Published in Primo Life Magazine April 2013
"A glass of champagne is one of life's most delicious pleasures, says Anna Hartley, but a visit to the world's favourite celebratory drink's spiritual home – Rheims – offers attractions of its own..."
It was Rob Lowe who first introduced me to champagne, way back in the early ‘90’s. “Actually all champagne is French; it's named after the region. Otherwise it's sparkling white wine” he smiled knowingly at me as the character Benjamin Kane in Wayne’s World. This guy clearly knew the good things in life, and the allure and prestige of the exotic French drink stayed with me.
Since moving to France in 2011, I had certainly quaffed large quantities of the bubbly stuff, but I’ll admit that my knowledge of it had not vastly grown. I knew that it was an appellation d’origine contrôlée product, so that only sparkling white produced within a very strictly defined area could legally be called “champagne”, and that it was good for spraying on your teammates when you had won a Formula One Grand Prix, but that was about it.
So you can understand my excitement when almost twenty years after my Wayne’s World initiation, I found myself whizzing on a high speed train towards Rheims, the capital of the Champagne-Ardenne region.
As well as enjoying a romantic escape with my boyfriend, and the opportunity to leave hectic Paris behind us for a while, I was looking forward to understanding just what made champagne… champagne.
An ancient Roman city (lore has it that it was named after Remus, the brother of one of the founders of Rome), Rheims might have been just another dot on the map were it not for the success of the champagne industry. As demand for the fizzy wine grew, so did Rheims, becoming the grand and beautiful city that welcomes us today. Surrounded by acres of vineyards and cellars, it is also the best place from which to discover the region.
Less than an hour after leaving Paris from Gare de L’Est, we were walking over tram tracks and cobble stones through the beautiful heart of the city. As Parisians, it took us a while to adjust to the city’s calm pace. “Where are all the people?” we kept asking each other, giggling with the relief of being able to drift from the footpath onto the road without risking mortal injury, and gazing up at the spires of the approaching Cathedral without stepping into piles of dog poop.
Leaving the pleasant ‘ding’ of the trams behind us, we walked down the tiny cobblestone streets that led to our home for the next few days. Although we could have easily stayed in the apartment, cooking regional produce in enormous Le Creuset pans and nursing glasses of wine in the courtyard, we rugged up against the early winter cold and went in search of Bistrot Henri IV, a restaurant specializing in traditional French cuisine.
Hungry from our early start, we quickly demolished generous entrées of cured meats, cheese and whole bread, but I couldn’t quite get the best of my main dish, an enormous serving of tripe. After poking at the glistening sheep intestines for a few minutes I admitted defeat and took up my boyfriend’s gallant offer to swap plates. As I sliced into the tender veal steak, I mentally congratulated myself on dating a native who was brought up eating animal parts I only recognized from biology dissection classes.
Dessert, a bottle of red wine and a couple of hours later, we crossed the courtyard of the magnificent Cathedral of which Rheims is so proud. Famous for hosting the coronations of kings throughout French history, it was also the site of the formal reconciliation between Germany and France after the Second World War. We paused in the twilight to admire the towering façade with its hundreds of delicately carved figures, imagining the teenagers Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette entering the cathedral during their wedding procession in 1770. While Rheims remains visibly royalist, more than two hundred years and a bloody revolution later, champagne is the only ruler of these parts.
As crisp day two dawned, we realized we had yet to visit an actual cellar. So we headed to the expansive Vranken-Pommery estate. The estate’s bright blue Elizabethan style mansion is worth a visit in itself, but we were there for the champagne, so our tour began more than thirty meters below ground.
Originally mined for chalk by the Romans, there are now a staggering eighteen kilometers of caves below the estate, which are deemed perfect for cellaring champagne.
As you walk past rows of bottles destined for international export, learning about the evolution of the industry, the history of the famous brand is never far away. Dotted throughout the caves are tall bas-relief carvings depicting Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, cavorting nymphs and seventeenth-century barons toasting their glory with flutes of sweet champagne.
Although these carvings date back to previous centuries, the estate continues the artistic tradition set in the time of Madame Pommery.
For more than a decade, the caves have hosted a series of annual contemporary art exhibitions. The vast caverns and long, dark corridors lend themselves perfectly to light shows, towering sculptures and multimedia installations.
But the caves aren’t just for show. The depth and soil composition keeps the bottles at a constant temperature of 10 degrees Celsius, ideal for the finicky grapes.
According to the méthode champenoise developed in the 17th century, champagne is fermented twice; first in the vat, then in the bottle. During the second stage, the bottles are aged in cool dusty caves for years on end, before finally going through the painstaking remuage process. Every day for just under a month, the downward angle of the bottle is slightly increased, and it is rotated a fraction. This meticulous process ensures that the dead yeast, an essential part of the fermentation process, moves to the neck of the bottle where it can be easily extracted.
It only takes a second to open a bottle (and not much longer to drink it) but when one considers the amount of time and effort that goes into its creation, its enormous price doesn’t seem so unreasonable.
Sipping on a flute of crisp brut while wandering past thousands of silently fermenting liters, I couldn’t help but smile to think of all of the future celebrations that each bottle represented.
Not everyone will be able to visit the home of champagne or walk through the ancient cellars where it has been brewed since the 14th century, but people will always want to celebrate the great moments in life. Thanks to the carefully maintained traditions and cultures of the great houses in this beautiful corner of France, it looks like they will be able to keep doing so for years to come.
I’ll drink to that.
Know Your Fizz
· Champagnes are described according to their taste. The scale from dry to sweet is: Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Sec, Sec, Demi-sec and Doux.
· Blanc de blanc "white from white" champagnes are made from 100% white Chardonnay grapes, while Blanc de noir "white from black" champagnes are made from dark Pinot noir grapes, Pinot Meunier grapes or a mix of the two.
· Until quite recently, most champagne was unbearably sweet. In 1874 Madame Pommery developed the first ‘Brut’ or dry champagne to appeal to the large British market and brut champagne now accounts for most of the champagne consumed worldwide.
· To sabrer a bottle of champagne is to open it by cutting off its neck with a specially designed sword.
· Nowadays champagne is usually served in tall thin glasses called ‘flutes’ but it wasn’t always so. Until the mid-19th century, it was de rigueur to drink your champagne from a shorter glass said to be modelled in the shape of Marie Antoinette’s breasts.
· Direct trains leave Paris Gare de Lyon multiple times every day, with the journey taking 45 minutes and starting from as little as 15€ per person one way. By car the journey is approximately 144 kilometers and takes 1.5 hours.
· Find a fully self-contained apartment in the centre of Rheims from as little as 40€ a night for two people using airbnb.fr, an apartment rental website.
Pssst... I've lived in France for 7 years, and it has become my second home. Click here to read more of my travel and adventure writing from this beautiful country.