Best Champagne interviewed Franck Leroy, Mayor of Epernay, the true capital of the Champagne wine Region. The city is currently blossoming after two decades of requalification of its architectural heritage initiated by Mr. Leroy.
He successfully ferried Epernay into the 21st century and the city, with its arty Houses, impressive underground cellars with millions of bottles, and surrounding hills and vineyards, is ready to welcome tourists for a full immersion in champagne.
You will also be able to participate in champagne classes and meet producers and winegrowers and learn from their stories and philosophies how champagne has become the most iconic all of all wines.
If you want to truly know, understand, and live champagne, Epernay is the place for your next holidays. You will bring back home not only great bottles of champagne but also an eye-opening experience.
BEST CHAMPAGNE: Native of Northern France, how did you end up in Champagne?
FRANCK LEROY: I was born in Boulogne-sur-Mer in the Pas-de-Calais and nothing predestined me to become Mayor of Epernay one day. I studied law in Lille and Political Science in Paris. But my first job was in Châlons-en-Champagne at the Regional Council with the then President of the Region, Bernard Stasi, who was also Mayor of Epernay.
Shortly after leaving the presidency of the Region, he asked me to join him in Epernay as Director of his cabinet. After becoming Deputy Mayor in 1995, I succeeded him as Mayor of Epernay in 2000. I then became President of the Epernay conglomeration and Vice-President of the Region in 2016.
BC: How was Epernay at the beginning of the 21st century?
FL: Epernay had an interesting heritage, but it was hidden behind horrible claddings. Some Sparnacians (citizens of Epernay) even claimed that the city did not have a heritage.
When I became Deputy Mayor in charge of urban planning, my first initiative was to diagnose the city to reveal the reality of our heritage, built between 1840 and 1940, for the most part. On this basis, we undertook thorough renovation works, opting for conservative measures, and encouraged Sparnacians to enhance the local heritage. Many buildings have been restored and more than 250 facades have been renovated. The result is spectacular and the inscription of the Champagne Avenue to the UNESCO World Heritage recognition is not a coincidence. It is the result of an ongoing policy of heritage restoration and beautification of the public space.
BC: The new Avenue de Champagne is today the symbol of Champagne. Why the need to requalify it? What did the work consist of?
FL: The Avenue de Champagne has been built progressively over time, with buildings and prestigious mansions. However, the road and its uses (traffic, parking) had gradually become its primary functions, pushing its heritage back. It was impossible to photograph a building without having parked cars in the foreground! In order to highlight this unique industrial heritage,
I made some radical choices. We removed the 600-meter parking lot to increase sidewalk width and plant two rows of trees on each side. The works were guided by the desire to highlight the natural beauty of the buildings and the aesthetics of the Avenue were enhanced by the use of noble materials such as stone, pavers, and cast iron.
Particular care was taken to make the trees along the Avenue give the impression of walking in a park. The new lights, large candelabra, are aligned to create a perspective effect and highlight the facades of the Champagne Houses.
Most Houses followed us in the desire to make the Avenue a unique place. Many of their buildings were renovated and new actors have arrived on the Avenue de Champagne. The overall aesthetic result is undeniable.
Today with its champagne shops and its tasting spaces it has become “the most drinkable Avenue” dreamed of by Winston Churchill, one of the greatest champagne lovers, a unique place dedicated to the most famous wine.
The show is on both sides of the Avenue and is a delight for tourists who come from all over the world. The ultimate reward came with the inscription of the Avenue in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2005. But we are not done yet! The upcoming opening of the Champagne Wine and Regional Archeology Museum will be another exceptional addition.
BC: Tell us about this new museum.
FL: The museum, which is being renovated, is located in the Château Perrier in the heart of the Avenue de Champagne. It is an exceptional place in itself. It houses one of the most important collections of national archeology and a remarkable heritage on the history of champagne. It is among the 50 “museums of France” preserving a collection of more than 100,000 objects.
It will be structured in four spaces that will offer unique objects, reconstructions and models that narrate the history of Champagne, from the appearance of men to the birth and prosperity of champagne.
Visitors will discover the formation of the Champagne landscape and the paleontological wealth of the subsoil, the archaeological collections linked to the implantation of humankind in Champagne since Prehistory. The making of champagne will be presented under its historical, social, and artistic aspects via numerous multimedia tools. The tour will end with a tribute to the founders of the museum: collectors and patrons of the 19th century and of the Belle Epoque.
BC: You were talking about tourists from around the world visiting the Avenue de Champagne. Which countries stand out?
FL: Among the most popular tourists we receive are those from Northern Europe: Belgians, Dutch, English, Swedes, and Norwegians. On their way to or back from the South of France, they stop here to buy bottles of champagne for their holidays or to bring back home.
But we also receive visitors from all over Europe, like Germany, Italy, and Spain. Not to mention those from the US, Canada, and Asia whose number has grown with the inscription to UNESCO. This has opened up new tourist markets and amplified the reputation of Champagne. Whether by car, train, or bus, there are more and more tourists coming here. It is very rewarding to see that they have traveled thousands of kilometers to come to Epernay.
BC: In 2019 the regional committee for UNESCO published its white paper on wine tourism in Champagne. What is the positioning of Epernay in this context? What are the initiatives and challenges for developing a competitive wine tourism offer?
FL: Epernay is the capital of the Champagne Region. Its governing bodies, the Champagne Bureau and the Winegrowers Association, have been created and are located in Epernay.
You cannot understand Champagne without visiting Epernay with its great Houses and 110 kilometers of cellars; a unique heritage. Epernay was fortunate to have among its citizens extraordinary characters, visionary entrepreneurs who had a real taste for architecture and who developed magnificent buildings inspired by different styles, like the Château Perrier. Houses built these hôtels particuliers to welcome their clientele and were the symbol of their success and of their love for the arts, and they are at the heart of the history of Epernay and of its identity.
Today, thanks to all the bottles of champagne that come from Epernay, made by great Houses like Moët and Chandon, Dom Perignon, Pol Roger, Perrier-Jouët, Castellane, Venoge, Boizel, our city shines throughout the world.
But if Epernay is a must-see in Champagne, it is not the only one. Those who want to discover champagne must imperatively also visit Reims, which like Epernay has marked the history of Champagne. But if Reims is a city in lowlands with an exceptional heritage linked to the history of France, Epernay is immersed in the vineyard. Our territory is the cradle of champagne.
Since 2018, we have installed a tethered balloon that lets you contemplate a 360 ° view of the city’s landscapes. At 150 meters altitude, you can admire the three great vineyards of Champagne, the Montagne de Reims, the Vallée de la Marne, and the Côte des Blancs, which meet in Epernay.
Champagne is ubiquitous here and it’s an exceptional business card. Tourists come here for champagne, but our ambition is that they discover the whole Champagne Region and its landscapes, its impressive spots around the city, like the hillsides, and surrounding villages charged with history like Hautvillers (where Benediction Monk Dom Pérignon lived and died).
Our role is to highlight this unique identity, to make it an element of pride, a tool for greater visibility. We have an events calendar that includes, for example, the Habits de Lumière, a festival in mid-December each year with night shows and tastings that gather 50,000 people.
In summer we organize Vign’Art, a festival in the vineyard with hiking trails to discover all the facets of its landscapes. This year we also welcomed the arrival of the Tour de France.
The whole Champagne Region must become a short and medium tourist destination to discover and understand the terroir, the technological advances in champagne making, the identity that each producer transmits through his wines, and champagne and food pairing. This is how we want to delight the tourists who come from the five continents.
To achieve this, we must jointly structure our tourism offer and ensure that tourists want to stay here longer, at least three days.
To make this full immersion in Champagne an exceptional moment, we must be demanding on the way we receive tourists. We need our cities and villages to be clean, their facades at their best, the amenities adequate, but also that the information we provide is clear and friendly. A tourist is a visitor who gives us the honor of coming to our home, spending money and creating jobs.
Epernay improves every year, both for its inhabitants and for the tourists. This dynamic is important because it generates positive spinoffs.
However, there are still stakeholders who are not at the required level. We made mystery visits that revealed room for improvement. We have put together feedback forms to know if we are going in the right direction. Critics are very helpful because they allow us to fine-tune our offer and the positive reviews warm our hearts.
Each visitor must become an ambassador of Champagne. If we do our job well, they will invite their friends to come and visit our Region.
BC: What other improvements are needed?
FL: We need to enrich our wine tourism offer. We need more in-depth champagne classes in Epernay; to better understand the subtleties of champagne in a way Bordeaux does with its wine school. The Champagne Bureau can provide this education, but the private sector can and is welcome to do it too.
Also, we must showcase the subtlety of different champagnes with different dishes. In the City Hall, we organize dinners, twinnings with cities of countries with great culinary relevance, such as Italy and Japan, where their chefs prepare dishes for sublime pairings with different champagnes.
But if we have our own initiatives, we are open to projects that are presented to us, to develop together a quality environment around champagne.
Finally, we have to develop complementary activities for tourists like the nightlife for which we need more establishments and for that we have lengthened the permitted opening hours.
BC: What’s the best part of living in Champagne?
FL: I’ve been in Champagne for thirty-three years. I spent most of my life here and I consider myself Champenois. I love to visit Houses and their cellars, discover the work in the vineyards, and roam through the landscapes of our territory.
Winegrowers and winemakers have all great stories to tell and that let you understand one of the most subtle and complex wines in the world. Our territory is unique in that is intrinsically connected to the history of Champagne.
BC: What does champagne mean to you?
FL: Joy, happiness, success, elegance.
BC: What would life be without champagne?
FL: It would not be life! Champagne is an essential element of our national identity and at the heart of the French Art de Vivre that the world enjoys. It would be difficult for me to do without champagne because I associate it with the best moments of my life. In the eyes of the world, champagne represents happy moments, family joy, reunion, reconciliation, success… This image is fantastic.
We owe it to all the great men of Champagne, key figures in our history, visionaries who were able to make a wine full of subtlety and elegance, and who wanted every happy moment of our lives to be an opportunity to dip our lips in a flute of champagne.
Aren’t we lucky?!