Drinking in a Treehouse Bar and Eating Cheese: Ariel Arce’s Guide to Champagne, France
The best way to learn about the wine you’re drinking? Go straight to the source, says Ariel Arce, the sommelier behind Champagne-focused Air’s Champagne Parlor and izakaya-inspired Tokyo Record Bar in New York City.
“I spend most of my time getting to know the ins and outs of my niche beverage culture,” says Arce. “So the first chance I get, I hop on the plane to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and grab the train to Reims, just 45 minutes away.”
Here the rising sommelier shares the highlights of a recent trip to the storied wine region, but before we dive into those, a lesson in Champagne: “Once a region dominated by big-brand wines, the backbone of Champagne is really its growers or farmers turned winemakers. Yes, some of them drive Range Rovers, so remove your image of a farmer in overalls with a reed of hay,” says Arce.
“There are two main cities: cosmopolitan Reims in the north and sleepy but charming Épernay in the south. In between and beyond these two cities, you’ll find tons of villages and vineyards surrounding them,” she continues. “Even though we tend to see recognizable brands on our retail shelves, a large portion of the wine being made in Champagne is from small producers who grow, farm and harvest their own grapes.”
Now that you’ve gotten a little of the lay of the land, here’s where to explore:
“Reims has some truly awesome restaurants and good shopping, plus it’s home to some of the biggest Champagne houses in the entire region. Here you have The Crayères, which were underground Roman caves and now cellars for five main house: Ruinart, Taittinger, Pommery, Veuve Clicquot and Charles Heidsieck. But for lunch, you have to go Le Jardin. I had bouillabaisse brimming with small langoustines. It’s a more casual offshoot inside the hotel Les Crayères. But if you’re feeling fancy, you could stay here and get special entrance to the bar of my dreams inside, which feels like a secret watering hole for French gentlemen.”
“Don’t overthink it at this tapas-style wine bar. Order any ham they have on the menu, a ton of French cheese and the nightly tapas special. On a weekend, if you have an eye for winemakers from Champagne, there will certainly be a handful there.”
“Just south of Reims in a little town called Verzy, there is a Champagne bar in the trees. It’s an actual treehouse, where you can post up with an amazing bottle of wine and watch the sunset. It’s so wild and so uniquely Champenoise and, in the warmer months on Fridays, it’s where the new generation of Champagne producers are hanging out, smoking cigarettes and snacking all day.”
“If you want to eat some truly incredible food, come to this Reims institution. But be warned: This is a restaurant where you are expected to praise the chef and behave. I have perhaps on an occasion enjoyed my dining companions’ company too much for the chef’s liking. So much so that he came out of the kitchen and shushed us.”
“If you want to party, this recommendation comes straight from one of Champagne’s biggest rockstars, Olivier Krug from The Maison Krug. It’s the best contemporary music venue. A lot of local bands get their first exposure here, and it’s given birth to some of the best new French artists, like The Shoes, ALB, Brodinski and The Bewitched Hands.”
“You should rent a car and drive to Épernay. (Taxis are available but no Uber.) If it’s summer, a convertible is totally obnoxious but so much fun. There are signs on all roads that clearly point in the direction of where you’re going, but be sure to stop in each town, find a small winery, knock on the door to try some Champagne and buy a bottle or two. Each town, although very close to one another, houses winemakers who all produce very different Champagnes generally from the same grapes but different terroir. It’s an amazing way to see the subtle and sometimes massive difference in the expression of a single grape. But afterwards, head south to the quaintest hotel in existence. It’s an old villa at the end of the main street and each room is designed differently from Victorian to more modern.”
“Come night, sneak out to this traditional restaurant. You can get classic French fare and a wine list the size of the Bible.”
“This inn and restaurant in Avize is owned by the godfather of Burgundy-style Champagne, Anselme Selosse. Avize is a town southeast of Épernay—and the heart of Champagne territory. The Selosse is the king of this town, though his warm demeanor—he chats up patrons in his dining room—makes him seem more like a gentle farmer than winemaker extraordinaire. This is the most important restaurant for me to visit every time because 1) it’s the only place you can actually find Selosse Wines for a fair price and 2) the lunch pre-fixe (in a living room-like environment for just 39 euros) is the best deal in town—and maybe France. But most of all, Les Avizes is a place where winemakers from big houses to small growers come to celebrate, talk business or have a simple lunch like me today. My meal started off with a soft duck egg over quinoa and grilled sweetbreads, then went into grilled ibérico pork deckle with seasonal vegetables, figs and long-grain rice. I take cheese for dessert, but there’s always a beautiful chocolate mousse or tart. You can also have coffee gourmands, which translates to 'coffee fatty' because it comes with a slew of cookies and treats. If you can’t finish it, offer it to the dog that may be sleeping under your table.”