10 Feb The thrill of winter in Champagne
The coldest day of my life was on 20 January 2016 in France’s Champagne region, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO last year. The thermostat read -7C when I opened the front door in the morning, and for the rest of the day the temperature hovered below zero.
The crisp air, the regimented lines of white-frosted vines across the landscape, the colourful sunrises and sunsets, and the plentiful glasses of champagne gave me a winter thrill usually found only on the ski slopes.
The French have the English to thank for champagne. Back in the 17th century, at the end of the harvest, the region exported white wine to England. The wine was put into bottles over winter, rather than kept in barrels. Come the warmth of spring, the wine started to ferment again; & this double fermentation produced a fizz. The method was then developed by Dom Pérignon, a French monk, to produce what is now called champagne.
Starting at Reims
I was in the region for a 4-day whistle-stop tour to take photos for Clos Driver Wine Tours. My journey started in Reims, pronounced ‘rance’, with the ‘a’ as in ‘apple’.
The cathedral city has a history & a tradition linked to champagne, & is only 45-minutes by TGV from Paris and a 2.5-hour drive from Calais.
Reims Cathedral is not to be missed. Dating back to the 12th century, it has witnessed the coronation of 33 Kings of France. The Cathedral has over 2,300 hand-carved statues, including the only angels with open wings in a cathedral, & stained glass windows that include one by Russian-French artist Marc Chagall.
L’Assiette Champenoise – 3 Michelin stars
Being a cold, January Monday afternoon, the Cathedral was empty, and as the clock neared 6pm, I took a taxi to the outskirts of Reims for an aperitif at L’Assiette Champenoise, home to the 3-starred Michelin restaurant of Arnaud Lallement.
For wine lovers, and especially champagne lovers, L’Assiette Champenoise is paradise, with thousands of cuvées to choose from. I sat myself in a corner of the bar and went for a Krug Grand Cuvée, which arrived with complementary tartelettes of foie gras & grapefruit and smoked fish & herb jelly. I ate both of them.
L’Assiette Champenoise is a hotel as well as a restaurant. The décor is colourful, modern and full of character, a creation of Reims-based Gregory Guillemain. In the bar, my fellow drinkers were French, and quite a few were in their 20s and 30s … it felt branché, it felt in, and it was about quality.
Then, as I was leaving, I peeped into the restaurant, crowned with its Baccarat chandelier, & the great man himself, Arnaud, said a cheerful hello across the room. That clinched it for me, I must return – especially at lunchtime, to enjoy the light coming in from the garden. The experience looked like one not to be missed in a lifetime.
Eating at Racine
That evening I was booked at Racine, a small French-Japanese restaurant in the centre of Reims run by Kazuyuki Tanaka and his wife Marine.
The restaurant offers three tasting menus; I went for the Sôgu menu, at €39, The fusion of French and Japanese cuisines works. Both these cultures, at their best, are passionately searching for perfection, have a sense of heritage and place an importance on ritual. [UPDATE January 2020: Racine was awarded two Michelin stars.]
I woke early the next morning for a quick coffee & croissant at the nearby bar-tabac, where the locals were already busy discussing the day’s flutter, whether on the horses or the lottery, and then we took to the road.
Of the 319 villages producing champagne, 17 are nominated Grand Cru, offering the best grape-growing potential, & 38 Premier Cru.
As part of our expedition, we wound our way across & around the wooded Mountain of Reims. We passed through the Grand Cru & Premier Cru villages of Merfy, Ecueil, Ambonnay, Bouzy (I found no link to the English word ‘boozy’), Trépail, Ludes, Mareuil-sur-Ay, Cramant & Villers-aux-Noeuds, visiting vignerons, descending to their dank caves, often carved out of the limestone, tasting their Champagne, & walking among the vines.
The next day it was on to Cumières and Avize, south of Épernay, & then an hour’s drive or so to the champagne offshoot of the Côte des Bar, in Aube, to Polisot & Landreville, where the weather is slightly warmer & more Pinot Noir is grown. Leaving Champagne, we then travelled down to Burgundy, to Chablis and Comblanchien.
What champagne is all about
Everyone loves champagne. I love champagne. I learnt more in my 4 days about champagne than in my entire life of wine-tasting. But as Robert Parker wrote: “Champagne is first and foremost a commodity, a celebratory beverage, a status symbol”… & its commodity value is “based on what consumers want to be seen drinking, not the quality of what is in the glass”. (Source: Parker’s Wine Buyers Guide No 7, Page 444.)
The quality of what is in the glass is about how the vignerons work with the soil, with nature, the moon, the micro-climate; & it’s about a craft, & the passion & intuition of the people who make the champagne, whether a ‘grower’ champagne, produced by the vignerons, or a champagne produced by a champagne house.
Some of the champagne producers we visited:
- Bérêche & Fils
- Charles Dufour
- David Léclapart
- Emmanuel Brochet
- Georges Laval
- Marie Courtin
- R H Coutier
- Roger Pouillon & Fils
Then, going on to Burgundy:
- Patrick Piuze – Chablis
- Julien & Fils
The vineyards in January
The vineyards never seem to sleep, & the dormant winter time is when the vines are pruned. The cuttings are then burnt, producing mystical plumes of smoke dotted across the landscape.
January is also the month of the feast of Saint Vincent, the patron saint of winegrowers. The day is celebrated in different ways in different villages, often with a special brioche, but always with a feast for the vignerons. Darn, I add to leave for London early that morning; I’ll have to celebrate next year.
OTHER EATING HOTSPOTS
- Les Crayères, on the outskirts of Reims. This Relais et Château hotel, once home to the Champagnes Pommery family, has a 2* Michelin restaurant.
- Le Bocal, with just 12 covers, adjoins the Halles du Boulingrin, the covered food market in the centre of Reims. The chef at this excellent, informal little fish restaurant used to be at the Domaine Laurent-Perrier in Tours-sur-Marne, so she also knows a thing or two about Champagne.
- L’Epicerie Au Bon Manger is not a restaurant, but a “little space for tasting with wines by the glass or by the bottle”… “un petit espace de dégustation avec des vins au verre ou à la bouteille“. This relaxed, informal space is located in the centre of the city. Closed on Mondays.
- Hotel Les Avisés in the Grand Cru village of Avize, south of Épernay, is owned by Champagne Jacques Selosse, one of the founders of the Grower Champagne movement. (See my blog post, Les Avisés: a wise place to eat in Champagne).
- Au Fil du Zinc in Chablis, overlooking the river, & with a wine list offering 2 pages of Chablis cuvées only! Another Franco-Japanese rising star, with Ryo Nagahama, formerly of Robuchon and Alléno Paris, taking care of the savoury dishes & Vanessa Chang, ex-pastry chef at Pierre Hermé of macaroon fame, the desserts.
Roses de Reims (pink) biscuits: the best are from Biscuits Fossier in the main street leading to Reims cathedral, the Cours Jean-Baptiste Langlet. The story goes that there was some biscuit mixture left over, so the baker decided to make a new type of biscuit, & colour them (naturally) pink.
WHAT I DIDN’T DO
Visit the historic cellars of the big champagne houses in Reims, including Taittinger, Ruinart & Veuve Clicquot.
Several of the big champagne houses have their base in Épernay, on the Avenue de Champagne, including Moët & Chandon, which has the biggest cellars in the region, running for 28km (17 miles).
Next time, I would also drop into McArthurGlen Designer Outlet Troyes for a spot of fashion shopping, especially to shop at Sonia Rykiel and Maje. I worked for McArthurGlen for 7 years & never quite made it to Troyes. And then I would stop off for a glass of Champagne Georges Laval or David Léclapart, or both, at Aux Crieurs de Vin in Troyes’ attractive town centre.
For my other blog posts on Champagne.
derry rogersPosted at 05:10h, 06 December
we are travelling fromAustralia to Champagne
any suggestions of how we organize a tour of the houses of esp Tattinger,
Gina PowerPosted at 00:21h, 07 December
Hi Derry, Thank you! When I was in Reims, the tourist board was very helpful http://www.reims-tourism.com/ and they speak English, and there is a contact form. I did not visit Tattinger, but I remember people in the industry telling me that it was well worth the visit. Most of the names that I list are only open privately, or by organising through http://www.closdriver.com, for whom I was taking some photos. I hope you enjoy your visit and do let me know if you have any other queries. Kind regards, Gina … off to Burgundy this Thursday!
Gina PowerPosted at 17:32h, 07 December
Derry, Ruinart is also meant to be a good cave to visit, Gina
Farrah ImpellitteriPosted at 17:27h, 15 August
Your article is wonderful. Somebody on Fodor’s posted it to my post. I am planing on going to Paris in February. I am from NY and love visiting the vineyards out on Long Island in the wintertime. My husband and I love wine, all different types. Some people have been very negative about going to visit, let’s say Loire Valley (my favorite is Vouvray) and Reims, saying it’s bleak and cold, which is obvious but I enjoy drinking wine in the cold. There is something special about visiting a vineyard in the cold. Would you say I would be “wasting my time” doing day trips out of Paris to visit these areas?
Gina PowerPosted at 09:53h, 16 August
So glad you enjoyed the article. You can find more on Champagne at https://gina-power.com/tag/champagne/. I think that sometimes it’s just good to have a day trip outside a capital city, and Reims is only an hour away by train from Paris. It’s all about being lucky with the weather and wearing the right clothes. What you’d have to check up on is whether a day trip would allow you time to visit the vineyards. Reims is a city itself. I would definitely recommend having an eating experience in Reims, visiting the Cathedral and I know people have spoken well about visiting the cellars of Taittinger in Reims… but they won’t be surrounded by vineyards. Be careful of the opening hours… if you want to eat somewhere on a Sunday there is very little choice! For Burgundy, I love the town of Beaune (much smaller, lots of good wine bars)… too far for a day-trip though. I hope that helps! Have a great trip!
TessaPosted at 23:24h, 27 August
I love this article! I’m interested in visiting champagne, perhaps overnight, from Paris. Where should I focus my time with one and a half days?
Gina PowerPosted at 16:04h, 29 August
The city of Reims is really easy to get to from Paris. It’s an hour on the train, if not less. The cathedral is splendid, and there are some good restaurants. If you have a car I would definitely go to eat at Les Avises. You can also stay there. For visiting the small, independent growers you may have to go with a guide, such as http://www.closdriver.com, as the growers are more often than not out in the vines. Otherwise Taittinger in Reims is a visit I have been told is good. I would definitely have a look at the local tourism board website. I found them very helpful when I was in Reims http://www.reims-tourism.com/Discover/Champagne. I was in Champagne earlier this summer, so if you go to https://gina-power.com/tag/champagne/ you will be able to see all my posts. All the very best and enjoy your trip! Gina
Rachael BradshawPosted at 05:27h, 29 September
Thank you for your information, we are a family of 6 looking at Champagne in January do you think it is safe to drive around roads etc lexploring?
Gina PowerPosted at 08:40h, 29 September
Hi Rachael, I have checked with my contacts at Clos Driver and no need for special winter tyres in case of ice on the road. Otherwise my experience is that it is very safe. Obviously make sure to lock the car, etc, and hide valuables. It can get chilly, as I discovered! The villages are quite quiet in Champagne, not like in the South of France with lots of activity. Beautiful scenery for winter. I find the French tourist boards are very helpful, and their websites, both for the city of Reims and the region of Champagne-Ardennes. If you go to my website, I have more posts on Reims and the Champagne region, as I returned this summer with Clos Driver for a tour https://gina-power.com/tag/champagne/ All the very best for your trip, Gina
Gina PowerPosted at 08:41h, 29 September
Oh, and of course use your phone’s GPS system, or make sure you have some kind of GPS system. I can’t live without one wherever I am!!
Cigdem CelebiPosted at 16:46h, 23 December
Great article, thank you! We’re planning to visit the region inn January as well, so this is very helpful.
Are there any hotels that you would recommend us? Is it better to stay in Reims other than in one of the smaller villages?
Gina PowerPosted at 09:23h, 24 December
Hello!! I always like to do a mix between town and vineyard. In Reims, there is Chateau Les Crayères and L’Assiette Champenoise. Les Avisé in Avize is amazing – the hotel of Jacques Selosse, one of the stars of producer-made champagne. I’ve done quite a few posts on the region which you may find useful https://gina-power.com/tag/champagne/ I was taking photos for Clos Driver Wine Tours http://www.closdriver.com/ Good travelling!! Best regards, Gina
Shikha BhasinPosted at 21:37h, 27 August
Nice article, me & my husband are planning to go to Reims in December over the Holidays, any suggestions?, we plan on driving from Paris, (we will be flying in from California), any /all suggestion welcome regarding weather, driving, food, etc etc, Plan is to do Reims, Nancy, Dijon…
Gina PowerPosted at 08:19h, 14 September
Hi Shikha, I am so sorry for such a late reply. I am not getting my alerts for messages. I must check this out. Sebastien Crozatier of Clos Driver arranges wine tours. He has done quite a few for people from the States. I can give you his details if you would like… the website is http://www.closdriver.com Also have you seen my blog post on Reims? Here are all my blog posts on the Champagne region, include Reims https://gina-power.com/tag/champagne/ I hope this helps. Very best regards, Gina
Megumi VoightPosted at 17:41h, 18 October
Hi Gina! I loved reading your article – so insightful. To be candid, I’m a newbie – not a champagne connoisseur, but I will be visiting a friend stationed in Germany. As the previous 10 days will be filled with German Christmas markets + gluwein, we are looking to spend New Year’s Eve in the Reims + surrounding vineyard area. We definitely plan to dine at L’Assiette Champenoise during our stay (probably not for the actual eve due to reservations being booked). But, we would rather stay near a vineyard and drive/train into Reims as day trips. Which small town would you recommend for countryside, wine/champagne tasting, noshing during the day and by the fire in the evening?
Gina PowerPosted at 09:03h, 24 October
Hi Megumi, Thank you! The most obvious is, and one of my favourites, is Les Avises… https://gina-power.com/les-avises-champagne/ Let me also have a think of any others and ask my friends at Clos Driver Wine Tours. Here are some more ideas in Reims… https://gina-power.com/restaurants-reims/ Have fun! Gina
Jo BakerPosted at 08:42h, 28 December
Great read! I am visiting mid January and it appears that alot of the champagne houses are closed for the whole month. Do you know of which ones we can visit?
Gina PowerPosted at 09:52h, 02 January
Hi Jo, Happy New Year! Thank you! Yes, a lot of them are closed… the best big champagne houses to visit are seen as Ruinart and Taittinger. For the smaller ones that I mention in my blog, very often you need to go with a guide, such as Clos Driver Wine Tours. However, it is always worth trying them. Very often they have a skeleton staff, if any! You can definitely have a champagne experience by eating at places such as Les Avisés – I have a blog post on them – and also there are some great places to eat in Reims… if you go to gina-power.com/tag/champagne/. I also plan to do my own map of places in the area… a new year’s resolution for January! Have a good trip! Gina