Why a champagne break will never go out of style

(Royal Champage Hotel and Spa)

The old church stood in the middle of the abandoned village. Its heavy wooden door opened as we entered, our feet bouncing off the ancient stone floor echoing around the empty body until we reached the altar. Directly in front of the altar was the place we came to see: the simple and blink-and-miss final resting place of a man whose contribution to the world is nothing but sparkling.

When I felt that I had the upper hand, I looked for something more suitable: a small pop-up bar, maybe, or maybe an ice bucket. But there was nothing.

Instead we stood over the tomb of Dom Perignon and raised an imaginary glass to the Benedictine monk who is credited with bringing the best sparkling wines to the world. He spent much of his life here, in the beautiful French village of Hautvillers in the heart of the Champagne region, working as the church’s cellar master until his death in 1715.

When it comes to champagne I like to consider myself somewhat of an expert — at least when 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.

Located 90 miles east of the French capital, the Champagne region is a place of one voice; one of the rolling vineyards, charming chateaus and quaint villages where the world’s most luxurious tipple 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 it takes to clean a bottle of Ruinart. Departing from Gare de l’Est, an easy five minute walk from the Eurostar terminal, our local train connected us to Champagne in 40 minutes. The gloomy suburbs of Paris gave way to a pleasant patchwork of green valleys and chalky plains as the world changed around us.

Landing at Champagne-Ardenne, it was more grit than glamour. That soon changed, however, as we arrived at the Royal Champagne Hotel and Spa, one of the most luxurious properties in the region. Located near the village of Champillon, 25km south of Reims in the heart of the Champagne region, it appeared from afar to look like the secret lair of a Bond villain perched impressively on a hilltop overlooking the Marne valley.

A welcome drink – need you ask? — it was served only minutes after its arrival and to the most sublime soundtracks that would become very familiar in the days to come: sharp pop, deep glug and sweet fizz and delicate bubbles dancing in the chilled flute.

Like the drink itself the interior of the hotel is fresh and zingy and intricate in its details. Modern art, custom furniture and unusual chandeliers are positioned to enhance the setting rather than dominate it. Spread over two floors, each of the 47 rooms, as well as the exquisite Spa, look out towards the vineyard-studded valley. There are also some fun touches, particularly the ‘Press for Champagne’ bedside button.

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

(Royal Champage Hotel and Spa)

The hotel has humble beginnings until 1872 when it was a coach inn on the road to Paris. The kings would stop on the way to their coronation, no doubt enjoying the same levels of hospitality as today. Fast forward several hundred years and Denise Dupre and her Boston businessman Mark Nunnelly bought the estate, and I’m told they made his money as an early investor in… Domino’s.

Putting that pizza dough to good use, the couple are said to have spent around £20 million sprucing up the place as they set out to give Champagne their first truly luxury hotel. But a visit here is not just about drinking. It’s about history and adventure, and the opportunity to look behind the curtain of one of the world’s most famous industries.

Most of the big champagne houses — Laurent Perrier, Veuve Clicquot, Moët… — welcome visitors who offer tastings, factory tours and visits to the vineyards but I was more interested in finding a brand that offers something more ’boutiquey’ ‘ than the big boys. Family-run Leclerc Briant has been perfecting its fizz since 1872 and today takes an organic approach to winemaking using biodynamic practices. It is one of the smallest outfits, growing Pinot noir, Pinot meunier and Chardonnay grapes over its 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 only pick the best grapes and hand-press them slowly.” They may be small in size but their ambitions are anything but. A pesticide-free zone, the vines are instead treated with herbal infusions of nettle, yarrow and chamomile and 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 released into the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Brittany. They eventually return, looking beautifully weathered, and boasting a very delicate salty taste.

The rest of our boozy break was spent being carefree in sleepy villages and towns like Epernay, where there is a statue of Dom Perignon clutching a bottle in the middle of the stage.

“I’m tasting the stars,” he reportedly said while experimenting with fermentation methods. Back in those days, the region was better known for its poor quality red wines that most tried their best to avoid. Sadly it was another century after his death before the world developed a taste for bubbles.

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

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

(Royal Champage Hotel and Spa)

Executive chef Paolo Boscaro calls on his Italian heritage and exceptional local produce to create skillful and sophisticated dishes including one dedicated to his father, which marries saffron-infused pecorino with gnocchi and silky sage cream. Naturally, the dinner was washed down with the crispest champagne as recommended by the sommelier. Each sip was a moment.

That night, we also tasted the stars.


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

Champagne Tourism: champagne.fr

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