With Champagne’s recent designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s time for a proper visit.
Though most eyes have been on Greece this week, UNESCO announced the addition of two French regions to its list of World Heritage Sites: Champagne and Burgundy. Yes, these are also the names of wines, which is part of the point. Making these areas World Heritage Sites means the UN’s culture body wants to enshrine and protect not just their architecture and environment, but their way of life, too.
UNESCO World Heritage designation is prestigious, and can certainly help boost tourism. If you’re not a wine taster, however, Burgundy can be a tough sell. It’s beautiful, but the holdings are tiny, the winemakers are many, and Dijon, the main city of the region, has never been, to my mind, a must-visit.
Conversely, the “hillsides, houses and cellars” of the Champagne region, as UNESCO describes them, are a tourism no-brainer, and I’m always surprised more people aren’t putting the area on their list when they’re in Paris.
Reims, the main city of the Champagne region, is just a little over an hour away on the TGV (note: it can take that long to get from one end of Paris to the other). While it rains a lot there and can be a bit chilly, Reims, Epernay, and the smaller villages to the hilly south and east feel galaxies away from the Haussmannian ivories of Paris—a proper escape, and one that can be done in a day.
In Reims, practically every bistro in town has a wide choice of champagne by the glass to get you into the spirit. Unfortunately, the beloved classic Le Boulingrin (entrees $15 to $30) has recently downgraded its décor, but its old-school food is still satisfyingly high quality. The stunning Les Crayeres hotel, with its talented in-house chef Philippe Mille, is the definition of over-the-top chateau-style luxury, which France does like nobody else.
In neighboring Epernay, the gingerbread look of the Avenue Champagne, where LVMH’s stable (which includes Moët-Hennessy, Mercier, Veuve Clicquot and Dom Pérignon) and other legacy houses like Pol Roger have their headquarters, may appear cute and quaint, but the operations behind the façades are multinational money machines. (Pop in to any of the above for a tour to observe the slickness.)
The region is just over an hour away from Paris by car, and with your own transport you can pop into the countless small villages that supply grapes to houses big and small. This is the best way to know grower champagnes, or the family-run vineyards that make a little of their own on the side. These can be eccentric, distinctive and wonderful, with many producers happy to receive unscheduled drop-ins.
Champagne.fr, the website of the trade association that represents everyone with the right to call themselves a champagne producer, is a great place to start planning.
Alexandra Marshall is a contributing editor and the Paris correspondent at Travel & Leisure. Food, design, architecture and fashion are her specialties, which means, living in Paris, that she is very busy. You can follow her on Twitter at @alexmabroad and on Instagram @alexandra3465.
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