Travel

48 Hours in Champagne with Peter Liem

The Champagne expert and author reveals his personal list of favorite spots to explore for an authentic taste of the region

Aerial view of a church and vineyards in Champagne France
Ville-Dommange Champagne, just outside Reims, France. Photo credit: stocknshares / iStock.

Champagne was one of the first wine regions that I gravitated to early on in my wine career. I’ve been coming to Champagne every year for more than 20, and started writing my website, ChampagneGuide.net, in 2009. Today I have a house in Epernay. While my work involves a great deal of travel, I usually spend more than half the year in Champagne. My book Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region will be published by Ten Speed Press in October of 2017.

Here’s my advice for making the most of a quick weekend in Champagne. Spend it hunting hard-to-find bottles in dusty wineshops, eating oysters with wines from grower-producers, or visiting a centuries-old château with the best Champagne program in the world.

GETTING THERE

From Paris, the Champagne region is just a 45-minute train ride by TGV to Reims, or a 1.5-hour ride by local train to Epernay. And If you’re flying into Paris, there’s even a TGV that goes directly from Charles de Gaulle Airport to the Champagne-Ardenne station, just outside Reims. While the major houses in Reims and Epernay are easily accessible on foot or by taxi, you’ll want to rent a car if you’ll be exploring more of the region.

WHERE TO STAY

In and around Reims, L’Assiette Champenoise is the most luxurious place to stay, with spacious, well-appointed rooms, gracious service, and the finest restaurant in Champagne. Arnaud Lallement is currently Champagne’s only chef with three Michelin stars, and his attention to detail and relentless pursuit of quality creates Champagne’s most sophisticated and inventive dining experience.

Les Crayères, located in a lush and sprawling park within Reims itself, is also an excellent hotel and restaurant, housed in an ornate château that formerly belonged to the de Polignac family of Champagne Pommery. The Michelin two-star restaurant is headed by chef Philippe Mille, who creates refined interpretations of classical French cuisine, while head sommelier Philippe Jamesse presides over the greatest wine list in the Champagne region.

Among other hotels in the city, one of the most popular with wine professionals is the Hotel de la Paix, superbly located in the center of town near the lively Place d’Erlon, with a bar that pours a wide range of Champagne until the wee hours of the morning.

If you’re visiting a lot of Champagne producers, you may find it more convenient to stay in Epernay, about a half hour’s drive to the south of Reims. It is more centrally located in terms of the vineyard area, making producer visits more convenient. While there are many hotels in town, a pleasant alternative is Parva Domus, a small and charming bed-and-breakfast located on the celebrated Avenue de Champagne near the houses of Pol Roger and Perrier-Jouët.

In the nearby village of Aÿ, renowned for its wine since the Middle Ages, the Hotel Castel Jeanson is owned by the Goutorbe family, who will be happy to welcome you at their winery across the street too. The newly renovated Les Grains d’Argent in Dizy is another comfortable and convenient option, and from here it’s just a short drive up the hill to the village of Hautvillers and its famous abbey, where Dom Pérignon lived and worked.

For a luxury experience, Les Sources de Caudalie will be opening in the fall of 2017, comprising a five-star hotel, restaurant, and spa in the same spirit as the original establishment at Château Smith Haut Lafitte in Bordeaux. It will be located at the top of the hill in the village of Champillon, with panoramic views over Epernay and the surrounding vineyard area.

WHERE TO BUY WINE

One of the region’s best wine stores is 520 in Epernay, which has one of the most extensive selections of Champagne in the world. Proprietor Pierre-Yves Cainjo has his finger firmly on the pulse of the Champagne region, and this is an excellent place to discover growers that you may never have heard of before.

In Reims the most impressive wine store is Les Caves du Forum, in an underground cellar below the Place du Forum. Owner Fabrice Parizot has a keen interest not only in Champagne but in wines from around the world, and while his grower-focused selection of Champagne is excellent, you’ll also find an extensive and thoughtfully chosen array of wines from elsewhere in France and beyond.

The cellar in Les Caves du Forum.
The cellar in Les Caves du Forum. Photo courtesy of Les Caves du Forum.

WHERE TO EAT

Clearly, Champagne is more famous for its wine than its food, but there are opportunities to eat and drink well, even apart from the culinary temples of L’Assiette Champenoise and Les Crayères. An excellent place to pick up lunch in Reims is L’Epicerie au Bon Manger, where owners Aline and Eric Serva have assembled an almost obsessively curated collection of France’s finest delicacies, from cheeses to charcuterie to preserved foods. Choose from a collection of Champagne with a strongly natural slant, and then buy bottles and foodstuffs to take on the road with you.

Behind the city’s best fishmonger is Le Bocal, a tiny restaurant with an outstanding array of oysters from farmers such as David Hervé, A. Madec, and Gillardeau. Other fruits de mer and dishes such as grilled lobster and sole are also excellent, and there’s a small but carefully selected list of good Champagne.

If you’re craving a burger with your Champagne, head to Sacré Burger, which originated as a food truck but now has its own space near the Place du Forum. The burgers aren’t as good at The Glue Pot, a quirky pub on the Place d’Erlon, but this is nevertheless one of the best places in the city to drink, featuring many of the finest growers in Champagne as well as other wine regions of France.

Another place not to miss in Reims is Racine, where chef Kazuyuki Tanaka crafts exquisitely elegant dishes that combine classical French training with a quietly Japanese sensibility. Book well in advance here as it fills up quickly.

Sadly, Epernay itself is not blessed with an abundance of gastronomic excellence. The best restaurant in town is La Grillade Gourmande, which features traditional French cooking: Look for items such as sea bass or turbot grilled on a wood fire, or heartier dishes like pigeon stuffed with foie gras. Across the river in Aÿ, the Rôtisserie Henri IV is another rustic grill that skews slightly more carnivorous (think roast chickens or steaks with bone marrow), but be sure to call ahead as its hours are decidedly erratic. For more upscale dining, there’s La Briqueterie in nearby Vinay, although Le Grand Cerf, located in Montchenot, on the road to Reims, offers a slightly more refined experience.

Undoubtedly the best restaurant in the Epernay area, and the best restaurant in Champagne outside Reims, is Les Avisés, on the Jacques Selosse estate in Avize. While it’s not guaranteed that Selosse’s Champagnes will be available, the wine list is extensive and reasonably priced, providing a fine complement to chef Stéphane Rossillon’s contemporary French cuisine.

WHERE TO DRINK

The best wine bar in Reims is Le Wine Bar by Le Vintage, a convivial place on the Place du Forum boasting a list of 500 wines from Champagne and elsewhere. Another good wine bar is Le Coq Rouge, near the cathedral, which is inevitably crowded, raucous, and fun; its list is full of wines from outside the Champagne region as well.

If the weather is nice, a welcome diversion is the Perching Bar, in the nearby forest of Verzy about a half hour to the southeast of Reims. This Champagne bar is literally located up in the trees, accessed by a series of rope bridges; it’s inside an adventure complex called Parc Arboxygène, where you can work off those Champagne calories on a range of ropes courses and ziplines of various difficulty levels.

While you’re there, stop by Les Faux de Verzy, a bizarre formation of dwarf trees (mostly beech, but some oak and chestnut) that grow in twisted, tortured shapes, a phenomenon known to exist in only a handful of places in the world.

WHERE TO PLAY TOURIST

Reims is home to a number of important cultural treasures, most notably the magnificent thirteenth-century cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims, where the kings of France were traditionally crowned—don’t miss the stained-glass windows by Marc Chagall in the chevet, as well as the windows in the south transept that depict the region’s winemaking villages.

Next door, too, is the Palais du Tau, the former palace of the Archbishop of Reims and the site of the coronation banquets: today it houses a museum of artifacts relating to both the cathedral and the monarchy.

Less well known but also worth visiting is the Foujita Chapel, designed by the Japanese artist Tsuguharu Foujita and recognized today as a historic monument of France.

Peter Liem is an American writer and wine critic living in the Champagne region of France. He is the author of ChampagneGuide.net, an online guide to Champagne. He has also been a senior correspondent and wine critic for Wine & Spirits and his writing has appeared in such publications as The World of Fine Wine and The San Francisco Chronicle. His book “Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region” will be published by Ten Speed Press in October of 2017.

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