chalet: The previous house of Mme Pommery, and as grand as you’d expect. Expansive grounds, impeccably restored with modern styling, suites, indoor pool and even a tree house to stay in. From €180 to €330.
- Maison des Vignes: A chambre d’hotes on a working vineyard run by a husband and wife team. Great breakfast, and on request, excellent local food for dinner. From €105 per double.
- Chateau Les Crayeres: The epitome of luxury, an elegant and classically styled Chateau walking distance from many major houses. Onsite is a two Michelin star restaurant, so you can save on the cab fare home from dinner -and you’ll need to, with rooms starting at €400.
- Le Parc du Chateau: In the pretty winemaking village of Hermonville, Le parc might fall a little short on glamour, but is simple and sticks to budget, with a great reputation, clean spaces and good breakfast. From €110 per double
- Chateau De Rilly: Situated in sleepy Rilly-la-Montagne, this offers a little of both worlds – classic chateau styling, elegant in-house restaurant and well-sized rooms. Some might find it a little out of the action, but it’s well priced from €160 per double.
Where to eat
Again, in contrast to the lifestyle image created to fit drinkers of Champagne, dining in the area is in the main, simple and traditional. Champagne-Ardenne’s population is the most rapidly declining in France. Villages are sleepy, and many do not contain a restaurant, or even a simple cafe or tabac. Grape growing estates are large, but you won’t find vineyard restaurants here, because all the chateaux are on the edge of towns, wine-making rather than vineyard-watching. Michelin stars are to be found in Relais & Châteaux-style small hotels, or in unassuming shop-frontages in the main towns of Epernay and Reims.
Epernay and surrounds
- Grillade Gourmande: A lovely bistro just out of the centre of Epernay with excellent service, a friendly chef and wonderful attention to vegetables and sauces. Chef Christophe Bernard has worked under Paul Bocuse and Alain Ducasse.
- Les Berceaux: Holds the only Michelin star in Epernay, and concentrates on serving market-driven produce with traditional flair. Also attached is the more casual Bistrot Le 7.
- Chez Max: It might be on the wrong side of the river Marne, but Chez Max still attracts the local crowd. An unassuming 1970s-looking building with a stack of classics, very friendly service and a mean bloody mary. Very well priced.
- Auberge Le Relais: Almost all the way to Chateau-Thierry, but worth the drive if you want to escape traditional fare and styling. Delightfully modern in a picturesque country setting that can be viewed from the verandah. One michelin star.
- Rotisserie Henri IV: Unassuming carnivore bistro in Ay, concentrating on grilled and roasted meats. Excellent chips, huge portions.
Reims and surrounds
- Le Parc, Chateau Les Crayeres: Le Parc might have 2 michelin stars, but you can still get a full lunch with wine matching for €90. Menus are distinctly seasonal with a classic French feel. Extremely elegant situation, the terrace is dreamy.
- Boulingrin: Beloved by locals, a straightforward brasserie with turn of the century style and all the classics you’d expect from foie gras to souffles. Decent set menus from €25.
- Le Bocal: A shoebox-sized jewel behind the fish market, serving the freshest purchases of the day. Perfect food matching to their excellent list of Champagne, which is unique and balanced.
Where to drink
With an aging population, Champagne isn’t really the place to go for nightlife, but there are still some great places to sip a glass or three of grower Champagne that you’ll never find out of the village. (Some of these are mentioned in my previous post on tasting etiquette in Champagne)
Epernay and surrounds
- C.Comme in Epernay, is a genuine cave complete with barrel-vaulted ceilings. A little out of date with it’s decor, but stocks a decent range of small producer champagnes.
- Le Cafe Hautvillers: Only open until sundown, but has convivial outdoor seating in the Place de la République in the fabulous village of Hautvillers.
- Chez Georges: At Champagne Georges Carter, kooky place with an outdoor terrace and music that can get quite loud at times. Good cocktails.
Reims and surrounds
- Trésors de Champagne: A pretty boutique and small bar, they stock only 30 growers champagnes, all of which have passed strict guidelines (size, production and quality).
- Aux 3 P’tits Bouchons: Rustic and earthy, a tiny place with plenty of organic and biodynamic labels, cheese and charcuterie.
- Le Clos: Throwing distance from La Porte de Mars Reims, casual and higgledy-piggledy venue with lively outdoor area.
- La Loge: The opposite of the above, refined and stylish, with music in the evenings. Restaurant also attached, but the venue is better known for its offer of beverages.
- Perching Bar: An exceptional modern treehouse venue in the countryside near Verzy. Stunning.