Marie-Antoinette runs a chic, white double-decker bus and roams the Champagne vineyards offering exclusive and fun tours to tourists
Legends claiming that Champagne coupes are modeled after the bust of Queen Marie-Antoinette are hyperbolic at best, but these days, Marie-Antoinette does indeed live in Champagne… and she was perhaps predestined for a career teaching visitors about bubbly.
Of course, we’re not speaking here about the former French Queen, who met her sad end in 1793. This Marie-Antoinette – Marie-Antoinette Denois – has built a career guiding through the rambling vines of Champagne aboard the very same type of double-decker bus that escorted the French football team up the Champs-Elysées when they won the Football World Cup in 1998.
“I said to myself… if you replace footballers with clients, and a winemaker could do tastings of his Champagne along the Champs-Elysées… well, that would be super!”
Champagne may be synonymous with celebration, but that’s not the only reason Denois had bubbly on the brain. The latest in a six-generation-strong heritage of winegrowers, Denois grew up on a vineyard in Cumières, in the heart of Champagne.
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“I was in the vines as a little girl,” she recalls. “When I was a teen, I would give tours of the vines to tourists.”
But while she loved her family’s work, she soon realized that her heart was not in taking up the banner of the family business.
“I didn’t have that fiber in me,” she says. “Not for viticulture, and not for winemaking.”
For such a task, she muses, you need to be “a bit of an artist.” Her self-stated lack of such an artistic spirit, compounded with her parents’ divorce and the sale of the family winery, seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of her potential as a Champagne maker.
But once she saw the double-decker bus, Denois realised there might be another way for her to make a career in her family industry.
After research showed her that renting a bus and giving Champagne tours along the Champs-Elysées was far from feasible, she decided that rather than bring Champagne to tourists, she’d bring tourists to Champagne. A tailor-made fiberglass bus was engineered in Spain with a new Volvo motor; tables were added, rooted to the floor of the structure to prevent tipping and tilting. After 18 months of planning and preparing, she and her husband, Robert – who doubles as her driver – took their first cruise in 2016 – just in time to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Champagne’s inscription on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage.
Denois’ remains, at present, the only Champagne tours conducted in an Impériale bus, standing in stark contrast to companies that escort visitors in nine-person vans with tinted windows.
“For me, you didn’t need that darkness,” she muses. “You needed to be able to see the vines.”
Her tours also stand out in their content. Despite her rich knowledge of Champagne’s history, she voluntarily keeps her tours light.
“I think that people are making Champagne a bit too cerebral – pardon the term,” she says. “I’m much more focused on Champagne as a wine of passion, of festivity.”
It’s this festive, flirtatious side that drives what she dubs her “anecdotes,” stories she shares that are as wide-reaching as which Champagne was drunk at Prince Harry’s wedding to Megan Markle (Pol Roger) or how many bottles of Champagne were drunk per night at Reims’ (in)famous Palais Oriental brothel. (Over 1,000 – more than in all of the city’s restaurants.)
Denois can weave a tale exploring how Cristal was invented at the behest of a tzar of Russia, who wanted to make sure that his wine stood out from those of his subjects – and, moreover, concealed no explosives, and therefore asked Roederer to place his in transparent glass. She can explain how Jay-Z’s choice to dribble Champagne over a dancer’s stomach in one of his music videos made quite a stink at the still-same house, inspiring the rapper to start his own line of Champagne in retaliation against Roederer’s criticism.
She spends quite a bit of time and effort tracking down and verifying these tales, though of course, not all of her research bears fruit. She has yet, for example, to receive a response from the Eiffel Tower regarding how many bottles are sold at its restaurants each year.
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Of course, anecdotes are only part of the offer. Depending on her clients, she may offer blind tastings in black glasses, or pairings of Champagne and Comté cheese or even potato chips.
“We always used to say that Champagne was only for noble dishes,” she says, “but the winemakers’ union did an ad campaign a few years ago, pairing it with canned sardines or fried eggs.”
It’s perhaps thanks to the uniqueness of her offer that Denois’ groups are so varied: bachelorette parties and 80th birthday parties, private groups of traveling Americans and companies doing team-building exercises. And given these different styles, she changes the offer depending on who’s onboard.
“Sometimes we’ll visit a cellar and have a slice of pâté-croûte on site,” she says. “Sometimes I get Americans dancing to jazz music onboard the Impériale.”
No matter the form they take, at the heart of each of these different visits, festivity reigns.
Denois admits she does not have the artistry to make her own Champagne or even the palate for some of the barrel-aged bottles. But, she says, “there’s the pleasure side, the festive side. And that, I have.”
A true people person, Denois clearly has entertaining in her bones.
“If you look at our Google reviews,” she says, “no one talks about the vehicle. Everyone talks about the conviviality.”
For more information, visit imperiale-marie-antoinette.fr
Lead photo credit : L'Impériale bus touring the Champagne vineyards
By Emily Monaco
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