Monday, November 6, 2017

C is for: Champagne! {Part II: Reims}

Being the Champagne lover that I am, this one has been on the bucket list for awhile. I always enjoyed my frequent visits to Sonoma & Napa while living in the Bay Area, but THIS... this is the birthplace of my favorite wine of all time.

It is my mothership.

As you may or may not already know, any winery can produce sparkling wine, but you can only call it "Champagne" (with a capital C) if it hails from the Champagne region of France.

For that reason, this was the star portion of the trip, which we planned everything else around. So after our relaxing day and night in Versailles, we set off for our 3 day trip to Reims.

Reims and its surrounding countryside represents just one of several areas you can visit while exploring the Champagne region. We chose it based on its proximity to some of the more famous Champagne houses and also because it is home to some really great dining options (more on that later in the post.) Another popular area to consider is Epernay, which is said to be a little more rural, versus Reims, which is much more a city. I wish we had time to do both but since we only had time for one, we chose Reims.

Getting there:
As I mentioned, we rented a car so we could have the freedom to do some exploring on our own (when we weren't busy touring Champagne houses of course.) Reims is about a 2-hour drive from Versailles, slightly shorter from Paris. However, you can also take the train from Paris if you prefer not to drive, and that trip is less than an hour!

Where to stay: Air Bnb Cottage
We turned to Air Bnb for our Reims accommodations, wanting to have an actual home and the option of cooking a few meals during our stay. Bruno's cottage could not have been more charming and perfect if he tried. It's conveniently located near the center of town, an easy drive or walk to some of the major Champagne houses, restaurants, markets and the Cathedral. It was perfect for 2 people, though it can accommodate up to 3 with the sofa bed. If needed, you can also use the parking spot for a small fee (5€). Best part... the cottage was only $102 per night!

Bruno was also very helpful with directions and recommendations. He sent us to a local supermarket, where we purchased breakfast items, and of course... more meats and cheeses! This dinner of charcuterie, French cheese, baguette and Maile mustard quickly became one of our favorite go-to meals of our trip. (Not to mention, one of the cheapest.)

What to do: DRINK champagne! (duh)
Normally, this is the part of the post where I would talk about food & restaurants, but considering the Champagne is the main reason you visit Reims, let's start there instead. When planning, make sure to do a little research on when your desired houses are open (some are closed on Sundays and Mondays) and reserve your spots ahead of time. Many of the bigger houses will offer both private and group tours, and most will include at least one glass of champagne. Depending on the tour you choose, it may include more, or you can choose to purchase additional glasses.

Houses to visit: Veuve Clicquot
Veuve was very gracious to treat us to a private tour, and it was the perfect way to set the tone for our visit to Champagne. We learned all about the Champagne making process, and how Madame Clicquot became a badass boss lady who started making high end Champagne back in 1772 that is still enjoyed all over the world today. Our tour concluded with a glass of the classic yellow label, as well as a special glass of the 2006 La Grande Dame. (Most champagne is non-vintage, but Veuve makes them during special years where the harvest was particularly good.)

Actually pronounced "Tatting-JAY," Tattinger, along with Veuve, is one of 6 champagne houses in Reims that owns the chalk caves that were built beneath the city around 80 B.C. by the Romans for mining purposes. Fast forward to the 1600s, when winemakers discovered a new use for those expertly carved caves: Champagne storage! The constant cool temperature, perfect humidity and protection from sunlight provided the perfect spot for storing bottles on bottles on bottles.

Not thinking our afternoon at Veuve could be topped, Tattinger one-upped them by also providing us with a private tour of the caves, followed by a special FOUR-champagne tasting, including a glass of the prestigious Comtes Blanc de Blancs, also from 2006 (must have been a great year!) But our surprises didn't end there. They also gifted us each bottle of rosé, silk scarves, and a personalized note from Clovis Tattinger, fourth generation Tattinger and Director of Exports for the Champagne house.

Armand de Brinac:
As amazing as our visits to Veuve and Tattinger were, our day at Armand de Brignac was truly elevated. I sort of feel a little guilty sharing it with you, as this particular house is generally not available for public tours* (I'm friends with Jay Z, no big deal.) Kidding of course, but a huge thanks to Brian and Pierre for setting up such an unforgettable experience. Walking through their caves just feels different. More modern, more fancy... like we're walking amongst bricks of gold. Our guide, Pierre, told us that having Jay Z as an owner is a winemaker's dream because he gives the winemakers the freedom to consistently create the best champagnes possible, providing the resources to do so. (Though I should note, it's more "American style" champagne compared to Veuve & Tattinger.)

*Although Armand de Brignac is closed to the public for tours, there is a way for you to get the same treatment we did, by booking it part of a gourmet experience... more details in the food section of this post below.

After our tour of the caves, we visited some of Armand's Grand Cru vines (the best quality grapes cultivated on the very best terroirs) for a quick photo op before heading off to lunch.

Where to eat: Le Millenaire
And that brings us to the food portion of this blog post. Because this wasn't just any lunch, it was a Michelin Star lunch, with a perfectly paired flight of Armand de Brignac champagnes to compliment each course of our tasting menu. Le Millenaire is definitely a more traditional French restaurant, with white tablecloths and things like seared foie gras and sweetbreads and a cheese cart the size of my dining room table. If you are looking for something elegant and very French, then this is your spot.

Le Parc Les CrayèresWe did not eat here, but I mention it because that is where Pierre planned to take us originally. It's a modern French restaurant with two Michelin stars. Sadly, because we visited in August, the restaurant was closed for holiday. This was a common theme for us when trying to book restaurants during this trip (more on that in my Paris post.) For that reason, I recommend avoiding the month of August when planning trips to France (or most of Europe for that matter.)

L’assiette ChampenoiseOnce again, we did not eat here on account of it being closed, but Pierre informed us that it is hands down the best restaurant in the city and his favorite for special occasions. (And THREE Michelin Stars to show for it!) Better yet, as of November of 2017, they now offer a very special five-course tasting menu that is paired with all five Armand de Brignac champagnes. This includes the incredibly rare Blanc de Noirs, of which only 2,333 bottles exist. (The only one we did NOT get to try on our own pairing.) The special tasting menu can be booked as a stand-alone experience for 500€ OR as part of a luxury accommodation package. 

That experience includes one night in a Terrace Suite (the restaurant is part of a historic chateau), which also includes breakfast, luxury car transfers and a private tour of Armand de Brignac's chalk cellars, similar to the amazing experience I described above. It's definitely a hefty price tag at 2500€ for two people, but it's sure to be an unforgettable experience... so if you are really looking to splurge or ball out during your trip to Reims, this package is definitely the one to do! You will need to contact the hotel/restaurant directly in order to book. 

While our champagne lunch pairing was our most memorable meal in Reims, lunch at Racine was the definitely the best food we experienced in wine country. Racine also boasts a Michelin star, but instead of traditional French cuisine, this is actually a modern mash-up of French and Japanese. The result was artfully and meticulously plated food with interesting flavor combos. Because we visited on a Monday during lunch*, we had the option of choosing the Sôgu Menu, which is very reasonable at 45€ per person. It includes several amuse bouche, a starter, choice of two mains, and several offerings of dessert. It was plenty of food and a great deal at lunchtime. Probably my favorite dish of the day was the bottom right photo. Perfectly cooked lamb served with raspberry and tansy.

*Note: Racine is closed Tuesdays & Wednesdays. Lunch is served Friday-Monday, and the Sôgu lunch menu is only available on Fridays & Mondays. Dinner is served Thursday-Monday. 

Other things to do & see: Reims Cathedral (and the Dream of Colours show)
Also known as the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Reims, this is a Roman Catholic church built in the High Gothic style in the year 1211. It was also where the kings of France were once crowned. We did not visit during the day, but were treated to a spectacular show on our final night in Reims. It's called the "Dream of Colours" and it's basically a big light and music show projected on the facade of the church. The show runs from mid June through the end of September, generally Tuesday through Sunday, with two 25-minute shows per night. The schedule changes slightly at different points throughout the summer, so it's best to double check before visiting or ask around once there, as I've had difficulty finding current information online. (Ours happened to be a Tuesday in mid-August, with shows at 10:30 and 11:10pm.) I highly recommend checking this out while visiting Reims!

Verzenay Lighthouse & Verzy's Forest of Twisted Trees: Other non-champagne activities during our stay included a quick day trip to neighboring villages Verzenay and Verzy on the recommendation of our Air Bnb host, Bruno. Verzenay is known for its picturesque lighthouse perched atop a mountain of vines which are 100% Grand Cru (highest classification for champagne grapes.) There is also a champagne museum and gift shop located inside the "phare" (or lighthouse.)

The village of Verzy and its vineyards are also 100% Grand Cru, but perhaps the bigger draw is its "Forest of Twisted Trees." The Faux de Verzy is made up of thousands of dwarf trees, generally beech, oak or chestnut. The trees do not grow more than 15 feet high, and spread their leaves like giant parachutes over the forest floor. As legend has it, the monks transported them to the area to create a botanical garden. It sort of felt like we had stepped into an enchanted forest, waiting for magical creatures to pop out of the branches.

In all, it was a pretty jam-packed 2.5 days in wine country. I honestly could've stayed here forever eating yummy food and drinking all the Champagne, but alas, Paris was calling our names. If you missed Part I of our trip in Versailles, you can read about it here. Or continue onto read Part III in Paris, where we finished our week-long holiday with more food, more champagne, a cooking class and a bike tour that ended at the Eiffel Tower!

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