Champagne: The Region and the Sparkling Wine

The broad, flat countryside, interrupted by farms and small villages some two hours from Paris, gives no hint of the manicured rolling champagne countryside to come. It is fall, and the vineyards announce themselves with a carpet of deep orange and brown leaves that extend as far as the misty morning permits.

Long viewed as a symbol of sophistication and savoir faire, champagne has been associated with the very best that life offers; the wine of gaiety and pleasure and the preferred drink for many of life’s greatest events.

In 1668 the dedicated Benedictine monk and winemaker of the Hautvillers Abbey, Dom Pérignon, found a way to regulate the second fermentation of champagne wine to induce bubbles. “Come quickly,” he said. “I am seeing stars.”

Celebrated by writers as diverse as Voltaire, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Ernest Hemingway, for many of us it was the movies that shaped how we view the magic elixir. “Champagne tastes much better after midnight, don’t you agree?” purred Louis Jordan in an old romantic potboiler. And where would Ian Fleming’s notoriously high living spy James Bond be without his Bollinger ’69 Grand Annee?

I was here to taste fine French champagne. But I also wanted to explore the five major districts where most champagne is made (Montagne de Reims ,Cote des Blancs, Vallee de la Marne, the Aude and Cote de Sezanne) and around the cities of Épernay and Rheims, and to discover other interesting and colorful aspects of this part of northern France.

The Champagne Region: A Little History

A prize for conquering armies since very early days, the Champagne region is positioned directly in the crossroads of two major trade routes: in the north/south between Flanders and Switzerland and east/west between Paris and the Rhine River.

Trade made the Champenois some of the wealthiest and talkative people ofFrance.

The Romans arrived in 55 BC to protect the Gauls (as the French people were called at that time) from the Vandals and Huns that constantly threatened this fertile farming area. One of the most important battles in all history took place near Chalons-sur-Marnewhen Attila the Hun was finally defeated in AD 451.

The Romans are credited with much of the prosperity that Champagne enjoyed. And, yes, it was the Romans who planted grape vines to keep from importing wine from Italy. The word “champagne” is, in fact, derived from the Latin word “campagna.” It describes the vast open country side in France which made it possible for armies to come and go for centuries.

In l914, during the First World War, Champagne was also the scene of the famous “Taxi” battle of the Marne, when military reinforcements were rushed to the front in taxis and trucks taken from the streets of Paris. The Germans were subsequently stopped and remained west of Épernay for the remainder of the war.

The “Route Du Champagne”

Several absolutely charming and interesting small villages with houses from the Middle Ages are found throughout the area, many of them with Romanesque churches built with the native sandstone. The “Route du Champagne” gathers together some of these wonderful ancient villages as part of the suggested itinerary created by the French government. I stopped at the decidedly Middle Age-looking, half-timbered La Maison de Troyes in Troyes(which lent its name to “troy weight”), and marveled at the 16th-century houses there.

But the focal point and virtual heart of the “Route,” and the region, is the breathtakingly restored cathedral of Rheims, the site of much of France’s spiritual history. Originally Roman baths occupied the place. Later, it was the site where St. Remis baptized Clovis, the king of the barbarian Franks. Clovis went on to become king of Franceso the cathedral had enormous religious significance. Twenty-seven kings of France had their coronation here as well. If it appears a little more spacious than other cathedrals, consider how many people had to be invited to a coronation. It’s hard to believe that the building was almost completely destroyed in the First World War. Shelling by the notorious German long-range cannon known as “Big Bertha” caused fire to break out and one eyewitness described the melting lead roof as “gushing through the mouths of the gargoyles like a spring rain.” A grant by American industrialist J.D. Rockefeller helped restore the building to its current magnificent state.

The Underground Cathedrals: The Crayere

The white chalk pits of Champagne are unique. The entire region was originally a huge sea with white chalk soil at its base; the depth and character of the chalk layer is amazing. Hundreds of feet deep, the craters were dug by the Romans who used the chalk (which hardens as stone when exposed to air) for building material. In fact, the cathedral of Rheims is built with chalk blocks.

In l769 it occurred to the winemakers that the caves were ideal for the storing of wine. Some of them have been turned into virtual underground mansions to entertain potential customers. Many have monumental sculptures carved into the walls. I was lucky enough to enjoy a private train ride through Piper Heidsieck’s caves, a pleasantly cool trip around its ten miles of sleeping bubbly. The year-round temperature in the caves is just right for wine (49–53 degrees Fahrenheit), but a little chilly for humans. Extra clothing is a must trips must be arranged in advance.

How Is Champagne Made?

Champagne starts life as an ordinary wine. There are, however, clear restrictions on the type of grapes that are used; only three grape varieties may qualify, chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Harvesting is still done by hand inChampagneand usually in October. Behind all the glamour, champagne is one of the most difficult wines to make. In fact, the combination of rich, lime chalky soil and drawn-out ripening season for grapes, resulting in a certain balance of richness and acidity, could only have happened in northernFrance.

The most important thing to know about champagne is that it is a blended wine. The more old vintages a winemaker has to work with, the easier it is maintain a particular characteristic of the champagne house.

Another fact to know is that the word “champagne” is not a generic term for sparking wine. It is the protected name for wine produced in a legally defined area of France. The sanctioned grapes are picked and separated from their skins immediately so as not to impart any color. As 70 percent of grapes that go into champagne have dark skins, speed is of the essence. There are strict rules, too, on the pressing of the grapes. Only the first two pressings may be used in champagne.

The next step is a natural one; fermentation. The “must” of the picked grapes is heated, which converts the sugar in the grapes to alcohol. Another chemical process occurs with champagne called “malolactic fermentation”...suffice it to say that this gives the wine a less austere, and rounder taste.

Now comes the tricky part. It is the assemblage or blending. Here is where the particular taste of the champagne house is achieved. Often upwards of 60 vineyards may contribute to the final blend under the watchful eye of the cellar-master.

Containing The “Stars”

Bottling the wine with a little sugar and wine yeast ensures the secondary fermentation. This takes place in a heavy glass bottle. It is estimated that the pressure in a bottle of champagne is about the same as you put into your car’s tires. A temporary cork is put in place and the bottles are stored so that the neck of the bottle collects any sediment. A colorful process called riddling takes place to dislodge any additional sediment. Up until recent times this rotation of the bottle, the “remuage,” was done by hand. Michel Budin of Perrier-Jouet once said that new machines do ten times the hand labor required. The neck of the bottle is then flash frozen and the temporary cork with the sediment is removed. This “degorgement” is accompanied by a dash of sweetness into the wine. The ultimate label designation as to brut, demi-sec, etc., is determined at this time.

Then the bottles enjoy the giant cellars’ coolness for fifteen months to three years for vintage champagne.

As the bottle is opened, small bubbles crowd together (the smaller the better). A mature, straw colored liquid rewards you with a toasty, biscuity taste unlike that of any other wine.

To learn more about the process of making champagne, a visit to the Abbey of Hautvillers is a revelation. Dom Pérignon has a spectacular museum there. Afterwards, enjoy lunch at one of the delightful restaurants of Épernay, the corporate home of many of the famous wine houses.

As a ditty penned by an unknown Englishman at the turn of the century implies, resistance to its appeal is useless:

“If the aunt of the vicar has never touched liquor, look out when she finds the champagne.”

- unknown Englishman


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