Perhaps the most appropriately named village in the world is Bouzy, near Epernay. It’s really just one long street with a collection of houses on either side, but every other of those houses seems to be a Champagne factory. There’s even a life size statue of the famous Dom Perignon halfway down. A tour of the Champagne region feels a bit like heading to a sort of alcoholic Disneyland. The centrepiece is the ‘Avenue de Champagne’ in Epernay, an immaculately cobbled street flanked by quintessentially French maisons, most of which are owned by the best-known Champagne houses in the world. All the big names are there: from Pol Roger (Winston Churchill’s favourite Champagne, which he consumed daily) to Moët et Chandon, which produces a staggering 28 million bottles a year, to Perrier-Jouet. All of these impeccably groomed houses have their own shops and tasting facilities, and most will oblige you with a tour of the cellars.
Leclerc Briant goes one stage further as it’s one of the few that has its own hotel too: called 25bis (as it’s located on 25bis, Rue de Champagne). The building is a stunning mansion with just five rooms, all of which are beautifully decorated with period pieces of furniture and some of the most comfortable beds you will ever sleep in. It feels much more like staying in someone’s private villa than in a hotel, a very special experience.
Next to a sumptuous breakfast room (where you can have freshly cooked crêpes every morning, and of course a glass of Champagne) there’s a cosy lounge with personal touches such as a record player, so that you can listen to some vintage vinyl while sipping vintage Blanc de Blancs.
The service is as beautiful as the petit dejeuner, making Leclerc Briant’s 25bis the perfect destination for a boozy break. And, of course, you’re only 10 minutes away from the village of Bouzy as an added bonus.
Leclerc Briant will arrange a tour of their nearby cellars, and while it may not have the cachet of some other brands, what Leclerc Briant is doing – having been recently taken over by an American couple – is genuinely innovative, with experiments that focus on ageing Champagne in gold-lined barrels as well as terracotta amphoras. The maison also has a cuvee that they call “Abyss”, for the good reason that it’s aged at the bottom of the ocean, at a precise depth where the water pressure pushing down on the bottle is equivalent to the pressure inside the bottle.
Leclerc Briant’s theory is that this allows the wine to age without any stress, resulting in a more balanced wine. They also say that it tastes slightly different, with a more salty and mineral taste, having absorbed some of the flavours of the surrounding elements almost by a process of aquatic osmosis.
Some of the most intriguing and authentic Champagne houses though are those slightly off the beaten trail, in the shabby chic rural villages that time seemingly forgot; in stark contrast to the studied excellence of their glossier big name equivalents.
These smaller houses also represent some of the best value along with the most genuine flavours, thanks to their continued use of traditional methods. One of the best is Franck Bonneville, located in the village of Avize.
The production volume is small, and in the run-down office, next to a charming courtyard, there’s an old Champagne press. The owners have been there for as long as they remember, making Champagne in their own way. They have a relatively small coterie of select clients, and they are not looking for more. These are the hidden gems to seek out, alongside the bigger production centres of Reims, Epernay and Ay, which also contains the thoroughly recommended Pressoria museum as well as celebrated houses such as Deutz, Ayala and Bollinger. If you’re staying in Ay, the Hotel Castel Jeanson is the place to stay.
A trip to the Champagne region isn’t to be missed, especially if you take in all the sights (and tastes), As well as staying in 25bis and visiting a variety of maisons, there are plenty of culinary delights to be had in Epernay too. We visited La Banque – a restaurant in a converted bank that’s curiously reminiscent of 1990s London when this sort of thing was first in vogue, with a truly encyclopaedic list of Champagnes on their drink’s menu – and the truly excellent Symbiose: a gourmet experience at brasserie prices. So bon appetit. And bon degustation!
Anthony Peacock works as a journalist and is the owner of an international communications agency, all of which has helped take him to more than 80 countries across the world.
Photographs by Anthony Peacock