European Travel: A Philadelphian’s Guide to France’s Champagne Region
Go for the bubbles. Stay for the culinary bounty.
You know the feeling you get when you open a bottle of champagne? That pop is Pavlovian, sparking effervescent joy. Whether or not there’s anything to actually toast, breaking into a bottle is itself a celebration. I got that same feeling exploring France’s Champagne region in January.
Situated in the country’s northeast, about 100 miles from Paris, the absurdly picturesque countryside — rolling hills scored with linear vines of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes — has been a wine-producing hub for centuries. It’s also home to a spirited food scene, with Michelin-starred restaurants and charming local haunts, plus farmers’ markets and small-batch makers.
Stay in Reims, the region’s unofficial capital, and check into Domaine Les Crayères (rooms from $534), an opulent- Art Nouveau-style château set on 17 verdant acres. Flawless service at the Relais & Châteaux property made me feel like French royalty, and its position just a stone’s throw from several historic champagne houses makes it easy to visit several in one day. At Maison Pommery, descend the 116 steps into the millennia-old chalk caves — like many in the region, first dug by the Romans — that hold millions of bottles of maturing bubbly, along with contemporary art exhibitions. Many of the sculptures were created for the space and provide a striking contrast to their ancient surroundings. Also nearby is Ruinart, the world’s first champagne house, established in 1729, as well as Veuve Clicquot, founded in 1772.
Further afield, Taittinger is worth the 40-minute drive to visit its chalk caves — once the Saint-Nicaise Abbey, dating back to the 13th century — and sample the Brut Réserve with views of its vineyards.
But don’t overlook independent growers making some exciting bubbles, including Chartogne-Taillet. Contact winemaker Alexandre Chartogne to arrange a visit and learn about his process firsthand.
Of course, champagne pairs well with fine dining, and you’ll find it throughout the region. In Reims alone, there are several Michelin-starred restaurants, including two-starred Le Parc inside Domaine Les Crayères. The champagne list includes more than 600 labels, while the classical setting can feel like a surprising backdrop for chef Philippe Mille’s dishes that come plated like modern art. Racine, also two-starred, is a masterful convergence of French and Japanese cuisine, care of chef-owner Kazuyuki Tanaka. At Le Bocal, tucked in the back of a fishmonger’s shop, freshly shucked oysters and salmon tartare are memorable.
For simple pleasures, visit Au Bon Manger, where platters of charcuterie and boards bearing discs of goat’s-milk cheese are offered alongside wines chosen by the husband-and-wife proprietors. At Sacré Burger, find proof that juicy burgers and salty fries are indeed perfect pairings for champagne.
And don’t go before embarking on a picnic at Parc de Champagne, a leafy expanse not far from Les Crayères. Bring along a box of cork-shaped chocolates filled with Marc de Champagne or praline from La Chocolaterie Thibaut, plus bottles of small-producer champagne from Au Bon Manger. You know, to really make it a celebration.
American Airlines flies direct from Philly to Paris. The 45-minute high- speed TGV train departs regularly from Gare de l’Est to Reims.
Published as “European Vacation: Champagne, France” in the March 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.