Champagne – Oh là là

No stay in France would be complete without the consumption of some champagne. I’m not even much of a champagne fan, but since the Champagne region of France is so close to Paris, I decided that a weekend in the land of bubbly was well worth it.

I joined a Meetup group leaving from Paris by bus towards Reims (pronounced Rahnce) and Épernay, both in the Champagne producing region of France. The name of the group is Franco-Americans and has a great mixture of young, English-speaking people who like to have fun. Although most of the group are French citizens who have spent time in America, there were also several American citizens who are now living in Paris. Brittany and I were definitely the most un-French on the trip, as we have only been in the country for 1-2 weeks and have minimal French language skills. Regardless, we were welcomed with open arms!

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Our first stop was to a champagne museum in the small village of Passy-Grigny. The museum is part of a cooperative that produces champagne for many local farmers. They also produce a brand of champagne, Dom Caudron, for sale at the museum. After the tour we got to sample two glasses of the bubbly.

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Many people use the generic term champagne for all sparkling wines, but a true champagne comes only from grapes grown in this region and adheres to a strict code of rules. In fact, over 70 countries have adopted laws that prohibit the use of the term champagne to describe any wine not adhering to the rules of the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC). Contrary to popular belief, Dom Pérignon did not invent sparkling wine. He was, however, an important figure in advancing the quality of the product. Champagne was initially the result of an accident, when Benedictine monks bottled wine before its initial fermentation process was over. Later, the process was amended to include the addition of sugar after the initial fermentation process was complete to create a second fermentation. This feature is what gives champagne its bubbly nature.

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After our tour of the museum, we headed to the historic city of Reims. Several popular champagne houses are located in this city. Our group booked an English tour at Pommery. Founded in 1858, Pommery soon grew to be one of the largest champagne producers in the region. Our tour began with a walk down 116 stairs into the champagne cave. In 1868, Madame Pommery employed Belgian and French workers to mine out 18 kilometers of caves and tunnels under the chalky ground in Reims. The temperature and humidity remain constant year round (10 degrees Celsius = 50 degrees Fahrenheit) creating an optimal environment for champagne production.

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Pommery still uses the same method of production as it did centuries ago. After primary fermentation and bottling, yeast and sugar are added and a second fermentation is initiated. During this time (minimum of 15 months) the bottles are stored in racks and manually manipulated so that the residual particulates fall to the bottle neck and can be removed. In years where the harvest is exceptional, a millesimé is declared and some Champagne will be made from and labelled as the product of a single vintage rather than a blend of multiple years’ harvests. In this case, the champagne will be exceptional and must be matured for at least 3 years.

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Our stay in Reims was too metropolitan to see the actual vineyards but on Sunday we headed to nearby Épernay and its surrounding countryside. In the winter, the grape vines are pruned and binded to twine to give shape to the plant. Unfortunately, the vines are not visually pretty this time of the year. The grape vine is most active in June and July. During the summer, each vine will be trimmed several times. Harvest begins in late September or early October and usually lasts 10 days. Harvest time is dictated by the CIVC. Since the 17th century, harvesting grapes for champagne has followed the same process: hand-cut and placed into baskets. Read more about champagne.

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Once harvested, the grapes are pressed and bottled for their journey into one of the most prestigious symbols of luxury in the world. Due to Reims history as the location for French coronations, this drink of the native land was marketed as a symbol of luxury and power in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. More on the history of coronations in Reims in a later post about its fantastic cathedral. For now, go enjoy some champagne…and make sure it’s REAL champagne from the champagne region of France!

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