Drinking and Eating Stars
Dom Perignon, the local 17th-century Benedictine monk credited with the discovery of la methode champenoise, is said to have exclaimed, “I am drinking stars!” after sampling the world’s first bubbly. Sparkling wine can come from anywhere, but Champagne comes only from Champagne, a region of vine-laden acres. The only large city in this hilly region is Reims, famous for the Cathedrale Notre Dame, where thirty-seven French kings were crowned and today most visited for its Chagall windows and richly sculpted, perfectly proportioned 13th-century facade.
Wine lovers soon head underground, to the chalky honeycomb of caves, or cellars, where patient remuers give millions of bottles of aging wine the requisite fraction of a turn each day (about 220 million bottles are produced annually). Of the 100-some Champagne houses, the most famous grands marques (Moet et Chandon, the largest producer; Taittinger; Seagrams-owned Mumm; Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin; and Perrier-Jouet) offer guided tours and tastings that are instructive and fun. Pommery may be the most polished and impressive, with 11 miles of subterranean wine cellars. The spectacular galleries, carved out by the ancient Gallo- Romans, were used as hospitals, schools, and bomb shelters during the world wars.
While in Champagne you must save your budget and appetite for a meal at the world-famous Boyer Les Crayeres (named after those centuries-old chalk pits where Champagne is aged). Leader of the restaurant renaissance in the region since his arrival in 1983, the unassuming Chef Gerard Boyer with his stylish wife, Elyane, oversees one of France’s most special restaurant-hotel operations. (Rumor has it that 2004 will see his departure.)
The beautifully situated and landscaped, turn-of- the-century château is housed on the former estate of the Princess de Polignac (a Pommery ancestor). The acclaimed wine list, including more than 200 selections of bubbly, pays homage to Reims’s heritage. This is the stuff of special occasions, a fling with luxury, where ornate chandeliers suspended from the lofty ceilings magically light a setting grand enough for Boyer’s lavish cooking. The elegantly appointed bedrooms—some with views of the spires of Reims’s Gothic cathedral—are Les Crayeres’s ultimate luxury. They also mean “designated drivers” need not abstain.