By: Gary Westby | K&L Champagne Buyer
Champagne Itinerary #1, Epernay and the Cote des Blancs
Travelling to Champagne is a lot of fun. Last week I started off a mini-series of posts on destinations in the area at the top with Chateau Les Crayeres. This week I have set up an itinerary that could be covered in one or two days, depending on how ambitious (one) or leisurely (two) you want to be: Epernay and the Cote des Blancs. The Hotel Ibis in the center of Epernay will be our home base; this is where I always stay when on business in Champagne. All of the recommended wineries will require an appointment well in advance, and only Moet is open on the weekends. Note: trips to Champagne are best done mid-week - quite the opposite of Napa!
Hôtel Ibis, Epernay
This is a great hotel for folks who have come to Champagne as travelers to taste and learn about the wines instead of hanging out in your hotel room. The rooms are clean, simple and comfortable, the friendly, professional, accommodating staff is there around the clock and many of them I count as personal friends. The wifi always works, so it is easy to get back in touch with home, and the location could not be more central for visiting the vineyards. Epernay is a small city, and everything is in walking distance. Given how good the food and wine is, walking to and from dinner is a must!
19 rue Chocatelle :: 51200 Epernay:: 03 26 51 14 51 website
La Cloche à Fromage, Epernay
Start your day out by picking up some cheese from La Cloche à Fromage for your lunch. Lunch takes a lot of time in France, so if you want to visit a lot of producers it is impossible to fit a 'real' French lunch in the schedule. And frankly, two sit-down meals a day in France are simply too much for my delicate Californian constitution! La Cloche is the best cheese shop in the whole Champagne region and the envy of many Parisians. Conveniently, it is located on the same square as the Hotel Ibis! Ask the cheese monger for a piece to eat today, they will be happy to cut it to the right size for the number of people you have.
19 rue St Thibault :: 51200 Epernay :: 03 26 55 30 18
Au Pain Délice
On the same street, three doors down from La Cloche, is the best baker in Epernay, Au Pain Delice. Here you can grab a sandwich for later (remember, in France the bakers sell the sandwiches, but they are CLOSED at lunch!!!!) and some bread to go with your cheese. You are now set for lunch in the vineyard later on in the day! You will find a little spot with a bench just at the entrance of about every one of the villages that you visit. While the producers are often horrified at my jambon (French ham sandwich) lunches, your palate will thank you. This regular French food is not to be missed- it is every bit as good as the high end, especially when you visit the best baker in town.
3 rue St Thibault :: 51200 Epernay :: 03 26 55 25 75
Champagne Bruno Michel, Pierry
Just south of Epernay, the suburb of Pierry is where the town gives way to vines. It is home to one of the most careful producers that K&L has every carried: Champagne Bruno Michel. Bruno is obsessed with every detail of his wines, making every vine selection and grafting every rootstock himself. He is completely organic and Ecocert and Demeter certified in the vineyard, and works with small barrels for his vintage dated wines. His microclimate in Pierry and Moussy (the neighboring village, where he also has vines) is known as sud-Epernay, and is one of the coolest in all of Champagne. As such, Pinot Noir does not ripen well here, and he has almost all Chardonnay and Meunier vines. A visit and tasting here will teach you more about Champagne than visiting every single big house!
It will take less than 10 minutes to get to Bruno Michel, but allow a half hour- the parking garage in Epernay takes some getting used to and the city is definitely not on a grid!
4 de la Vieille Ferme, 51530 Pierry :: 03 26 55 10 54 :: firstname.lastname@example.org
Champagne Franck Bonville, Avize
No Champagne that we carry sells as fast as the all-estate, all grand cru Franck Bonville. If you are reading this right now, you have probably already tried their electric yet still rich all chardonnay Champagne. This is a great visit, and you can see here the difference between the stainless steel elevage of that majority of their wines and the oak aged elevage of their single vineyard Belles Voyes, which is handled in a different cellar across the street. Olivier, Isabelle and the whole crew here could not be nicer, and they all speak excellent English.
Champagne Launois Pere et Fils, Mesnil
No trip to Champagne would be complete without a stop in Mesnil, the most famous and sought after terroir for the most sought after varietal in Champagne: Chardonnay. In this village you have Salon, Krug’s Clos du Mesnil, and Launois' incomparable wine museum (see picture at top). Bernard Launois does things differently, harvesting 10 days after everyone else in the village and choosing old enamel lined tanks (think Le Creuset) instead of wood or stainless for his elevage. He is also a collector of everything Champagne, and a trip down to his cellar museum is a must for any trip to the region. Here you will find fantastic exhibits on everything from growing and making cork to the glass making process for the bottles, complete with historical shapes. He has pumps from every century, and an incredible collection of old presses and stills. Don’t miss this!
Champagne Moet & Chandon, Epernay
After visiting a few small houses, one should also so see the biggest: Moet & Chandon. Located right on the Avenue of Champagne, this is the Disneyland of the region, and spectacular in its scale. They will show you the cellars, where you will see more Dom Perignon bottles than you can shake a stick at!
La Grillade, Epernay
La Grillade is one of my favorite places to eat in France, and definitely the best value in the entire Champagne region. Chef Christophe Bernard is a dropout of the Michelin system, and is now feeding people delicious food in his simple restaurant in Epernay. Hopefully, you took my advice for lunch and went for a light picnic among the vines, because you won’t make it to the second course here if you didn’t bring an appetite. Since you are walking from the Ibis, feel free to order plenty of wine off of his very reasonable wine list. Why not start with Bonville and drink something from your visit earlier in the day? My favorite option here is the Traditional Champagne Menu, which includes a big slab of foie gras and the Champagne Pigeon en Croutte, a dish that I can’t leave Champagne without eating. He has a nice selection of well priced Burgundy that goes very well with this rich dish. You will waddle back to the hotel, but you’ll never forget the meal!
16 rue Reims, 51200 Epernay :: 03 26 55 44 22 :: website
A toast to you!