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No. 181-182: Reims and Champagne Country

The other day, we made a quick trip to the city of Reims (pronounced ““rINce”—sort of rhymes with a nasally “France”) on our way to the Champagne region.

According to legend, Reims, 80 miles northeast of Paris, was founded by those naughty Roman brothers, Remus and Romulus, and houses some impressive Roman artifacts. Whether or not the brothers as founding fathers is true, Reims has always been an important city for the French monarchy, its beautiful cathedral could be called the Westminster Abbey of France. Not only was this historic cathedral the site of 25 royal coronations, it is also a glorious example of Gothic architecture.

reims-cathedral.jpg

Unfortunately it sustained terrible damage during WWI and was further damaged during WWII. Thankfully it has been restored (no small thanks to John D. Rockefeller) to all its splendor. In addition to housing an amazing original rose window (dating from 1255), it also holds a luminous set of Marc Chagall’s stained-glass windows.The windows are dazzling and the church a welcoming spiritual home for believers and non-believers alike.

chagall-windows-reins. jpg

Reims is also famous for its red schoolhouse which now houses the Museum of Surrender (Musée de la Reddition). It was here that on May 7, 1945 at 2:41 in the wee hours of the morning, the Germans under General Jodl surrendered unconditionally to General Eisenhower, ending World War II in Europe. This fascinating museum houses photographs, press clippings, relics, and a good film detailing the last days of the war in France. The small signing room remains exactly as it was on that day in May and is exceptionally moving to see.

nazi-surrender-room-reims.jpg

From Reims we headed to the countryside on an arduous trek (someone had to do it) to learn the ins-and-outs of the journey champagne makes from grapevine to glass.

champagne-france.jpg

As you know, champagne gets its name from the region in France of the same name: a strictly defined area encompassing 634 villages in five different départaments. What you might not know is that during the Middle Ages, church wine used for the Eucharist was one decidedly sought after commodity. As luck would have it, the English preferred the “light and crisp” wines made in the Champagne region. Their high demand and the low supply led to the continued cultivation of grapes in the region, which with new techniques, eventually evolved into our favorite apéritif. Although the first sparkling wines were produced near Carcassonne, France, when the “sparkling” technique was applied to Champagne’s wines in the 1700s, champagne as we know it was born.

In our quest to appreciate and sample champagne, we toured both swanky champagne houses and homey and relaxed estates. In the name of research, we burrowed hundreds of metres below ground into the dark and chilly caves and listened to several Chef de Cave explain what makes champagne, champagne. Personally, I found the champagne making process fascinating and instructive. The tasting wasn’t so bad either.

I now understand why champagne is so expensive (the double fermentation process and a minimum of 2-years ageing) and the historic and climatic reasons that the grapes are grown in the Champagne region.

Next stop, Chablis…

 

Vocabulaire

Chef de Cave: The cellarmaster, who is typically the person in charge of the winemaking team. In the New World this person might be called a “winemaker”, but in many champagne houses the winemaking team is large, involving multiple winemakers, and the chef de cave is the one who heads the group and provides overall direction.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. I look at your photos and my wanderlust comes out of hiding…..

    March 28, 2014
    • France is such a great place to “wander”…geographically it’s like a mini USA. So much diversity in this (relatively) small country. Thanks for reading!

      March 28, 2014
  2. This is very timely, we are going to Reims & Champagne next weekend…Also, by the way, Reims is pronounced more like “rINce”…doesn’t really rhymes with France. One of those city names where the pronunciation has nothing to do with the spelling.

    March 28, 2014
    • Enjoy your weekend in Champagne country. I look forward to reading your post(s). Reims is a tricky one for Americans to pronounce. I’ve heard “rhymes with France” so many times, but you’re right, it doesn’t really…I like your phonetic spelling of it. I’ll change it in the post. Thanks for the comment. Bon weekend.

      March 28, 2014
      • Actually, just realized that it wouldn’t work if you pronounce “rince” in English like rinse. You have to pronounce it like the French word rince…the IN sound is quite tricky for English-speaking people. The real phonetic is riːmz or ʁɛ̃s.

        March 28, 2014
  3. Have been to both Reims and Champagne area – beautiful!

    March 28, 2014
  4. Beautiful!! This was on our maybe to-do when we visit later this year but now it’s a must-do! 🙂 thanks for sharing!

    March 28, 2014
    • Definitely worth a trip. We did it as a day trip from Paris. Although you could definitely spend two days there, it’s very doable in one day.

      March 28, 2014
  5. Melanie #

    so beautiful!!

    March 29, 2014
  6. This brought back memories of our visit to Reims and that beautiful cathedral. We went to the evening light show which was just magnificent. Not sure, but it might only take place in the summer. I’ll have to add the champagne tour to my wish list. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    March 29, 2014

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