The legendary hillsides of Champagne provide richly effervescent experiences for high-end travellers.
It’s a pleasing linguistic quirk that one of the Champagne region’s most celebrated vineyards sits in a village called Bouzy. The futuristic, sweeping facade of the Relais & Chateaux Royal Champagne Hotel and Spa sits atop a hill overlooking another, the village of Dizy, in a valley that borders on the legendary for wine aficionados.
That’s thanks to vine-covered panoramic vistas, including Champagne’s production heart of Épernay andanother local village called Hautvillers that was home to two monks, Doms Pérignon and Ruinart, who more than made their mark in the world of winemaking. It’s no surprise then that these Champagne hillsides are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and provide richly effervescent experiences for high-end travellers.
The ‘Royal’ in the hotel’s name is no marketing conceit as the property sits on the site of a former coaching inn which dates to at least the 17th century. French kings would stay there en route to being crowned in the stunning Gothic cathedral in Reims, today just a 30-minute drive away.
Another of the hotel’s guests, albeit someone who only coveted the majesty of royalty, was Napoleon Bonaparte. He dined in the hotel’s restaurant in 1814 and partook in his favourite red, Gevrey Chambertin, as well as Moët Champagne, before Chandon was added to the name. As if he needed an excuse, Napoleon famously once said: “One deserves Champagne in victory — and needs it in defeat.”
Although the dining room that he once graced has been replaced by a sleek, modern gastronomic space called Le Royal, his presence is everywhere, notably in the four portraits watching over diners. Their subjects? Four of his wives and mistresses, quite possibly less-than-delighted to be united in such posthumous proximity.
On the menu, Chef Jean-Denis Rieubland crafts vegetables grown on property and the finest French meats and seafood into stellar creations such as veal sweetbreads with chorizo, a fricassee of girolles, caramelised pearl onions and a Xérès jus. Be sure not to miss exceptional sweet finales from pastry chef Cédric Servela such as his ethereal take on a baba with lemon and rosé champagne.
Unsurprisingly, your wine choices are equally exceptional and once a month the hotel's chef sommelier oversees a special menu where each dish pairs with a cuvée from one of the local champagne houses.
Two centuries on and the hotel offers countless ways to join Napoleon. There are 15,000 square feet of terraces to take in those stunning views, as well as rose gardens and orchards, all best appreciated with a glass in hand. The outdoor infinity pool (there’s also an indoor pool in the super-sleek spa) allows for a tipple just feet away from the vines, while the most special spot for this traveller was the private balcony and terrace, a feature in each of the 49 guest suites.
Dragging oneself away isn’t easy, but a sleek chauffeured Jaguar awaits on the driveway for a day of Champagne discovery with few equals. After winding gently down through the vineyards, we pass a Ferrari showroom en route to Avenue de Champagne in Épernay, the world's most exclusive street of winemakers. It demonstrates how the results of la méthode champenoise have been very kind to some.
The avenue features mansions that are home to legendary names such as Pol Roger and Perrier Jouët, as well as the less familiar De Venoge and Boizel, but we are headed to the home of Moët & Chandon, the oldest of Épernay’s Champagne houses, in business since 1705.
Past the statue of Dom Pérignon, the elegant lobby features a Baccarat chandelier made from Champagne glasses, while staff water plants before we head to the vast cellars. Descending underneath a beautiful stained-glass window depicting the harvest, the temperature change is tangible as we enter a constant world of 80 percent humidity and 10-12°C, the perfect conditions for storing some of the world’s most famous and precious bottles.
Amid the 28km of Moët & Chandon’s underground tunnels carved out of the soft chalk soil, we learn that Champagne has changed immensely since the late 18th century. Back then, workers were given three bottles of red wine per person, per day because it was safer to drink than water. Talking of safety, working in Champagne cellars was also a dangerous profession thanks to randomly, and regularly, exploding bottles. Thankfully, today only one in around 10,000 pop before you’d expect.
Moët & Chandon’s most exclusive house is indisputably Dom Pérignon and we pass priceless vaults full of ancient dusty bottles. Only ever a vintage, it blends Pinot Noir and Chardonnay using grapes that come exclusively from eight historic Grand Cru villages across the Champagne region.
To better understand the story behind it and its famed Benedictine founder, we next head to the immensely picturesque village of Hautvillers where ancient, vine-clad, honey-coloured houses hug the narrow streets that are bedecked in spring blossom.
The main draw is the Abbey of Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers, today owned by Moët & Chandon following an extensive and sensitive restoration in 2012, although the original place of worship dates to 650AD when it was built by the Archbishop of Reims. For 1,000 years it attracted pilgrims looking to pray and be close to its holy relics, notably those of Saint Helena. Today, another regular pilgrimage is undertaken to see the resting place of Dom Pierre Pérignon and Dom Theodore Ruinart.
Through the door that dates from the 12th century, visitors are inevitably drawn to two tombs that lie in the floor with their Latin inscriptions. Dom Pérignon’s most famous line was seemingly “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars”, but some have suggested its history was far more recent, coming instead from a 19th century advertisement. What is indisputable, however, is how he created and finessed countless Champagne production techniques and became an immensely talented cellar master.
Fast forward 304 years since his death and these are momentous times for the brand that carries his name, notably with the recent appointment of Vincent Chaperon as chef de cave, taking over from Richard Geoffroy who held the position for almost three decades. To ease the change in eras, Geoffroy passed on a 10-point Dom Pérignon manifesto that affirms the vintage wine’s balance and blend from those eight Grand Cru villages, one of which is that wonderfully named village of Bouzy.
A wine experience with few rivals follows as we step outside the abbey to a sun-dappled terrace that overlooks rows of vines, the village of Hautvillers and the valley below. Sitting before us in a wide black ice bucket are the 2006 Dom Pérignon Vintage Rosé; the supremely elegant Plénitude P2 2000; and the 2008 vintage, for many, the most famous Dom Pérignon vintage of all, released earlier this year.
For the first time since 1990, it blends Pinot Noir and Chardonnay equally, to brilliant effect. Robert Parker Jr's Wine Advocate calls it: “Deep and complete, with a youthfully exuberant but elegant mousse and a long, beautifully delineated finish. Considering the sheer size of this cuvée, it’s a remarkable achievement and a fitting release with which to conclude Richard Geoffroy’s tenure as chef de cave.”
It’s also a most fitting way to toast an escape to the Champagne region, one which positively fizzes with history, landscapes and seemingly limitless ways to enjoy the world’s most famous wine.