Champagne is synonymous with luxury, refinement fizzed up with effervescence, a lifestyle conjuring up images of rich food, open air revelry and perhaps a nice marble soaking tub. Yet surprisingly, until last year there was no destination in the famous region that paired the revered tipple with the appropriate indulgent accoutrements. With the opening of the Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa, visitors in the area now have an appropriately immersive retreat: 49 sunshine-filled rooms and suites sitting on a vineyard, from which they can emerge for pampering at a massive 16,000-square-foot wellness center to sip locally-made bubbly with an experienced sommelier, or to sample creative innovations from chef Jean-Denis Rieubland at the hotel’s gourmet restaurant Le Royal, which recently secured its first Michelin star. All of this is just a short train ride from Paris.
The origins of the Royal Champagne Hotel was less about enjoyment and more about necessity. Overlooking winding roads and the UNESCO-heritage vineyards—including the historic vines of Hautvillers, which spawned many great Champagne houses—the property began as a coaching inn, a common sight before the advent of railways. “It has been on a route that relays several important cities in France, Paris being one of them, Reims, the other,” says Bruno Tailly, director of operations of the hotel. “It was a place where horses and coachmen would stop to recharge their batteries, eat, rest, change horses and continue their journey the next day.”
But soon the namesake royalty discovered the convenience of the location, and thus began the transition to tourism, spurred on by the kings of France who traditionally stopped en route to their coronation at the Notre Dame in Reims, bringing with them aristocrats and onlookers. The property’s latest revitalization spans a new modernist wing and the 19th-century post house. Designed by architect Giovanni Pace, who has also worked at Moët & Chandon and Janisson, it takes inspiration both from the original inn and the surrounding nature, in a gently-arcing amphitheater design with widely accessible views of the valley.
The outdoors not only provide views and inspiration, but also bounty for meals, with many ingredients coming directly from the backyard. Eggs for breakfast come from 30 eager hens in the hotel’s own chicken coop, and honey arrives from the kitchen-garden bees. Chef Rieubland’s menu at Le Royal highlights locally-sourced French meats and poultry, as well as organic vegetables grown in the region. Rieubland, a recipient of the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France designation, was drawn to the possibility of the property, directly from his two-Michelin-starred restaurant Le Chantecler in Nice. “The opening of hotels are always very interesting experiences,” he says, translated through Tailly. “Certainly a project of this scale—and I’m not necessarily talking about the size, but definitely the ambition, the region also. It’s Champagne, it speaks to many, for both the region and the wine.”
With Le Royal, chef Rieubland aims to inspire wow-inducing experiences for diners through a combination of a high level of cooking, preserving heritage with a contemporary touch, and the aforementioned local purveyors. “Working with smaller producers who will deliver just exceptional ingredients, we find this very important,” says Tailly. Rieubland’s technique also draws on his own history. “Obviously there’s a bit of sunshine that he takes with him from his days in Nice,” says Tailly. “It’s not Mediterranean cuisine, but there’s some freshness in there. And that freshness goes into the service as well. We want people to feel comfortable. Eat well, feel comfortable and be our guest, essentially.”
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This philosophy is best illustrated by Rieubland’s favorite dish on the menu at the moment, the sweetbreads. He says, translated by Tailly, “Sweetbread is quite a particular ingredient. It’s a noble ingredient, but not everyone will attempt to cook it. It’s not that easy, to have it crusty on the outside and soft in the center, that takes a bit of skill.” With the veal sweetbreads sourced from the Limousin region, about five hours from Champagne, Rieubland’s Spanish influence in the dish is introduced by gently riddling it with chorizo. A fricassee of girolles caramelized pearl onions finish off its earthy flavor.
The menu at Le Royal changes seasonally and guests in the 32-seat restaurant—set in the historic section of the property—can also enjoy pairings by sommelier Daniel Pires and sweets from the award-winning pastry chef Cédric Servela. And somewhat unique to the area is a Chef’s Table, which gives up to six diners the opportunity to see a whirring and precise kitchen in action. “It’s open every night when the restaurant is open,” says Tailly. “And if memory serves me, Tuesday evening makes us the only Michelin-starred restaurant open in the region. We try to be different.”
Photos courtesy of Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa.