By Kristy Alpert
France’s Champagne region has a long history as a place of gathering and celebration. In the Middle Ages, the monarchy held their coronations in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Reims, the region’s unofficial capital, and annual market fairs—an entrepôt of European merchants selling everything from spices and textiles to coins—lasted upwards of 49 days.
Today, the mood of celebration lives on. In 2015, the region was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, owing to its historic “hillsides, houses and cellars.” A wave of noteworthy hotel and restaurant openings followed, offering travelers more reasons than ever to visit. Other attractions include WWII-era situation rooms, Gothic landmarks, and hiking trails flanked by vineyards.
Read on to discover all that’s effervescent about Champagne, then take a virtual trip to the region through our Bottling Magic in ChampagneExperience.
Champagne, the wine, is synonymous with Champagne, the region, but it was actually the English who invented the bubbly tipple—not the Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon, who popularized sparkling wine production in France. (Prior to the 17th century, bubbles were considered an imperfection in the winemaking process.)
While sparkling wines are produced in other regions around the world, only the sparkling wine produced in this French wine region has the right to be called Champagne. By order of French law, more specifically, the Champagne Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC), Champagne wines must be made from one of the approved grape varieties—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane, or Petit Meslier. The latter four varieties account for only .3 percent of plantings in the region. Champagne must also go through a secondary fermentation in the bottle for a minimum maturation of 15 months for non-vintage Champagne and three years for vintage Champagne. There are more than 16,000 wine growers and 320 Champagne houses spread throughout the four regions of Champagne: the Montagne de Reims, the Côte des Blancs, the Marne Valley, and the Côte des Bar. Dig deeper into the roots of Champagne with our Roots of Champagne and The Wine That Never Sleeps Experiences.
The vineyards of Montagne de Reims primarily grow Pinot Noir grapes (though other villages including Trépail and Villers-Marmery also grow Chardonnay). This idyllic region stretches along the contours of the neighboring Marne Valley, a subregion where Pinot Meunier reigns supreme, producing terroir-driven wines with finesse and liveliness.
Four generations of the Heucq family are currently working at Champagne André Heucq in the Marne Valley. While there are a handful of vineyards in the region also practicing organic viticulture (more than 80 percent of the estates are planted with organic Pinot Meunier), there are even fewer practicing biodynamics. But the Heucq family has been doing both since 2018. The family pushes the boundaries with innovative practices, like performing vinification inside oak barrels from Burgundy.
In the Côte des Blancs (an appellation primarily for white grapes), VIVANT winemaker Erick De Sousa was one of the first in the Champagne region to embrace biodynamics. His three children have since taken over the estate and are upholding their father’s sustainable practices. Try their Caudalies Grand Cru Extra Brut NV to experience the ripe, concentrated aromas that come from the addition of reserve wines.
Husband and wife Pierre and Sophie Larmandier combined more than a household when they married back in 1971. They also combined their family’s Champagne houses. The couple has run Champagne Larmandier-Bernier since 1988 and is known for their certified organic wines, particularly Blanc de Blancs, grown using biodynamic methods.
The Côte des Bar, in the southernmost portion of Champagne, produces some of the region’s best. VIVANT winemaker Jean-Pierre Fleury had big dreams of studying astronomy before discovering his passion for biodynamics as it pertains to winemaking. Today, Jean-Pierre and his three children produce terroir-driven wines made with minimal intervention. We recommend their Sonate Extra Brut 2012.
Restored after WWI and again following WWII, the city of Reims is a fascinating blend of old and new. Its centerpiece is the Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Reims, a stunning example of Gothic architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage List. The landmark served as the coronation site for 25 kings of France, including Charles VII, whose 1429 coronation was attended by Joan of Arc.
During World War II, Reims was used as the headquarters for General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces. It was inside General Eisenhower’s makeshift war room at the College Moderne et Technique (now the Lycée Franklin Rooseveltsecondary school) where the German High Command signed unconditional surrender, thus officially ending World War II at 2:41AM on May 7, 1945. The room remains intact and is now a museum where visitors can study actual military maps with zig-zagging red, pink, and yellow lines outlining the state of battle.
A single bullet hole in the chapel at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial is the only remaining trace of damage from World War II. The stained-glass chapel was nearly destroyed during the fighting, but has been beautifully restored and stands as a proud reminder of those who gave their lives during the Battle of Belleau Wood in the summer of 1918.
The Avenue de Champagne of Epernay is home to some of the world’s most renowned producers of sparkling wines. However, it’s what’s below ground that’s arguably most worthy of seeking out. Thousands of Champagne bottles are stored inside the more than 200-kilometer network of cellars and tunnels dug into the ancient crayères (chalk caves). The caves were used during the great wars as shelter, and today you can tour them via the Champagne houses above.
In the village of Hautvillers, trace the roots of Champagne with a tour of the restored Abbey d’Hautvillers, which was once home to the Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon, who is credited as the “spiritual father of Champagne.”
In Champagne, look for local specialties like Marne truffles and Chaource, a soft cow’s milk cheese with a creamy yet slightly crumbly texture.
At the region’s only three Michelin star restaurant, Assiette Champenoise, chef Arnaud Lallement crafts culinary masterpieces that highlight locally sourced, seasonal produce. For a more casual dining experience, swing by Le Epicurie Au Bon Manger for an excellent selection of natural and organic wines by the glass, served alongside regionally inspired organic dishes like andouillette à la ficelle (traditional pork sausage).
Tasting events are held regularly at Le 520, a wine store in Epernay that houses one of the most extensive selections of Champagne in the world. To try the region’s other famous export, Biscuits Roses de Reims, make a beeline for Maison Fossier. The recipe for the pink sugar-topped cookie goes back more than 250 years. It’s customary to dunk the pink biscuits in a glass of Champagne before taking a first bite.
The eco-friendly Cottages Antoinette were built on stilts to protect the vineyard floor below. Views from the three fully-equipped cottages extend over the vineyards of Chigny-les-Roses, and off-site activities including hiking the trails of nearby Regional Natural Park.
Farther north, in Signy-l’Abbaye, the Auberge de l’Abbaye whips up decadent organic breakfasts, made from ingredients grown onsite in the chef’s organic garden. The hotel has been family run since 1802 and is currently certified under the Clef Verte environmental certification program.
With its glass and quartz stone architecture, the Royal Champagne Hotel and Spa borrows inspiration from the surrounding region. Its 47 suites are decked out in custom furniture, bubble-shaped blown-glass lampshades, and energy efficient LED lighting. Local tour guides and onsite bicycles make it easy to use this grand dame hotel as your home base while discovering the region. End the day with a glass of biodynamic wine on the scenic terrace.