France: Poppin’ Bottles Around the Champagne Region

Champagne.  That one beautiful, majestic word has the ability to conjure up anticipation & delight.  I absolutely LOVE champagne.  It’s my favorite alcoholic drink.  Mimosas are proper at all hours of the day.  It’s a crime to regulate it to brunch with milk, tea and coffee.  Seriously.  I know I sound like an alcoholic but…I can stop drinking it anytime I want.  I just choose not to.  It would be unfair to the makers of this beautiful, sexy beverage.

I was blessed to visit the bubbly cities of Reims & Epernay.  I only had 1 day (Saturday) since Sunday would be spent running the Paris-Versailles 16K road race.

Renee (my travel buddy, sister & overall fabulous superstar friend) joined me for the weekend!  Our day started early as we needed to take the train from Versailles (where we were staying) so I could pick up my race packet at the Paris Sports Complex.  We then took the TGV high-speed train from Gare Paris-Est to Reims.

Reims
Beautiful, beautiful Reims (pronounced “rance”, rhymes with France…I know, you don’t see the letter “n” either.  I can’t even begin to sound this stuff out.  I was saying “reems” forever.  I can’t tell you how many times I asked the sexy train ticket agent to pronounce that for me.  Ha!).  Reims’ is the administrative capital of the Champagne region.  It’s approximately 45 minutes from Paris if you take the TGV train.  This city is where 26 French kings & queens were crowned, where champagne first bubbled (mmm, mmm…I think I need to get a flute of the bubbly to type this post up…hold on…………………………………………………………………………………[looking for champagne]……………………………………………………………………………………………………..maybe I should drink a glass before writing?  Then have another glass while I continue to write?  You know it will go flat if I leave it out so I better just finish off the bottle.  Ooh, I have mimosa sorbet that I made last night.  I should get a bowl of that too.)… Sorry, I had to think thru this dilemma.  Where was I?  Oh yes, Reims.  This is also the city where the Germans officially surrendered in 1945 bringing WWII to an end.

The great thing about visiting Reims is that most of the sights are within a 15-minute walk from the Reims-Centre train station.  Otherwise, you can take the bus or tram (which are really easy to use) to your destination.  Now, my focus was to tour the champagne caves and do tastings ALL DAY LONG!  I am so serious about this.  Did I mention that I love champagne?  It’s like the Bert to my Ernie, y’all.

Despite the fact that we started our day at 8am, we were only able to catch the 11:30am train to Reims.  We arrive during lunch when all the champagne houses have closed down from 12-2pm.  So, we take this time to walk down the main boulevard and get some lunch.

This was a steak and cheese sandwich with fries loaded on top.  Awesome!  And, I’m pretty sure it’s only 8 points on Weight Watchers but I need to verify it…once I finish my mimosa.

Unsubstantiated Fun Fact…did you know that a glass of champagne every day increases the quality of your life?  You didn’t?  Well, now you do.  Don’t bother trying to fact check me.  It’s something I know in my soul.  I don’t need the FDA or Dr. Oz telling me lies trying to keep me away from my precious.

After we finish lunch, we start walking towards our first champagne house…Taittinger.  On the way, we pass a line for people to get in this round contraption so they can spin around like a ball for 2 minutes.

During our walk, I realize I need to use the bathroom.  We come across a McDonald’s so I say that I’m going to go in there.  Now, McD’s has never let me down.  I enter and realize it’s 2 stories with the bathroom being upstairs.  But, as I get to the stairs, I notice there is a man blocking my access and he’s wearing some sort of gold shield.  Apparently, they have Ronald McDonald police.  He asked if I purchased food because the bathrooms were for patrons only.  Um, why wasn’t he looking for the Hamburglar who, last I heard, was busy stealing kids Happy Meals?  Or did they crack that 45-year old case?  Seriously. 

So, after being denied relief at McDonald’s (that sounds dramatic doesn’t it?  I wanted to throw that in just in case Tyler Perry wants to turn this into a movie.), we head to the Reims Cathedral.

It’s absolutely breathtaking!  This cathedral was built in 1211 and is a great example of Gothic architecture.  The details are similar to the cathedral I saw in Strasbourg last year.  It’s known as one of Europe’s greatest churches.  The first king of the Franks, Clovis, was baptized in this church in 496 AD.  This really helped to establish Christianity in France.  Since C-money’s baptism, Reims became the place for the coronation of French kings & queens (as mentioned above, there were 26 in total).  For this reason, it played a more important role than Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral.  Joan of Arc led Charles VII here to be crowned in 1429.  The French rallied around young Charlie 7 (or, probably as he was known to his friends…Sev’s) to push the English out of France and end the Hundred Years’ War (which was a series of wars waged from 1337 to 1453 by the House of Valois and the House of Plantagenet, also known as the House of Anjou, for the French throne, which had become vacant upon the extinction of the senior Capetian line of French kings.).  As you may remember from my London post, the House of Plantagenet loved to fight.  They were involved in the War of the Roses (fighting cousins) and this is the same house in which crazy King Henry 8 or as I like to call him, Crazy 8s) descended (the one killing all his wives).

I cover the origins of the French Revolution in my Versailles post but during the actual revolution, the French decided to convert all the cathedrals and places of worship into “temples of reason”.  They didn’t want religion to be forced on them.  After the monarchy was restored, Charles X was crowned King in 1825…this was the last coronation in France.  I guess old Double Nickels couldn’t keep it going.  The cathedral was almost destroyed by bombs during WWI and was completely rebuilt by John D. Rockefeller.  Who, interestingly, also rebuilt historical places in Athens and of course, Colonial Williamsburg.

Taittinger
After getting our church on, we power walk to Taittinger (pronounced “tay-tan-zhay”) because we are thirsty and that sweet nectar is calling.  Taittinger is one of the biggest & most renowned of Reims’ caves.  We took a tour of the cellars (which are freezing).  Now, when we arrive, we ask to sign up for an English tour and the French receptionist was like, “weez ‘r full at de momeent. You’ll have to take ze Fraaanch tour unless you wait 2 more ooww-weres.”  So, I told him we’d take 3 tickets for the French tour, then we just filed in with the rest of the folks when the English tour started.  Where there is a will, there is a way. 

The tour starts with a 10 minute promo video about the beauty of Taittinger, then we followed our guide down 80 steps to the underworld city of champagne!  The deepest of the caves were dug by ancient Romans.  They were everywhere y’all.  There are approximately 3 miles of caves and 9 million bottles of champagne located here.  During the tour, our guide explained the process of making champagne.

The history of Champagne dates to about 1700 AD and a monk cellarmaster at the Abbey of Hautvillers near the city of Reims. As the story goes, a monk named Dom Pérignon was making wine for his colleagues when, unbeknownst to him, he failed to complete the fermentation before bottling and corking the wine. During the cold winter months the fermentation remained dormant, but when spring arrived the contents of the sealed bottles began to warm and fermentation resumed producing carbon dioxide that was trapped in the bottle. Later that spring Dom noticed that bottles of wine in the cellar were exploding, so he opened one that was intact and drank, declaring “Come quickly! I’m drinking stars!” Thus, Champagne was born and named after the region where it was discovered.  Today Möet & Chandon make a Champagne named in honor of Dom Pérignon, the serendipitous inventor of Champagne. A bronze statue of the famous monk stands outside Möet & Chandon in Epernay, France.

Today, the production of Champagne is quite different from Dom Pérignon’s accidental discovery.

The key reaction of winemaking is alcoholic fermentation, the conversion of sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide by yeast. The maximum amount of alcohol attained through alcoholic fermentation is about 15% because the yeast cells are killed by high alcohol concentration.  Most still wines (i.e., table wines) contain 12 to 14% alcohol.

The key process in producing Champagne is a SECOND fermentation that occurs in a sealed bottle. The entire process is described below.
                    
SELECTING THE CUVÉE (La Cuvée)
The cuvée is the base wine selected to make the Champagne. The most expensive Champagnes are made from cuvées from selected vineyards in the Champagne region. Cuvées can be from a pure grape variety, such as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, or can be a mixture of several grape varieties. Chardonnay is a white grape variety with white juice, Pinot Noir a red grape variety with WHITE juice. Pinot Meunier, a relative of Pinot Noir, also is used extensively. The slight rust color imparted to some Champagne results from using Pinot Noir cuvées that acquire some red color from contact with the skins. The longer the juice remains in contact with the skins, the darker red it becomes. If a Champagne is made exclusively from Chardonnay, it is called “blanc de blanc,” white wine from white grapes. Most Champagne is made from mixed cuvees. The alcohol content of the cuvee is usually around 10%.                                            

  

THE TIRAGE
After the cuvée is selected, sugar, yeast, and yeast nutrients are added and the entire concoction, called the tirage, is put in a thick-walled glass bottle and sealed with a bottle cap.  Then, the bottle is placed in a cool cellar (55-60°F), and allowed to slowly ferment, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Since the bottle is sealed, the carbon dioxide cannot escape, and,thereby producing the sparkle of champagne.

AGING ON DEAD YEAST
As the fermentation proceeds, yeast cells die and after several months, the fermentation is complete. However, the Champagne continues to age in the cool cellar for several more years resulting in a toasty, yeasty characteristic.  The best and most expensive Champagne is aged for five or more years.

RIDDLING (Le Remuage)

After the aging process is complete, the dead yeast cells are removed through a process known as riddling. The champagne bottle is placed upside down in a holder at a 75° angle. Each day the riddler comes through the cellar and turns the bottle 1/8th of a turn while keeping it upside down. This procedure forces the dead yeast cells into the neck of the bottle where they are subsequently removed. A riddler typically handles 20,000 to 30,000 bottles per day.

 

DISGORGING
The Champagne bottle is kept upside down while the neck is frozen in an ice-salt bath. This procedure results in the formation of a plug of frozen wine containing the dead yeast cells. The bottle cap is then removed and the pressure of the carbon dioxide gas in the bottle forces the plug of frozen wine out leaving behind clear champagne. At this point the DOSAGE, a mixture of white wine, brandy, and sugar, is added to adjust the sweetness level of the wine and to top up the bottle.  The bottle is then corked and the cork wired down to secure the high internal pressure of the carbon dioxide.  The sweetness levels of champagne range very dry (ultra brut) to very sweet (doux), with brut being the most common.  Personally, I love demi-sec.
    
Many Champagne houses produce “luxury cuvées,” their best and most expensive wines. Dom Pérignon is the luxury cuvée of Möet & Chandon; Cristal is pride of Roederer. Bollinger produces R.D. or “recently disgorged” wines. For example, you can purchase a 1982 Bollinger R.D. that was disgorged in April 1991, nine years after being placed in the bottle. (source “Making Champagne” by Alexander J. Pandell, Ph.D.).

We had a group of senior citizens on our tour…if you read my Las Vegas post, you know how they keep it real.  At the very start of the tour, Archie starts in.

Archie:  Excuse me.  That was an excellent overview of the champagne making process.  Really, it was very, very good.  You have great oratory skills.  I just have a question…are you a member of the Taittinger family?
Francy the Guide:  Um, thank you.  No, I am not a member of ze Taittinger famileee.  I work for the family giving tours of the cellars and explaining how champagne is made.
Archie:  You aren’t a member of the family?  Well, do you want to do this forever?  What’s your 5 year plan look like?  You can do better than giving tours.
Me: Seriously?  Again?  Why, God?

You know the Oldies but Goodies Group had to worry that guide with 1000 questions and block everything.  We just gave up trying to participate and meekly just followed them at a distance.  I couldn’t do it.  In fact, I was just looking for the exit so I could start the champagne tasting.

It was magnificent to see millions of bottles fermenting.  I want a cellar in my next home.  The House of Nichole.  That’s going on my Vision Board right now.

The expensive bottles were behind locked gates.

We then get to my favorite part of the tour…drinking!  I love Taittinger.  It really is very smooth.  I’m partial to sweeter champagnes (demi-sec) than dry (brut).  But, I will drink it all 🙂

Martel

We then head over to the next champagne house…Martel.  This offers a homey contrast to Taittinger’s more “business” ambiance.  At this point, I was done with touring cellars figuring that once you’ve seen 1, you pretty much know what to expect.  I just wanted to go drinking.  Unfortunately, Martel didn’t offer tastings without the tours.  Renee and I did end up buying a couple of bottles of champagne since I love Martel too.
  
 
After we leave Martel, we head another champagne house which allowed tastings without a tour (yay!) and met some people from the U.S. who happened to be at every house we were visiting.  The husband & wife now live in Brussels due to a job transfer with FedEx and their friend was over for vacation.  I believe he bought an entire case of champagne (so of course, I realized immediately that he was cool).  At this point, Renee & I are feeling no pain.  Look how happy we are!

Champagne is the new black.  Live it, love it.  Can’t stop, won’t stop.

Epernay
 

After leaving our last champagne house in Reims, we catch a train to Epernay because I have always wanted to visit Moet & Chandon!  However, we arrive just as they are closing so no tastings. 
 

I do get a pick with Mr. Perignon though!
 

We walk up Avenue de Champagne

Past Hotel Ville (City Hall)

And see a couple more champagne houses.
 

Renee was able to buy a couple more bottles of champagne and then we had dinner before heading to the train station to catch the last train back to Paris.

While we were waiting for our train back to Paris, we met a girl named Toni.  She’s 25 and her story is so fascinating.  Toni sold her stuff and moved overseas with her passport and a backpack.  She ended up getting a job on a yacht as part of the crew and has 3 months off each year where she just travels around Europe and does some sort of work exchange…so, she basically works for a room to sleep in.  I was like, “um, how can I do that?”  Some of the jobs she has is bartending, waitressing, working in a kitchen, etc.  You work out the particulars before you actually arrive in the city.  Now that is cool!

One thought on “France: Poppin’ Bottles Around the Champagne Region

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s