The small town of Épernay in northeastern France is widely considered to be the capital of the Champagne region. Every year in mid-December the most amazing event takes place in the centre of town, celebrating all that is wonderful about the king of sparkling wines.
The Habits de Lumière festival of light takes over the entire Avenue de Champagne in Épernay and must be the best champagne party in the world! During the weekend of December 9-11, 2022, more than 60,000 people poured down the avenue, marvelling at the fabulous light and music displays conjured up by the great champagne houses. Strange, alien-like figures firing blue lasers were followed by others juggling flaming fire sticks, whilst rock bands played in the courtyard of Champagne Boizel and the sky was lit up with a full 20-minute mind-blowing firework display.
Champagne flowed abundantly in both private and public venues on both Friday and Saturday nights, whilst visitors enjoyed the beautiful light shows, music and acrobatic performances, producing a brilliantly original night to remember. There was an eclectic mix of the world’s best sparklers, sampled in champagne bars on the Avenue de Champagne, together with video mapping on the Town Hall, artistic and quirky displays of lighting at Perrier-Jouët, interactive light games and even a silent disco in the courtyard of Pol Roger. An excuse to visit Épernay, if ever one were needed!
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A quite remarkably ‘effervescent’ event presided over by Frank Leroy, the mayor of Épernay, it is now in its 22nd year. Talking to Florent Roques-Boizel, president of the Boizel Champagne house, he explained that originally the event was conceived for the local inhabitants of Épernay and the surrounding villages. Since the majority of champagne is exported or sold in other regions of France, the champagne houses decided to create a ‘party’ style event for the local people, who are so important to champagne production overall. Some 22 years on and the Habits de Lumière festivities are now open to the public at large and create a spectacular showcase for the world’s most luxurious sparkling wine.
Whether or not you are able to participate in future events, visiting Épernay and its surrounding villages is a must for any self-respecting champagne drinker. It is rapidly becoming the wine tourism destination par excellence, with so much to offer in terms of sheer wine and food experiences. A massive, tethered helium balloon allows up to 20 passengers to view the surrounding vineyards, hills and villages from a height of nearly 500ft. The recently opened museum in the centre of town gives a fascinating insight into the origins of the Champagne region in both geological and archaeological terms, alongside a wonderfully visual explanation of the making of champagne wines over the centuries.
Just outside Épernay in the village of Aÿ-Champagne, the newly opened centre Pressoria gives a hi-tech, sensory, interactive experience to explain the many secrets of champagne and its production. And of course, most of the grand champagne houses offer visits, cellar tours and tastings, either on the Avenue de Champagne or in other parts of the town or nearby villages. There is no shortage of places to stay, catering for most budgets, such as the top-of-the range Royal Champagne Hotel and Spa, next to Champagne Leclerc, Brillant in the hills above Épernay, or the Relais du Vigneron in the grand cru champagne village of Vertus, closely associated with Champagne Charles Pougeoise and offering vineyard tours.
Unmissable on any trip to the region is a visit and guided tour of the village of Hautvillers, once home to Dom Pérignon, the spiritual father of champagne. A Benedictine monk at the Abbey of Hautvillers, he was born in the mid-17th century and is buried in the village church, his tombstone at the foot of the altar. A talented and innovative winemaker, Dom Pérignon remains an example of perfection and exigency.
Amongst the many gourmet restaurants in the area, two quite different establishments are well worth a visit. The Château d’Étoges is a charming château hotel, dating from the early 17th century. Its formal yet relaxed restaurant serves a refined, classically French cuisine in elegant surroundings. More bistro-like in its approach is La Table Kobus in the centre of Épernay, which boasts fabulous food, fabulous service and a fabulously buzzing atmosphere, with a wide selection of champagnes offered.
With so much to see, learn and discover, alongside delicious food and champagne, put Épernay in big letters at the top of your ‘Must Visit’ destinations for 2023.
About the author
Richard Esling BSc DipWSET is an experienced wine journalist, writer, educator and consultant. With experience in the wines and spirits industry spanning several decades, he is a member of the prestigious Circle of Wine Writers and an International Wine Judge.