The Vallée de la Marne and the Côte des Blancs
By Tom Stevenson and Michael Edwards
This Guide was last updated on 14 August 2014
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Whereas in Reims, the Avenue de Champagne is a dual carriageway sporting a couple of modern Champagne houses that you would be mad to visit without a car to deliver you in one piece, in Epernay, the Avenue de Champagne provides a grand entry to the town. It has wide pavements either side and offers visitors a large number of prestigious Champagne houses in one easily accessed location. As indicated in the Reims micro-region, the output of the Champagne industry is almost equally split between Reims and Epernay, but whereas this represents just 10% of the economy of Reims, it accounts for more than 90% of Epernay’s commercial output. However, Epernay can claim to possess the world’s largest Champagne producer (Moët & Chandon) and the most popular Champagne brand on the domestic French market (Mercier). Moët & Chandon produces 30 million bottles of bubbly annually for export to five continents: it's said that a bottle of Moët is popped somewhere in the world every two seconds. Epernay is jolly and bustling by day but very quiet at night. There is though an elegant little theatre, a multi-screen cinema and a leafy town park behind the Hôtel de Ville. For the gastronome, the Restaurant Patrick Michelon at Hotel Les Berceaux is one of the three best tables in Champagne (see 'Places to Eat'); the hotel also has an excellent bistro Les Sept, and if you're on a tight budget, Le Sardaigne is a great pizzeria, where all the locals go.
A pretty village with picturesque signs over many of the houses. The reputation of Hautvillers has understandably grown on the back of the legend of Dom Pérignon, although few of his vineyards were actually in the village (most were located in Aÿ, Bouzy, Cramant, Le Mesnil-sur Oger and Verzenay). Entry to the Abbaye de Hautvillers is available only to private guests of Moët & Chandon, but you can visit the abbey church and see the tomb of Dom Pérignon. In the local champenois dialect 'Hautvillers' is synonymous with 'cuckold' because the monks would leave their clogs outside a worker’s doors to signify they were servicing his wife and he should not enter!
A village steeped in history, Aÿ or more correctly Aÿ-Champagne was the vineyard in Champagne to achieve fame, as early as the 11th century, and its wines were also the first in Champagne to be exported. It was in Aÿ that the great Champagne riot came to a head in 1911, when a 120-strong squadron of cavalry was overwhelmed by a mob of 10,000 protesters, who set fire to Ayala and Deutz. Today Aÿ is more like a small town than a village, and there are lots of Champagne producers to visit, including the two just mentioned, Bollinger, numerous smaller houses and growers, and the local cooperative.
While the rest of the Brit traffic heads straight for Reims, with their foot down for another 90 mindless kilometres of motorway, the clever traveller comes off at Saint Quentin (Exit 11, Saint Quentin Sud) and takes the more leisurely D1 to Château-Thierry, stopping over at Hôtel Ile de France, (03 23 69 10 12 or www.hotel-iledefrance.fr) or close by at the Hostellerie du Château (03 23 82 21 13 or www.chateaudefere.com), or the Auberge le Relais (see 'Places to Eat'). The next day you can set off at a tranquil pace, winding your way through the vineyards of the Vallée de la Marne to Epernay or the Petit Montagne to Reims.
My choice of village on the Côte des Blancs, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger is known by Champagne specialists for producing the greatest, longest-lived and most expressive Chardonnay in the region. This was first recognised at the beginning of the 20th century by Eugène-Aimé Salon, the founder of Salon, the world’s first Blanc de Blancs Champagne. More recently, in the early 1970s, Krug purchased Clos du Mesnil, which is situated inside the village itself, and whose high wall-enclosed vineyard produces one of the most expensive Champagnes made. But to taste something much less expensive all you have to do is visit one of the numerous growers located in this village. Their quality varies, but it is very hard to make bad Champagne in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, so the odds of finding something special for your money are good.
While Reims and Epernay are the twin capitals of Champagne, Châlons-en-Champagne (formerly Châlons-sur-Marne) is the administrative capital, with just one Champagne house of note, Joseph Perrier, but it does boast a major part of the original Jacquesson cellars, the ‘richness and beauty’ of which so impressed Napoléon that he awarded the firm a medal in 1810. Châlons-en-Champagne is the ideal base from which to visit the vineyards around Vitry-le-François.
Sézanne is a charming, timeless little town of 6,000 habitants, at the south east corner of the Marne Departement. The Sézannais vineyards - all Chardonnay - are close by and are the source of Blanc de Blancs Champagnes that are fruity and more supple than those of the neighbouring Côte des Blancs. Visit the old Eglise St-Denis (NOT Notre Dame) on the market square and if you want to eat and stay try the Croix d'Or in Rue Notre Dame for quality and value (tel: 03 26 80 61 10 www.lacroixdor-sezanne.fr).
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