The avenue dubbed “the most expensive in the world” is not about blingtastic real estate — like a supersize The Bishops Avenue. It’s actually about below-the-surface riches stored out of sight in damp, dark chalk cellars. Épernay’s 1km-long L’Avenue de Champagne — as it’s formally known — is a curious place.
Below your feet lie millions of champagne bottles aging and riddled daily, while above ground feels like a period drama film set; the backdrop being the manicured courtyards and impeccably kept 18th- and 19th-century maisons of France’s leading champagne producers. It’s like Universal Studios, but without the bustle.
Perrier-Jouët Maison Belle Epoque
Last week the street came alive when Perrier-Jouët reopened its historic Maison Belle Epoque following a two-year (and several million-pound) renovation to around 150 guests. Totally reconfigured by Paris-based architecture and interiors firm Gaia Design, the two-storey, late 18th-century house has been returned to its original structure, designed to better express the brand’s 200-year heritage and the founding family’s passion for wine, art and nature.
Maison Belle Epoque may be one of many grand houses along this avenue, but few can lay claim to such a celebration of the art nouveau period — it possesses the largest collection of «museum-quality French heritage art nouveau» in Europe. It was this incredible treasure trove of furniture, lighting and art that the architects were tasked with honouring in the renovation.
Hector Guimard’s slender pear wood doors, with their sinuous botanical motifs signal the entrance to the petit salon CREDIT: STEPHANE MURATET/ENTRANCE OF THE MAISON BELLE EPOQUE
“We undertook a lot of research to restore the house to its historical state, removing the central staircase and bringing back natural light to the first floor,” says Lunven. “We also studied the art of the period to ensure that the entrance lobby mosaic and the decorative frescoes and friezes were authentic.”
Salon Majorelle at Perrier-Jouët’s Maison Belle Epoque
The result is an extraordinary showcase of exquisite hand-carved furniture, bronze lighting and sculptures that have been passed down through the family. The light-filled interiors are alive with the art movement’s trademark whiplash curves, curling tendrils and botanical motifs; from the newly created hand-knotted Tai Ping rugs below your feet to the fabric wallcoverings and silk curtains recreated from archive prints. Atelier Philippe Coudray used an epic 1,100 metres of fabric and 270 metres of fringing from Prelle, Verel de belval and Charles Burger to dress the windows and beds in the six guestrooms upstairs.
Perrier-Jouët’s Maison Belle Epoque CREDIT: BETHAN RYDER
Maison Perrier-Jouët’s links to art nouveau stem from Eugène Gallice, brother-in-law of Charles Perrier, the son of the founders, who acquired the mansion in 1850. An art collector and founding member of the French Art History Society, he passed the house on to his sons Henri and Octave.
While Henri managed Maison Perrier-Jouët, his younger brother immersed himself in Paris’s artistic avant-garde circles. It was Octave who commissioned Emile Gallé, one of the pioneers of the French art nouveau movement, to paint a bottle for Perrier-Jouët champagne which resulted in the 1902 gilded arabesque design inspired by the Japanese anemone that still decorates the belle epoque cuvee.
Gallé’s genius can also be admired in the maison’s Petit Salon, which is framed by Hector Guimard’s (creator of Paris’s famous art nouveau metro stations) arched pearwood doors, in the form of a walnut table supported by giant shapely handcarved dragonflies.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s ceramic plaque depicting cabaret songer Yvette Guilbert
Other masterpieces include, in the neighbouring Marjorelle Salon (named after Louis whose carved beech furniture graces this room), a ceramic plaque by Toulouse-Lautrec depicting cabaret songer Yvette Guilbert on which she scrawled «Little monster, you made a horror», and a Sèvres crystal vase which the artist François-Rupert Carabin received from the President of France, and to which took such dislike he rather provocatively added a sculpted pear-wood base with three female nudes turning their heads away in horror.
But the house is closer to a gallery than museum. Through her annual commissions for Design Miami, creative director Axelle de Buffevent has ensured that Maison Perrier-Jouët’s relationship with designers and artists who embrace the botanical world continues in the 21st-century. «We have inherited an amazing collection but want to also build a legacy for future generations by commissioning contemporary designers too, so we have created a dialogue with past and present by including these.»
The new bar at Maison Belle Epoque including Ritsue Mishima’s artwork
The most beguiling are Austrian duo Mischer Traxler’s Ephemera table, which features a sensor-triggered ornamental garden that springs to life the closer people get, and their Curiosity Cloud of suspended glass vessels that works on the same principles, with the wings of the man-made «insects» fluttering and beating harder when in proximity to people.
Champagne is of course, not forgotten. There is a new bar — crowned by Japanese artist Ritsue Mishima’s All’ombra della luce installation of Murano glass disks, and nearby steps lead visitors down to discover the vast cellars where one particular locked vault contains vintages dating back to 1825, including the world’s most expensive, the 1874 which broke records at a Christie’s auction in London when it sold for £105,000.
Studio Glithero’s Lost Time, 2012 in the Perrier-Jouët cellars
Again, most mesmerising in the dripping dankness of the cellars is Studio Glithero’s 2012 work «Lost Time», which appears like a magical apparition. Gossamer-like beaded chains hang in loops from a vaulted cellar, reflected in a shallow pool of water below. Inspired by Gaudi’s method of creating the perfect curve for Sagrada Familia, they also evoke the translucency of champagne bubbles.
Maison Belle Epoque is not open to all, but invited guests only. Otherwise, to guarantee a stay among these art nouveau beauties you can partake in Perrier-Jouët’s By & For experience which for €100,000 (roughly £88,000) involves creating your very own prestige cuvée with cellar master Hervé Deschamps.
After guiding you through the vineyards, champagne production, followed by a tasting and lunch or dinner, Deschamps will discuss your taste preferences and from that determine your wine profile — presenting a cuvée to you the next day which then takes eight months to mature. The experience includes a stay in one of the six guestrooms of the Maison Belle Epoque. perrier-jouet.com