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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.