Rather surprisingly, given its strong connection with the Champagne business, the city of Reims doesn't boast too many decent restaurants. There are several good brasseries, like Le Boulingrin near the old market, and, for those who really want to splash out, Gérard Boyer's three-Michelin-starred Les Crayäres will be sure to impress, and his mark-ups on Champagne are surprisingly reasonable. But there's not a lot to choose from in between, either for the wine tourist or a Champagne house looking to entertain visitors.
There is, however, one venue near the city centre, not far from the magnificent cathedral, that simply oozes Champagne - the vineyards and the wine - from every pore. Improbably sited in a former garage with a rather drab exterior, Le Vigneron is anything but drab inside. It's stuffed full of colourful Champagne memorabilia dating back over several centuries. None of the individual houses large or small has anything comparable on show to the public. As well as equipment used in harvesting and wine-making in the days before mechanisation, the walls and ceiling are festooned with delightful posters and advertisements from yesteryear, many extolling the virtues of obscure Champagne marques long since disappeared.
Le Vigneron also boasts a quite extraordinary wine list. There is nothing from outside the Champagne appellation on any of the 11 pages, for owner Hervé Liégent sees no occasion to drink wines from other regions. If you want still wine, not fizz, there are Coteaux Champenois blancs, rosés and rouges aplenty, as well as seven examples of the little-known Rosé des Riceys from the Côte de Bar.
In addition there are a few bottles of Vieux Vins Rouges Natures - mostly from villages in the Montaigne de Reims, where Pinot Noir plantings dominate, but also from Ay - the youngest a 1983 vintage made in Ay by Bollinger, the oldest two from Pommery's vineyards in Ay and Bouzy respectively, from the impressive 1928 and 1929 vintages. A 1990 red from Bollinger, "Côte aux enfants", shows that very drinkable Pinot can be made in the best vintages.
The bulk of the list is made up of non-vintage and vintage Champagnes from every house you've ever heard of, and some you probably haven't. It starts at Abele Henri and finishes with Veuve Cliquot and the Cuvée du Vigneron - a Blanc de Blancs style made for Liégent at the house of Diebolt in the grand cru village of Cramant. What draws the Champenois to this venue, however, is the vast range of vintage wines going back as far as 1892 Pol Roger and 1893 Boizel. If you want to drink old vintage Champagne, whether to celebrate a particular anniversary or birthday, or just for the hell of it, this is the place to come. In the unlikely case that Liégent doesn't have such a wine in his 4,000-bottle cellar, he'll find it for you, given enough warning and if such a bottle still exists unconsumed.
What you pay will not depend just on its rarity value but also on what sort of mood the mildly eccentric Liégent is in. Many of the oldest vintage wines don't have a price against them on the list and some of the finest aren't there at all. He has, for example, two bottles of 1952 Salon, fabulous wine from what happens to be his favourite post-war vintage. He'll probably drink these himself with some other local proprietor he likes. Apparently, he quite often turns up unannounced on the doorsteps of fellow chefs in the locality with something interesting to drink. One such colleague recalls a recent occasion when Liégent appeared outside his kitchen at 11.30am with a bottle of 1947 Charles Heidsieck and two glasses. The two friends consumed it in the street before service.
Pushed to price the most expensive wine on his list for sale, Liégent plumps for the 1906 Pol Roger at somewhere between Ffr5,000 and Ffr6,000 (£509-£610), although he later gives a higher price of Ffr10,000 (£1,017) for 1947 Salon. Pre-war vintages from '28, '38 and '48 are particularly in demand for anniversaries this year, he says. If you've reached your half-century, you could choose from wines made by Bollinger, Jacquesson, Louis Roederer (also in magnum), Moât & Chandon and Veuve Cliquot, but you'll probably have to dig deep in your pockets, because '28 and '29 along with '34 and '37 are his four preferences for pre-war drinking. You might be better off looking at the fifties, where there are good stocks of fine years like '52, '55 and '59. A 1952 Moât will set you back about Ffr2,500 (£254), while the more highly prized Roederer sells for Ffr3,200 (£326). Asked about the best bargain, he suggests a 1959 Canard Duchàne Blanc de Blancs at Ffr1,700 (£173). "It's a great vintage, still very fresh but with lots of complexity. The Blanc de Blancs style lends itself to long ageing."
There are usually a couple of wines of the week available by the glass, perhaps 1990 Duval Leroy in magnum, 1988 Piper Heidsieck or a rosé like Billecart-Salmon's, and outside the anniversary celebrations these tend to be the most popular wines.
Liégent has built up his collection of Champagne ephemera and his cellar over many years. He buys some of the wines at auction, from wholesalers who have old stocks, retailers' end-of-line bins, other restaurants, and private individuals/collectors all over Europe. Because he has established a reputation for his older vintages, he is occasionally offered small parcels by various contacts in the trade. He tries to be sure of the provenance of anything rare he buys.
If you choose anything serious off the list, you get the glass - of a particular shape and design - the wine deserves. Following a 1991 Roederer Rosé (Ffr350/£35.60) after dinner served in tall crystal goblets, further new glasses are brought which turn out to be from the 18th century. They are called "impitoyable", literally: glasses with no pity, they show every defect. "Ideal glasses for tasting Champagne," says Liégent. He serves a 1955 Veuve Cliquot (Ffr4,000/£407) in them, so happily there aren't any defects to reveal.
Food at Le Vigneron
The straightforward bistro-style food often comes with a Champagne sauce of some sort. This may be unspecified, as in la gougeonnette de truite et de brochet beurre Champenois (Ffr95/£9.67), or very specific - filet de boeuf de Champagne-Ardenne à la moâlle et au vin rouge d'Ambonnay "René Coutier 1988" (Ffr130/£13.23). There is usually a choice of six starters and nine main courses priced between Ffr53 and Ffr145 (£5.39-£14.75) on the à la carte menu as well as a Ffr160 (£16.28) three-course set menu offering a choice from two dishes at each course. n