• Photo gallery: Champagne to the Cote d'Azur
By Joel Berliner
Special to The Advertiser
In Reims (pronounced Ranz) we open the heavy iron gates and descend more than a hundred feet into the chalk cellars of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, carved out by the Romans 2,000 years ago. These subterranean chambers hold hundreds of thousands of bottles of precious champagne and continue underground for more than 11 miles.
Openings in the ceilings, like reverse chimneys, reveal the remarkable excavation techniques of the ancients, who mined blocks of chalk that open into an underground world now filled with a labyrinth of crates and an underground highway plied by a legion of forklifts.
Reims is riddled with these chalk-walled chambers, which have served as caves for many of the great champagne houses of France, and as bomb shelters during two world wars.
Veuve Clicquot, now a part of LVMH, and owner of Moet (Dom Perignon), Ruinart and Krug, is one of the great champagne houses with a storied past. Founded in 1772 by Phillippe Clicquot-Muiron, it was taken over by Madame Clicquot upon the death of her husband, Francois (Phillippe's son) in 1805.
At the tender age of 27, Madame Clicquot rechristened the house as Vueve Clicquot-Ponsardin (literally the widow Clicquot, whose maiden name was Ponsardin).
We are on a journey to explore the Champagne region of France. From Reims, our plan is to head to the medieval town of Troyes, then to the hidden champagne outposts deep in the French countryside, and finally to Jean Renoir's village of Essoye.
Reims is the functioning capital of the Champagne region, larger than nearby Epernay (headquarters of Moet et Chandon), and the city where every king of France since Charlemagne was crowned. As the Roman Empire's capital of Gaul, Reims had a population of 50,000 in 100 A.D.
We book in at Hotel De La Paix just off the main town square.
Reims Cathedral, where Charles VII was crowned in the presence of Joan of Arc, is a massive gothic structure rebuilt several times through the centuries, decimated by World War I, and restored to its current beauty with contributions by the Car-negie, Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. Stunning stain-ed glass windows designed by Marc Chagall illuminate the eastern nave.
We have dinner our first evening at Le Caf[0xe9] du Palais, an eclectic family-operated restaurant across from the Palace of Justice. The food is provencial, bounteous portions of hearty regional entrees.
The next morning, our walking tour of the city includes the cathedral, the ruins of a Roman gallery at the center of the old town, and the last remaining gateway arch at the north end of this ancient capital of Gaul.
INTO THE PAST
Troyes (pronounced Twah), 60 miles south of Reims, is the heart of the grape region of Champagne. This lovely medieval town filled with half-timbered houses feels like a step back in time. Our hotel, the Maison du Rhodes — once a retreat for the medieval Knights Templar — features thick exposed wooden beams and a magical air that captures the essence of this lovely town. Walking through its streets the next day, we marvel at its well-preserved architecture, some 500 to 600 years old.
A visit to the Church of the Madeleine with its memorable ornate altar completes our tour.
Then it's off through the countryside for another 60 miles to where a grand castle emerges on a hill surrounded by brilliant emerald vineyards sloping down onto the manicured grounds of Chateau Bligny.
Only two champagne houses are allowed to use the term "Chateau," and Chateau Bligny is one.
This beautifully restored 15th-century castle, on hundreds of rolling acres, makes a range of champagnes from pinot noir and chardonnay grapes grown on the property. We are here for a moveable feast, a multicourse meal with each course served in a different part of the castle and accompanied by a different champagne. After the meal, we walk the grounds, surrounded by epic splendor.
TOAST OF DE GAULLE
In the lovely little village of Urville, 15 miles from Chateau Bligny, the cellars of Champagne Drappier contain the favorite champagne of French presidents Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Chirac. In fact, de Gaulle kept a country residence nearby.
Champagne Drappier is a distinguished house making a wide variety of exceptional champagnes. We tour their cellars and watch the crucial disgorgement that removes yeast and sediment from the bottle after years of aging, adds dosage (a measure of sugar for final fermentation), and then corks and wires the bottle for storage and shipping. It's an amazing, complicated and fascinating process.
The proof is in the bottle, so we retire to the tasting room to indulge in each of their different vintage releases. We drive off through the countryside to the little village of Les Ricey buzzing with more than excitement.
Trundling into the extremely quaint Hotel le Marius in the extremely tiny village of Les Ricey, we have arrived in a distant corner of the Champagne region.
The beautifully restored half-timbered building hosts a hearty restaurant in the brick-lined vaulted cellar; we spend the night and rise early to walk in the quiet village, a charming outpost famous for its tiny champagne houses.
Finally, we set off for Essoye, where Renoir settled for many years after he left Paris. We sit in the studio where he painted. We walk though the tiny village and cross a small footbridge to the meadow where Renoir created many canvasses.
We visit his grave in the town cemetery and return to his studio, where we listen to the wind blowing through the orchard in his garden.
Days later, as our Air France flight departed from the beautiful new terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, we looked back on a spectacular week.
From the stunning serenity of Chateau Bligny to the gentle rolling brookand gardens where Renoir painted, to the tasting rooms of Reims, we had glimpsed some of the glory that is France and the history represented in a bottle of fine champagne.
After our tour of Champagne , we cross into the Burgundy region, stopping first at the magnificent 12th century Abbey de Fontenay.
Tucked away at the end of a valley and an imposing site in its architectural perfection, we learn it is also a private home whose owners restored it to its former glory and live in a lovely 18th century redoubt at the center of the property.
To wander into the great cathedral is to step back in time 800 years. The dormitory, a large arched expanse like a horse arena, was in its day filled with monks who slept on beds of straw and little else, in summer or winter. The archways along the common quadrangle is a masterpiece of stonework.
MEETING THE CHEF
We arrive in Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, famous for its mustard (moutard), but also a bustling metropolis and a vibrant college town.
We are staying at the lovely Sofitel La Cloche and have a day booked with acclaimed chef Alex Miles as he takes us on a culinary exploration of Dijon.
First stop is the large covered farmers market. Stalls selling every conceivable form of vegetable, fish, yogurt, meat, poultry or fromage brim with the day's fresh wonders.
Chef Miles moves from stall to stall, constantly greeted by stall owners and local friends. We retire to a beautiful apartment behind the Ducal Palace where Chef Miles prepares a lunch of rabbit in mustard sauce with three side dishes and a multi-layer desert washed down with endless amounts of red and white wine. Alex Miles is a breath of multicultural fresh air.
HEART OF BURGUNDY
We take the scenic route the next day to Beaune, following the canal through the countryside in a misting rain and wind through the most exquisite and acclaimed vineyards known to exist: Nuit St George at the top of the Cote d'Azur (the gold coast) and continue down the spine of Burgundy wine lore, from Cote de Nuit through Cote de Beaune, alongside plots of land where dozens at winemakers may own only a single row of grapes of a particular Grand Cru plot.
Of all the wine in France, Burgundy is the most cherished, the most expensive, yet accounts for only 5 percent of all the output of France.
Of that 5 percent only a fraction is Grand Cru, the most exquisite; one single parcel may have a dozen shared owners or more, each making their own version of Corton Charlemagne or Puligny Montrachet.
The grapes of Burgundy are essentially grown on a ribbon of joy a mile wide and 55 miles long. Within this strip are only 33 Grand Cru parcels of land, 24 in Cote de Nuits, eight in Cote de Beaune, and one in Chablis.
Most are red wines, pinot noir, but seven Grand Cru parcels are the golden Chardonnay , deliverer of translucent glory. Grand Cru is only 1.5 percent of Burgundy's production, but is truly the lost treasure of the French Andes, the elixir of dreams.
Of course Premier Cru can be fabulous, and frequently is, but with 5,072 parcels designated Premier Cru, the truth in the math is that Grand Cru is dwarfed in numbers and volume and therefore wrapped in exclusivity and myth frequently, deservably, and desirably so.
Beaune is the center of the Burgundy wine trade, an ancient walled city with beautifully restored old buildings holding the fruit of the surrounding vineyards in their cellars which open for tourists to sample and buy the grape.
That night we book in at the lovely Hotel le Cep, a 500 year old building, with a lobby steeped in the memories of the centuries.
The next day we rent bicycles and set off for a 14-mile bike ride through the vineyards to the tiny village of Puligny Montrachet.
In a flash the appellations of wine after wine come rushing into my head, as we ride though the villages that have given them their names such as Pommard and Mersault. We continue on through a patchwork of stone-walled vineyards to the sparkling village of Puligny Montrachet (just up the road from its white wine cousin Chassagne Montrachet).
LUNCH IN THE COUNTRY
At Puligny Montrachat, we stop for lunch with the winemaking legend, genial innkeeper and Eric Clapton-inspired guitarist Olivier Leflaive.
This sparkling 73-year-old grandfather presides over the midday feast in his hotel restaurant's courtyard and regales us with winemaking stories and flashes of acoustic guitar.
The afternoon melds into an endless tasting of multiple vineyards, including his notable Corton Charlemagne. We peddle back through the golden vineyards in the brilliant waning afternoon sun with full stomachs full of joy.
That night we have our final dinner at L'Ermitage de Corton, on the outskirts of Beaune, where owner Nicolas Chambon has taken the reins with style and panache to create a boutique version of an Ian Shrager style hotel.
The venison at dinner in particular, was as fine a piece of meat as I had ever put in my mouth. Paired with a selection of Grand Cru wines from the owner's private cellar, we left the restaurant swirling with the excitement of the luxury of brilliant food paired with impeccable wines.
Joel Berliner is a freelance writer and lives in California.