Reims for French Champagne

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Reims is a city in the Champagne-Ardenne region, north of France that is known for its cathedral as the historical coronation site for generations of French kings. Yet most of all, Reims, together with Eperney and Ay, is the main area of champagne production. Particularly this city is home to many largest champagne houses – les grandes marques as they call it, are simply the likes of Moët & Chandon.  Last year, my husband and I traveled to Reims for a tour around champagne cellars, French gastronomy, and a few bottles of the most celebratory wine.

Around Reims

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Dated from the 17th century, Reims city hall features a pediment with an equestrian statue of Louis XIII, while behind it on the right is a fine art nouveau building with mosaics that show the champagne making process.

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It’s the French’s version of England’s Westminister Abbey, the Reims Cathedral (Notre-Dame de Reims) was the church where some 24 French kings were crowned over the course of a millennium. The cathedral is built on the site of the basilica where Clovis I (the first king of what would become France) was baptized and converted to Christianity. Gothic in style, this towering cathedral was significantly reconstructed in the 12th century after it was destroyed by fire, and quickly restored as well during two world wars.

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Inside and outside Reims cathedral. This stained glass window could be Marc Chagall’s work.

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Around the city center of Reims you’ll find nice boulevards for shopping, fine dining and people watching.

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The Champagne Story

“Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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From Reims we drove off until we reached the outskirts of Epernay and stopped over at its small village, Hautvillers, where the legend of Dom Pérignon all began.

For most of us, we know Dom Pérignon as the most classic, prestigious vintage champagne from Moët & Chandon. He is actually a monk and cellar master at the Benedictine abbey in Hautvillers. Contrary to popular belief, Dom Pérignon did not discover the champagne-making process. Legend has it that he discovered champagne by accident when he failed to complete the fermentation. When he noticed bottles of wine in the cellar exploding, he opened one intact, drank and in eureka he exclaimed, “Come quickly! I’m drinking stars!” Fancy story isn’t it, but historians say he isn’t the one who started it all.

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In Hautvillers, these iron signs resting atop of the doorway show the activities these houses and building do. Most houses would recount a stage in the work on the vines or about champagne production.

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Nonetheless, Dom Pérignon did contribute to the improvements in early champagne production by pioneering a number of techniques, such as: blending grapes in a manner that improves the quality of wines; producing clear white wines from black grapes; enhancing the tendency of champagne wines to retain their natural sugar until secondary fermentation; identifying the right timing for wine bottling; and introducing use of cork and thicker bottle glass.

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Dom Perignon is just really that one passionate monk – perfectionist I’d imagine for sure. Hence he’s just perfect as a brand for vintage champagne. I’m so happy to report as well, that from 40 Dom Pérignon classics and 22 rosé version, hubby’s birthyear and mine are on the exclusive list of Dom P vintages. Woohoo!

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The key traditional process in making champagne boils down in the second fermentation that happens in the sealed bottle. First, the cuveé (or base wine) is selected. Then sugar, yeast and yeast nutrients are added to create a concoction called as the tirage. The tirage is placed on the glass bottle, cap-sealed, placed in a cool cellar and allowed to ferment slowly. Even as fermentation is completed, the champagne continues to age on dead yeast for few more years. After then the process called riddling occurs when dead yeast cells are removed. The champagne bottle is placed upside down in a holder in an angular position, while its neck is frozen in an ice-salt bath. Each day the bottle has to be turned 1/8th of a turn while keeping it upside down. A plug of frozen wine containing dead yeast cells is taken out after the bottle cap is removed. A mixture of white wine, brandy and sugar called the dosage is added, then bottle is corked.

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All depending on their sugar levels, champagnes are classified as extra brut, extra dry, sec and demi-sec. Brut champagne is the most common kind of bubbly with a typical crisp, dry palate appeal. After several sips of different kinds of champagnes from the cellars we visited, I realized that I prefer brut and demi-sec.

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I found my champagne too. A non-vintage, erhm, for now? 😉 “This is dense, warm and winey, very well balanced, with lively effervescence and beautiful freshness. The tender texture and mellow tannins, added to the crisp, chalky impression of the finish, are typical of how it was raised and enliven a beautiful array of aromas.”
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