Champagne and Chateaux in France's Loire Valley
With fine wines, gorgeous landscapes, and opulent castles, Champagne and the Loire Valley are a perfect pairing, finds Jane Knight
We’re sampling champagne from a barnacle-encrusted bottle that has been lying 60 metres beneath the waves for more than a year. And it’s seriously good – well-rounded and more complex than many vintages, though at €130 it’s at the top end of those I’ve tried. It’s not the only surprise winemaker Hervé Jestin has as he takes us on a tour of Leclerc Briant, which uses biodynamic production methods – some alcohol is matured in terracotta ‘egg’ barrels and a unique gold cask.
This little producer in the heart of Épernay is owned not by the French, but by Americans Mark Nunnelly and Denise Dupré, who also own the nearby Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa.
Just a two-and-a-half-hour buzz down the A26 from the Channel Tunnel, the hotel makes the perfect base from which to explore Champagne, with magnetising views over Moët & Chandon vineyards from its 49 contemporary rooms, the 25-metre pool and sublime restaurant with rooftop terrace.
Visitors come here to explore the atmospheric underground world beneath the region, where a labyrinth of cellars and passageways has been hewn from the chalk, some in original Gallo-Roman mines. In Reims alone, the tunnels run for 125 miles; Mumm’s 15-mile galleries include a central Champs-Élysées and streets named after champagne-producing villages.
You get similar explanations of the process of making champagne on most tours, but recommend Veuve Clicquot, named after the widow who, in 1805, became the first woman to run a champagne house, later inventing the riddling rack that angles champagne bottles upside down (to gather sediment from the second fermentation).
Back above ground, we take electric bikes from the hotel for a spin to nearby Hautvillers, one of France’s prettiest villages, with its hillside abbey where the 17th-century cellar master Dom Perignon is said to have summoned his fellow monks with the words ‘come quickly, I am tasting the stars’ on trying his first champagne.
Another day, another form of transport, this time a four-wheel-drive buggy, which comes with a driver. Off we go on a two-hour romp through a rolling sea of vines, with pit stops to examine the three varieties of grape leaf (pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay).
Beyond the bubbles
There’s much more to this area than fizz: in Châtillon-sur-Marne we climb inside the 82ft statue of the 11th-century pope Urban II to peer out of the unusual viewpoint in the hole in his armpit. And in the 16th-century town of Dormans we wander up to the beautiful memorial to soldiers killed in the First World War, when Champagne was on the front line.
The war had devastating effects: Reims’ ornate gothic cathedral, where most of the kings of France were crowned, was badly shelled, and champagne cellars were used as hospitals and schools – you can still see wartime graffiti on their walls.
South of Reims, the Phare de Verzenay, an observation post in the Second World War, had most of its annex buildings destroyed by shooting.
Now this lighthouse-turned-museum presides peacefully over a sea of vines. Built as a publicity stunt by Joseph Goulet in 1909 to advertise his champagne, it’s like so much in the region – characterful and unique.
Luxury in the Loire
Champagne makes the perfect stop en route to the Loire, liberally dotted with magnificent Renaissance châteaux, where history oozes from every stone. Time hasn’t stood still here, though, with new luxury hotels opening and different ways to check out its architecture.
At the recently opened Les Sources de Cheverny, there isn’t a suit of armour or a traditional tapestry in sight. Some of the 49 rooms can be found in the Château de Breuil, with others in chalets and old farm buildings. A more relaxed kind of luxury reigns in this rustic-chic hotel, with its vinotherapy spa using treatments based on the benefits of red wine (it’s the wilder little sister of Les Sources de Caudalie in Bordeaux), and its emphasis on nature.
It’s a 15-minute bike ride down vine-fringed lanes to the Château de Cheverny, immortalised in Herge’s Tintin books as Marlinspike Hall, and the three big Cs of the château world – Chambord, Chenonceau and Chaumont – are all within a 40-minute drive.
Chambord, the big daddy of them all, leaves me speechless as I climb the famous double-helix staircase to find a rooftop forest of towers, chimneys, cupolas and gables. Like many of its neighbours, it offers techno tours by tablet, allowing you to see some of its 426 rooms as they would have looked when Francis I built it in the 16th century. I prefer to gaze at it from the outside, though, trundling round the magnificent exterior in a hired golf cart.
Chenonceau is best viewed from the water. In the early morning, I share the still river with just a couple of other canoeists as I glide my boat beneath the galleried archway built in the image of Florence’s Ponte Vecchio.
Cycling proves a refreshing way to explore while working off the hotel’s excellent food; the next day sees me following the Loire Valley’s well-marked cycling routes to the Château de Beauregard, with its incredible 85ft portrait gallery hung with 327 images. A further 45 minutes of pedalling through verdant forest once used as hunting grounds of the kings of France and I’m at the Royal Château of Blois.
I consider waiting for the excellent evening sound and light show, but choose instead to bike home via Cheverny’s excellent Maison du Vin, where a few euros gives me the right to try several wines from the automatic dispenser. Here, I discover the romorantin grape, unique to the Cour-Cheverny appellation, and wobble my way back on the bike. Happily, my favourite tipple turns out to be the Domaine de Montcy, whose vineyards lie just across the road from the hotel, which means there is quite a bit more wine to squeeze into my car boot alongside the champagne on my return.
Book it: Rooms at Royal Champagne cost from €401 a night. royalchampagne.com
Rooms at Les Sources de Cheverny cost from €200 a night. Sources-cheverny.com
View enormous chalk reliefs: Madame Pommery instructed that her 11-mile labyrinth of cellars, reached via a monumental staircase, be decorated by enormous underground chalk reliefs. They portray Bacchus, the Roman god of agriculture, wine and fertility, and his cohorts.
See underground art: Every year, Ru,nart gives a different artist carte blanche to decorate its champagne house with drawings, installations and neon lighting in a celebration of champagne and contemporary art.
Ride the champagne train: On 1:pernay's famous Avenue de Champagne, Mercier includes a Disney-style train ride through its 11 miles of galleries with chalk reliefs. It also features a huge oak barrel that took 24 oxen to pull it to the 1889 International Exposition in Pans.
Take a tipple at the Abbey: The chalk mines created by the Romans and used by monks from the St-Nicaise Abbey in the middle ages to store wine are now home to Taittinger. In the cellars, you can spot a St John the Baptist statue in the crypt.
Practise the art of sabrage: Try sabrage, cutting the head off a champagne bottle with a sabre, at Comtesse Lafond, which gives lessons along with tastings in its ornate chateau and cellars.