One of my favorite things about living in France is the ready and affordable access to champagne, which is as far as I'm concerned is the country's greatest product (along with baguettes and cheese, of course!). And one of my favorite things about living in Paris is that we are just a 45-minute TGV (high-speed train) ride away from Champagne-Ardenne, the region from which it hails. A day-trip there to check out the caves (cellars) of champagne has always been on my list of things to do, and last Saturday we finally made the trip, taking an early morning train from Paris's Gare de l'Est to the city of Reims, the region's capital.
Beyond the champagne houses, Reims is also known for being a historic center. The breathaking Notre Dame Cathedral, a Gothic architectural masterpiece which is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was our first stop. Since Clovis was baptized by Saint Remi at this site in 498-499, almost all of France's kings were coronated here, starting with Louis I in 816 and ending with Charles X in 1825. The present-day cathedral was erected starting in 1211, meaning that this year will mark its 800th anniversary! In addition, it was in Reims that Germany officially surrendered in World War II. General De Gaulle of France and Chancellor Adenauer of Germany signed the reconciliation treaty between France and Germany in the Notre Dame Cathedral. Talk about history!
I particularly loved the stained glass windows in the cathedral. The three panels below were done by the artist Marc Chagall upon special request in 1974.
We also checked out another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Basilica of Saint Remi. Founded in the sixth century, it contains the tomb of Saint Remi, who converted Clovis to Christianity.
After visiting these sites, we turned to the major objective of the day...drinking some bubbly! Many of the champagne houses of the region (the largest of which are located in the towns of Reims and Epernay) are closed during the November-March period or open only during the week. In Reims, this includes some of the big names such as Veuve Clicquot, Tattinger and Ruinart. Luckily, there were plenty of other options, and we chose to visit the houses of Pommery and Martel.
The Pommery caves are interesting in that they always feature a changing exhibit of contemporary art. This was just an added bonus though, as what we really loved was the great explanation given by our guide of the process of making champagne. Like other caves the region, the Pommery caves are well underground (a distance of about 30 meters), at a temperature of about 10-12 degrees Celsius. Traditionally, massive cellars were drug underground or limestone quarries converted into cellars. Since the Roman times, these quarries have been exploited to get limestone for the building of walls and houses. In the Champagne-Ardenne region, the soil usually consists of chalk. Extending a cellar thus just meant hacking through a big lump of chalk.
As we learned a few months ago when we took a wine class in Paris, our guide at Pommery explained that champagne is made from a combination of three types of grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Both Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are red-skinned grapes, whereas Chardonnay is a white grape. Different champagnes have different combinations. A blanc de blancs for example is all white Chardonnay grapes. A blanc de noirs is made only with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Most champagnes are made with grape vintages from different years, but if it is an exceptionally good harvest year, a millésime (vintage wine) will be declared and only grapes from that year's harvest will be used.
The traditional method of making champagne, known as the méthode Champenoise, is quite complex. After the grape harvest (done by hand), the grapes are pressed (pressurage) in order to break open the berries without damaging the structure of the bunch. After pressing, the juice is put in vats for about two weeks at a temperature of between 18 and 20 degrees Celsius for the first fermentation known as "alcoholic" fermentation. Natural yeasts convert the sugars in the grape juice into alcohol and carbon dioxide. After this initial fermentation, the yeasts and solid particles that could affect the taste is eliminated, a process known as clarification. At this point, the champagne is a still wine since it is not effervescent as of yet. Next different wines from different years are blended (unless it is a millésime), a phase known as the assemblage. This subtle art of blending makes up the signature cuvée (blend) of each champagne house.
When the blends are ready, the wine is bottled and several grams of yeast and rock sugar are added. At this stage, the wine undergoes its second fermentation as the yeast and sugar get converted into carbon dioxideand alcohol. The carbon dioxide cannot escape from the bottle and dissolves in the wine, giving it its bubbles. This is known as the prise de mousse. The individual bottles are closed by a capsule called the bidule. The bottles of champagne are then aged (vieillissement) laying down, for a period of 15-30 months for normal champagnes to 3-5 years for millésimes. Interestingly, each storage room at Pommery is named after the major markets to which the bottles from that room were traditionally shipped (Manchester, Buenos Aires, etc.)
After aging, the wine maker moves on to the riddling (remuage) stage. This operation can be done manually or mechanically, and consists of delicately and gradually turning the bottle from left to right, while at the same time pivoting it slightly so that it ends up upside down. This allows the organic deposits resulting from the fermentation process to delicately settle in the neck of the bottle, against the bidule, while the gas rises to the bottom.
Finally, the disgorging phase (dégorgement) removes the deposit that has accumulated in the neck of the bottle during the riddling phase. The bottle neck is dipped into a liquid at -25 degrees Celsuis, causing the deposit to freeze. The deposit is then removed by the pressure of the gas released when the bottles are opened. Finally, during the dosage phase, a liqueur made of sugar is added in order to get the desired taste. The amount of sugar determines whether the champagne will be a brut, demi-sec, etc. The table below, from ChampagneInfo.net, is a helpful guide to tastes. Following the dosage, the champagne is then corked and dressed for sale.
Type of Champagne
Extra-Brut, Brut Integral of Brut Zero
For the expierenced Champagne drinker and/or the person who likes very dry Champagne
For the majority of the Champagne lovers
A compromise between sweet and dry
For the lovers of sweet Champagne, often preferred by ladies
For lovers of very sweet Champagne
Feeling a little tipsy (naturally!), we had lunch and did some shopping before heading over to Martel, but unfortunately we arrived too late for our scheduled tour. This actually ended up being a blessing in disguise, as the very young nice man who we met there was more than happy to give us a couple of coupes to taste. He also shared with us a wealth of knowledge about champagne, including some things that we already knew but several others that we didn't:
1. Only the sparkling wine produced in the Champagne-Ardenne region can be called champagne. This is because champagne is an appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC), or controlled designation of origin. Like other wines, cheeses and other agricultural products, the AOC protects regional products and recognizes that their quality is intimately tied to the specific land on which they are produced (the concept of terroir). So that sparkling California or Australian wine that you're drinking? It's certainly not champagne! Legally speaking, sparkling wines made outside of Champagne-Ardenne can say that they are manufactured via the méthode Champenoise but they can not be called champagne. So the title of this post is actually kind of an oxymoron!
2. Unlike many wines, there is no point of ageing your champagne. It has already gone through its aging process in the cellar in which it is made and is meant to be consumed shortly thereafter. Only millésimes can be allowed to age for some time.
4. Champagne is a wine. There's no need to serve it only during special occasions or with desserts, as is the custom in most parts of the world. In France, it is often served before meals as an apéritif, but can be and is served along with meals as well (particularly bruts). Champagne is said to be a great accompaniment for seafood, foie gras and non-spicy dishes. Spicy and strong-tasting foods (olives, anchovies, chocolate) on the other hand don't go well it. Too bad for yours truly! Demi-sec or sweet champagne is perfect with desserts.
5. The harsh lights and unsuitable storage of most supermarkets are horrible for champagne. It's much better to purchase your champagne in a specialty wine shop, or in our case, directly from Champagne!
We were totally enamored with the millésime that we had at Martel and bought a bottle to take home with us, which we're hoping to enjoy during our upcoming wedding anniversary. We also came back determined to make another trip to Champagne-Ardenne soon, to try more wonderful champagne in Champagne!