I’m just back from a tour of Champagne country. Together with a small group of professional travel writers, I walked the cobbles, mounted the stairs, descended into the cellars and climbed the hills of a handful of towns and villages in the multi-departmental region now known as La Champagne (to differentiate it from the drink which is le champagne).
During the course of a week in the region we wandered through several astonishingly beautiful churches and cathedrals, admired local architecture, visited vineyards and cellars, learned all about how champagne is made and what the method champenoise really means, ate lots of regional specialities and, naturally, drank gallons of delicious bubbly.
I’m not a wine writer so I won’t foist my tasting notes on you because they would be meaningless. And surprisingly, you don’t really visit La Champagne for le champagne anyway. You can save yourself the cost of the trip and spend the money on really expensive bottles at home instead.
But of course, there are dozens of wonderful and compelling reasons to visit this region. Starting with today’s post and continuing with several more, I’ll be sharing some of them – the highlights of a truly memorable trip.
In the interests of full disclosure: I traveled with more than 100 members of the British Guild of Travel Writers who spread out, in small groups, all over the region. Our travel was sponsored by the official tourism authorities of Champagne-Ardenne , Aube and Haute-Marne and enhanced by the generosity of several dozen champagne producers.
First Stop Reims
Notre-Dame de Reims
Reims Cathedral, perched on the site where Clovis, first king of the Franks was baptized by Saint Remi, is a battled scarred survivor. Risen, in 1211, from the ashes of an earlier church destroyed by fire, Notre-Dame de Reims has repeatedly suffered damage from wind, fire and war throughout its 806 year history.
Its towers had barely been completed when they were damaged by a roof fire. In the 18th century an angel atop the bell tower was sent flying in a tempest. And in World War I, the cathedral took 300 direct hits from German artillery. Restoration took 40 years and buckets of Rockefeller money.
Yet through it all, the cathedral’s 806-year-old gothic bones remain virtually intact, its façade a medieval masterpiece.
An army of statues large and small – saints, biblical figures, angels, more than any cathedral except Chartres – parades across the east front. Look out, especially, for the smiling angel, beheaded by a shell in 1914, restored in 1926 and an icon of the city.
The Cathedral sits in the center of the city, beside the Palais du Tau, the ancient Bishop’s Palace, now a museum. Try to see it after dark when the wildly exuberant creativity of centuries of stone carvers dazzles in the spotlights like giddy champagne bubbles frozen in stone.
Beneath the city of Reims a network of Gallo Roman chalk quarries provide the perfect atmosphere for making champagne. Thats why at least 20 major champagne houses, some of the most famous labels in the world, are headquartered here. Taittinger, Mumms, Pommery, Heidsieck, Krug, and Veuve Clicquot – known affectionately in the UK where it is a favorite, as the Widow – have turned Reims into the modern capital of La Champagne.
Les Crayères, as they are known, are part of a listed UNESCO World Heritage site. In their cool, dark, interconnected passages, millions of bottles of champagne quietly come of age.
We’ve been invited to tour the subterranean depths of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, 482 chambers spread out across almost 24 kilometers.
Our guide in the cellars explains the méthode champenoise. The wine, made from a secret blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier grapes, undergoes a second fermentation in the bottles. That’s what produces the bubbles.
She’s surrounded by bottles, slotted at a fixed angle in “riddling tables” that encourage the yeast and grape sediment to move toward the neck.
Over a period of time, the bottles are gently turned – riddled – to help the process along, a method used throughout the industry but apparently invented by the Widow herself in the early 19th century. What happens next – called disgorgement – can best be described as a sort of yeasty burp. The bottles are uncapped and the pressure of the carbon dioxide they contain pushes the plug of sediment out of the bottle. These days the necks of the bottles are also chilled to -26° C keeping the plug of frozen sediment intact as it bursts from the bottle.
Public cellar tours, bookable in advance, are available weekdays and range in price from 25€ to 150€ – information from their website.
A highlight is a view of a 170-year-old bottle, part of a cargo retrieved from a sunken vessel in the Baltic Sea in 2010 and apparently still drinkable.
Only in Champagne
Eight in the morning on the Rue Buirette. On the wide, pink and grey tesselated pavement, a stall holder unrolls his awnings, opens his cabinets and counters, turns on strings of festive lights and sets out his wares.
In Paris, these might be magazines and newpapers, sweets and mints and cigarettes. But this is the capital of la Champagne. And though we are more than 250 miles from the sea, his offering is the natural accompaniment for le champagne, huîtres et coquillages – oysters and shellfish, of course.
Come back soon for more travels in Champagne Country – Find Part 2 Here.