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volante: france

Champagne wishes
Champagne wishes

Château de Boursault


Jack Yan arrives at the Royal Champagne for a start of a romantic week in Marne
photographed by the author

Excerpted from issue 22 of Lucire
Read Part One here


CHAMPAGNE is just full of too much to do, and Brigid and I never made it down to Nevers, where a jazz festival was taking place, and which, prior to our arrival, seemed like a good idea. Instead, with a capacious car, we had to fill it with shopping, and there is no better place to get the bubbly stuff than here.

We did the typical tourist places first, and the staff at the Royal Champagne (, 33 3 26-52-87-11), especially the manager, M. Fabien De­laffon, were incredibly accommodating. With hindsight, tackling the big brands must have seemed very bourgeois, but hotel reception kindly found times for tours to Moët & Chandon (33 3 26-51-20-20) and the nearby Champagne de Castellane (33 3 26-51-19-11,, both in Épernay. Tours are conducted in French or English.

Moët (the t is not silent; see has the advantage of a professional guide and a heritage that goes back centuries. Dom Perignon, its top-of-the-line vintage champagne (or millésime), is made here, and as the favoured champagne brand of Napoléon Bonaparte, there are seats (now with the velvet rope separating commoners from the furniture) on which the Emperor had sat for drinks with Jean-Rémy Moët, a descendant of the founder.

Our English-born guide was the best first guide we could have, as she explained the three varieties of grapes used in champagne, found in the region—each champagne house, we discovered, has a map which details the different regions from which their pinot gris, pinot meunier and chardonnay are sourced. The caves beneath the streets of Épernay remained a constant 11°C, a quirk of nature in the area thanks to chalk that formed there—and ideal for storing champagne in its various stages.

While not every bottle is made in the traditional way—by hand, with riddlers turning each one so that the dead yeast cells wind up in the neck, and a manual dégorgement (the popping of the cap to rid the bottle of lees)—Moët, and almost all the producers, still keep the old methods going for the tourists, for their own corpor­ate culture, and for some of their top-of-the-line vintages.

After sampling the Moët tour and a taste of their vintages, it was a nice contrast to visit Champagne de Castellane, a nearby champagne house that caters for, essentially, the domestic market. However, it is home to an eight-storey tower that overlooks Épernay, each floor filled with art. De Castellane, marked by a distinctive red saltire from an old Champagne regiment, hails from 1895 and the Vicomte Florens de Castellane.

De Castellane is now part of a larger parent company, and was less shy about showing us the modern machin­ery. However, pride of place should go to its museum, which shows off its advertising campaigns over the years, many of which are art-déco.

The third “establishment” house, which we took in the next day, is that of Taittinger (33 3 26-85-84-33), which can be found back “in town” in Reims. The old French city is worth a visit, though during this tour, its cathedral was being renovated, and streets around there proved less convenient than on my last trip. However, Taittinger is more thought-provoking, considering that its chalk caves date to Roman times, dug by slaves.

As we descended each floor, the temperature dropped by 1°C, and while the initial part of the tour repeated the same stories about the champagne-making process, the history impressed. The cathedral above the caves was destroyed during the French Revolution, and soldiers hid in them during the World Wars: markings on the walls gave dates, and you felt transported back to times when there was no booze down in the caverns, only men waiting for the next attack.

The monks had built altars and steps; and at one of the lowest caves, I looked up 88 ft and could only see darkness. Before we left, we were taken to the more modern part of the property, where an automated dégorgement and dosage (topping up the bottle with sweet wine) took place. We had, essentially, witnessed, between the three houses, the process. Naturally, that one ended with a tasting, too, one which perhaps marked the moment when we felt “settled” in the region.

Each day’s lunch was at local premises: in Épernay, la Cave à Champagne ( is worth hunting out for. This restaurant is slightly outside the main centre of the town, but easily in walking distance, although it does not accept American Express. Its salmon and lamb dishes were appealing. Given the sunnier days, the Café du Palais in Reims (14, place Myron-Herrick, 33 3 26-47-52-54, has the option of dining outside, and a nice house champagne that suits a post-shopping mood.

However, it would be a sin to stay at the Royal Cham­pagne and not dine there. Philippe Augé, the chef, was going for a third degree MOF (meilleur oeuvrier français—the title of the top chef in the country), and we could understand why he was so deserving, after sampling his work.

The Royal Champagne has one Michelin star, and plenty of repeat business. According to M. Delaffon, some Royal Champagne customers had been going there for 15 to 20 years, some were aged 60 to 65, though the bulk were 30 to 40. Since 2006, a new wave of younger customers began discovering the Royal Champagne, and it is no surprise: champagne, the property’s principal differentiating factor, is a massive draw.

Aside from the woods, walks, Marne river cruises and champagne houses, Delaffon’s staff can arrange for guests to join the harvest in Champagne in September–October, with the owner of one of the vineyards. Gloves and boots are lent out at the estate. Lunch is part of the package, during which one can taste the juice from the grape pressings, and a basket is prepared with biscuits and champagne so guests can take a bit of the area home with them.

Of course, all the hard work is not up to the guests, who are accompanied by the owner of the vineyard.

‘Not everyone can be at a harvest,’ explained Delaffon. ‘Like the high-fashion spirit. It is not about the greatest number, but [being] the best.’

Delaffon himself began his career after making a personal decision to enter hospitality, and had stints in London and Bermuda, before settling in Champagne with his family. The lifestyle suited them, though soon after, he was posted to Normandie, which may form the article of a future story in this magazine.

He noted that the Royal Champagne is 90 minutes from Paris and three hours from London, making it convenient as a getaway for townies, and recommended for us something closer: Hautvillers, where we could find Dom Perignon’s place and where he invented cham­pagne. It was about time we began discovering the smaller labels, which we found to be full of charm, and quality that was often superior to the large brands’.

Mais, d’abord, le dîner. HM the Queen Mother, after all, had eaten here. On the walls, the royal connection was highlighted, giving extra meaning to the property’s name. In Brigid’s own words, ‘It really is like a vacation in the presence of royalty; as I sat in the opulence of the restaurant over looking the valley, a smile appeared on my face to know the Queen Mother had sat at this very table and admired the view.’ As far as I know, the “Queen Mother’s table” is not something you could have requested over the phone, though we suggest readers try it. It could well become part of the repertoire. In typical French fashion, a few dogs accompanied their owners into the restaurant, beautifully groomed.

We sampled frogs’ legs with risotto and cream sauce, and pigeon terrine with lentils one night; and beef with red wine sauce and salmon another. With each serving, we showered praise—in words and thoughts—on Augé and his impending competition. Sommelier Frédéric Chesneau, who resides in Hautvillers, recommended a local brand, Champagne Locret-Lachaud (33 3 26-59-40-20), and suggested we take it in the following day, but for one dinner, he served an excellent Paul Bara grand cru, from Bouzy. However, if anything could compete with champagne here, it was Augé’s crème brûlée (it is that good), which I even arranged to have served for breakfast one morning as a surprise.

Our room was always a welcome refuge after a day of food and I believe I counted nine champagne glasses as my daily consumption. Seven, Delaffon believed, was the average. Thankfully, the room itself proved constant­ly warm, and the bed comfortably large and firm. The décor was tastefully done, befitting the royal in the name: it was ornamental, but not overbearing. Among the mod-cons, there was Orange wifi in the area, though I still preferred to connect on a dial-up AT&T signal. Our bedside table was littered with souvenirs, with my cellphone and electric toothbrush in the convert­er which hooked up the Kiwi plugs to the French power socket. Anglophones are well served with some English news channels on the telly, but the usual range of French satellite networks, plus RTL. The car park revealed number plates from England and Belgium, as well as France. The Mégane, its roof racks and slightly sporting rear end, did not look out of place alongside a big Peugeot and a Saab.

We began taking in the individual, independent cham­pagne houses, and learned that this was a far better way, now that we were acquainted with the process, to sample the region. The night before, Brigid had sent an email to Locret-Lachaud, on M. Chesneau’s recommendation, and it was our first stop the following morning.

We woke after a night where she heard rain, so the following morning, there was some moisture, and it was a trifle cold for breakfasting on the deck. Locret-Lachaud had apparently called the hotel to confirm our rendez­vous.

Brigid and I went to Hautvillers first, driving down from the Royal Champagne, rather than joining the main road, and found a far more scenic and enjoyable route. (Incidentally, this is the route visitors should take: it is more scenic and it is probably easier to get to the hotel if one sets Hautvillers on the GPS.) The Mégane handled the corners well, and the ground clearance of the Estate—rather than what I was used to with my Coupé in Wellington—was ideal for the rougher ground we had to cover. If you have the time, it is worth walking the route as part of a Sunday stroll.

Hautvillers is a charming town for an autumn walk, exhibiting a very different pace of life. They were used to tourists, so we were not too special; the local tourism office did a reasonably good trade in postcards. However, we probably did better exploring the town ourselves, finding the church at which Dom Perignon is buried. It was empty, but Brigid did buy a few of the preserves there. We never sought out the monk’s tomb.

When our appointment at Champagne Locret-Lachaud came by, Mme Locret, the wife of the eighth generation of Locrets to run the house, ran us through the range. We had been informed that her husband and daughter are the more passionate when it came to the family business. We all were a little distracted by the barking of her dog across the road. Still, she was polite enough, and before she had to go through the motions again with three English tourists that had come by, we decided on the l’Abbatiale, the cuvée prestige, which we saved for a later meal.

The trail between Épernay and Dormans, perhaps like many in this region, is scattered with independent labels, not to mention memorable châteaux. The young fellow at Champagne Charles Orban in Troissy (33 3 26-52-70-05, took more time with his company’s range, perhaps speaking French slightly more slowly for this jeune couple etranger, and we left there feeling very satisfied with the introduction, and bought a bottle of the chardonnay brut along with some glasses.

Further on, Champagne Château de Boursault (33 3 26-58-42-21, was the highlight, not only because the Boursault road was a little off the beaten track, but the château iteself, built in 1843 by Mme Nicole Cliquot Ponsardin (the word veuve means widow), is one of the most beautiful that we had seen. Versailles and Fontainebleu paled in comparison to the château, set among the green fields of pinot meunier. Each time we drove by Boursault, we tried to spy the château. The six-speed Mégane proved a suitable cruiser over the straight roads of the route nationale, impressing me with a comfortable ride as we listened to a selection of Brazilian music from the folks at Loop back in New Zealand.

Alain Bernot, a relative of the current family owning the Château de Boursault label, switched into English as he introduced the range, while we replied in French, indulging a chance to speak the other’s language. There, we stuck with the brut blanc tradition, which had a more traditional blend of grapes (25 per cent pinot noir, 43 per cent pinot meunier, 32 per cent chardonnay).

Among the other favoured brands was Champagne Lemaire Rasselet (33 3 26-58-44-85). We probably sampled more varieties with Katia, who hosted us there, and wound up buying bottles, one of which we drank with our final toast after our return to Paris.

Dormans was notable for its château, too, but less so for its tourist office, which could not tell us much about local champagne houses. In fact, it resembled a 1960s classroom more than a tourist office on the champagne trail. The château, meanwhile, features a World War I memorial, with 1,500 unknown soldiers in its ossuary. The château itself was closed, though we did enjoy the views from there, Brigid suggesting I catch the car from atop the hill.

The staff at the Royal Champagne wanted to hear about our adventures, but between sampling and drinking, I had to admit that the names of the labels were not flowing off my tongue. The plus side was that I became a champagne snob, finding that the purer, more refined methods suited my palate, and that the hang­overs associated with drinking never came. The next day, we were fine again, with no scent from the day before other than the familiarity of Brigid’s van Cleef & Arpel fragrance.

When we came to leave the area, we popped in to Château-Thierry, right on market day, where local traders sold clothes. But by the time we reached the town, on our return to Paris, I had wanted to open the Mégane up to a proper autoroute. It was not disappointing, and we made it back into the capital in the short time that I had remembered.

Despite taking in an exhibition at the Fontaines de Trocadéro and going to the Sacré Cœur and one of Brigid’s old neighbourhoods, the sights and sounds of Paris meant we were back in city mode. The country life was more appealing, and we could have had days, if not weeks, more of it.

Nice and Monaco, and Eze and Villefranche-sur-Mer, my old Persuaders patch that I had so loved, began taking a distinct second place. But then, Marne and the whole Champagne region was made more special by the company I had, backed by the all-embracing team at the Baglioni group of hotels, an efficient means of transport, and the support of folks like Stanley Moss who was our vanguard into this part of the country. One can only think of how the next trip needs to top this one: it will not be easy. •


Visit the Royal Champagne at


Subscribe to LucireFor the full article, check out ‘Champagne Wishes’, with photography by Jack Yan and David C. Lee, in issue 22 of Lucire.

At the Royal Champagne (photographs courtesy the hotel with the exception of image at top by the author)

Moët & Chandon at Épernay

Taittinger, in Reims


Café du Palais, Reims


Champagne Lemaire-Rasselet

Château de Dormans


We began taking in the individual, independent champagne houses, and learned that this was a far better way, now that we were acquainted with the process, to sample the region

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