Why a mini-vacation to Champagne will never go out of style

(Royal Champage Hotel and Spa)

The old church stood in the middle of the abandoned village. The heavy wooden door creaked open as we entered, our footsteps echoing off the ancient stone floor and echoing through the empty nave until we reached the altar. There, just in front of the altar, was the place we had come to see: the simple and blinking final resting place of a man whose contribution to the world is nothing short of sparkling.

Feeling a bit disappointed, I looked for something more appropriate: a small pop-up bar perhaps, or perhaps an ice bucket. But there was nothing.

Instead, we stood over the grave of Dom Perignon and had an imaginary glass of wine for the Benedictine monk who brought the world’s finest sparkling wines. He had spent much of his life here, in the idyllic French village of Hautvillers in the heart of the Champagne region, where he had worked as the church’s cellar master until his death in 1715.

When it comes to champagne I like to think of myself as a bit of an expert – at least when it comes to drinking it – but there’s definitely a magnum-shaped hole in my knowledge when it comes to everything else: the place, the history, the industry… It was time to put that right.

The Champagne region is located 150 kilometers east of the French capital and is an unassuming place; one of rolling vineyards, charming castles and quaint villages where the world’s most luxurious drink is almost a religion.

    (Royal Champage Hotel and Spa)    (Royal Champage Hotel and Spa)

(Royal Champage Hotel and Spa)

The trip from Paris took less time than polishing off a bottle of Ruinart. Our connecting local train left from Gare de l’Est, just a five-minute walk from the Eurostar terminal, and took us to Champagne in 40 minutes. The gritty Parisian suburbs quickly turned into a pleasant patchwork of green valleys and limestone plains as the world around us changed.

Upon arrival in Champagne-Ardenne it was more spice than glamour. However, that soon changed when we arrived at the Royal Champagne Hotel and Spa, one of the most luxurious accommodations in the region. Located near the village of Champillon, 25km south of Reims in the heart of the Champagne region, it distantly resembled a Bond villain’s secret lair, spectacularly situated on a hilltop overlooking the Marne Valley.

A welcome drink from – do you have to ask? – was served just moments after arrival and to the most sublime soundtracks that would become very familiar in the coming days: a sharp pop, deep sip and gentle fizz as delicate bubbles danced in the chilled flute.

Just like the drink itself, the hotel’s interior is fresh, spicy and complex in its details. Modern art, custom furniture and extravagant chandeliers are placed to enhance the setting rather than dominate it. Spread over two floors, all 47 rooms, as well as the exquisite spa, overlook the vineyard-strewn valley. There are also playful touches, especially the ‘Press for Champagne’ button on the bedside table.

    (Royal Champage Hotel and Spa)    (Royal Champage Hotel and Spa)

(Royal Champage Hotel and Spa)

The hotel’s humble beginnings date back to 1872, when it was a coaching inn on the way to Paris. Kings on their way to be crowned passed by and no doubt enjoyed a similar level of hospitality as today. A few hundred years later, the estate was purchased by Denise Dupre and her Bostonian businessman, Mark Nunnelly, who I’m told made his money as an early investor in… Domino’s.

Putting that pizza dough to good use, the couple reportedly spent around £20 million refurbishing the restaurant, as they planned to give Champagne its first truly luxury hotel. But a visit here isn’t just about drinking. It’s about history and adventure, with the opportunity to go behind the scenes of one of the world’s most celebrated industries.

Most of the big Champagne houses – Laurent Perrier, Veuve Clicquot, Moët… – welcome visitors with tastings, factory tours and vineyard visits, but I was more interested in discovering a brand that offers something ’boutique’ than the big boys. The Leclerc Briant family business has been buzzing since 1872 and today takes an organic approach to winemaking using biodynamic practices. It is one of the smallest farms, growing Pinot noir, Pinot meunier and Chardonnay grapes on a modest 14 hectare plot and producing just 200,000 bottles per year.

“For us it’s about quality. We don’t want to produce a million bottles,” says our expert guide Paul. “We pick only the best grapes and press them slowly by hand.” They may be small in size, but their ambitions are anything but. It is a strictly pesticide-free zone. Instead, the vines are treated with a herbal infusion of nettle, yarrow and chamomile. New titanium-lined barrels have recently been added as the winemaking process continues to evolve.

    (Royal Champage Hotel and Spa)    (Royal Champage Hotel and Spa)

(Royal Champage Hotel and Spa)

Much more exciting is the annual Abyss collection, in which 3,000 bottles are dropped into the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Brittany. They eventually come back, look beautifully weathered and have a very delicate salty aftertaste.

We spent the rest of our boozy mini-break poking around in sleepy villages and larger towns like Epernay, where a statue of Dom Perignon with a bottle in hand takes center stage.

“I taste the stars,” he is said to have said as he experimented with fermentation methods. At the time, the region was better known for its poor quality red wines that most did their best to avoid. Unfortunately, it took another century after his death for the world to develop a taste for bubbles.

Back at the hotel it was time for dinner. Le Royal is the hotel’s formal dining experience and the proud owner of a Michelin star awarded last year. Inside, the tranquil and champagne-coloured ballroom is dominated by a central statue of former dinner Napoleon, but is also a tribute to the various women in his life, with large portraits on display and the words of love letters he sent to them beautifully painted on the crockery. .

    (Royal Champage Hotel and Spa)    (Royal Champage Hotel and Spa)

(Royal Champage Hotel and Spa)

Chef Paolo Boscaro calls on his Italian heritage and exceptional local produce to create dishes that are skilled and refined, including one, dedicated to his father, that combines pecorino with saffron with gnocchi and a silky sage cream. Dinner was of course washed down with the freshest champagne, as recommended by the sommelier. Every sip was a moment.

That evening we also tasted the stars.


Doubles at the Royal Champage Hotel and Spa (royalchampagne.com) start from £687. Eurostar (eurostar.com) offers return flights from London St. Pancras to Paris from £78 per person.

Champagne tourism: champagne.fr

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