A May 2002 trip
to Champagne by Truly Malin
Quote: When life gives you lemons, make (or drink) champagne! It was raining in Paris and our vacation was in danger of washing out, so we squeezed into a friend’s minivan and spent a fascinating day underground, touring the chalk cellars of the Champagne region of France.
In order for sparkling wine to graduate to champagne status, it must be made from only 3 grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and/or Pinot Meunier, and must be grown in one of the three designated regions which have the perfect climate and chalky sub-soil that make champagne champagne. A highlight of this trip was a private tour of Moet et Chandon’s assembly plant for a behind-the-scenes look at how champagne is bottled, labeled, and shipped.
But the Champagne region is more than just tiny bubbles! Reims and Epernay are pages out of history. It was to Reims that French kings came to be crowned, and in Reims that the Nazis surrendered to Eisenhower in 1945. History buffs can visit Eisenhower’s headquarters, while art and architecture fans can admire Reims’ Cathedral with its Chagall stained glass windows, and stroll down Epernay’s gracious Avenue de Champagne, said to be the second richest street in the world because of the champagne stored in the cellars beneath it.
Another worthwhile stop in Epernay is the gift shop at Dom Perignon, where souvenirs run the financial gamut. 10 euros will get you a smart looking brown or yellow "Pochet Isotherme" with the Dom Perignon logo. This handy little insulated sleeve fits over a bottle of wine or champagne and can be carried over your shoulder like a purse. Another cute, inexpensive souvenir is a champagne bottle closer, which our friends in the industry promise will keep your champagne fresh for 3-4 days. If you’ve got money to burn, take a look through the selection of vintage champagnes. The 1959 Dom Perignon is a not-so-modest 700 euros.
Ruinart claims to be the world's oldest champagne house, but if you ask me, they won on a technicality. The Ruinart family was making wine long before Dom Perignon, the acknowledged father of champagne, discovered the process that turns ordinary wine into the stuff that celebrations are made of. When the Dom started sharing the secret of his technique, Ruinart jumped on the champagne bandwagon – so technically their 1729 vignoble is indeed the oldest. And like many other vineyards in the Champagne region, it is still – incredibly – family-run.
One thing I learned on this trip is that an aging minivan decked out with rugby-ball-shaped headrests is NOT the vehicle in which you want to arrive at a swanky place like Celliers Ruinart. I'm sure our group made quite the spectacle disembarking in the parking area! The more we saw of the carefully landscaped grounds, ancient stone structures, and hushed, echoing hallways of the building's interior, the more we felt like interlopers at a private chateau. I understand they offer tours by appointment, but I'm not sure I'd dare call without a reference. Still, minivan or no, we were treated like visiting dignitaries on our private cellar tour.
Our bubbly, petite tour guide was dressed in an impeccable suit and scarf that made us feel downright bedraggled. In accented but precise English, she walked us through the champagne-making process as she walked us down into the 'crayeres.' The Ruinarts' land is well suited not only for growing grapes, but also for storing them, because the subterranean depths are riddled with tunnels and shafts that were once ancient Gallo-Roman chalk quarries.
The cellars are curiously organic, with bottling racks tucked into curvilinear corners, and round shafts rising 300 feet to daylight above. This is a low-tech operation compared to other cellars we visited, with long flights of limestone steps instead of tourist-friendly elevators. Each time we stopped to discuss some new stage in the champagne-making process, we tried not to lean against the walls and get chalk smudges on our coats. By the time we got to the dramatic 'degorgement', in which a chunk of frozen sediment is popped out of the neck of the bottle, I had started to resemble a ghost.
Some standout souvenirs of my visit to France come from Ruinart. One is a stunning clear bottle of Blanc de Blanc, a replica of an 18th century design that you will certainly not find in the airport duty-free shop. The other is a replica of an 1896 advertising poster called "Champagne Ruinart", by Art Nouveau icon Alphonse Mucha. The original poster goes for as much as $20,000, but you can buy a copy at Ruinart for a mere 12 euros.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 12, 2002
An absurdly oversized, ornately carved oak blending cask dominates the lobby. It was built by the media-savvy Merciers in 1889 for the Universal Exposition, a precursor to the World's Fair. Although the 20-ton cask was overshadowed by the main attraction (the Eiffel Tower), its 8-day journey from Epernay to Paris, hauled by 24 oxen, garnered loads of attention.
After suitable admiration of the cask, our tour guide ushered us into a glass-walled elevator, which descended 100 feet to the cellars while a corny diorama depicting the Mercier history unfolded on the wall behind.
Stepping into the dim, chalky tunnels of the Mercier cellars, our guide led us to a tiny train and we clambered in. I tried not to think about the "Small World" ride at Disneyland. The tour had barely started and it had already reached such a high level of kitsch that Barbara was inspired to take a photo. Our guide sternly warned us that the camera flash could disturb the laser guidance system that kept the train on its little track. We listened with grave faces, but the moment he turned his back on us, we mouthed the syllables "La-ser" at each other, making like Dr. Evil and giggling madly.
Having Karine, an actual champagne expert, with us was a treat. We peppered her with all manner of tedious questions, like "Does sticking a spoon in the neck of the champagne bottle really keep it fizzy?" (See below * for answer.) But she had already explained the champagne-making process to us in loving detail over lunch, so when our guide began the now-familiar lecture, we began to get drowsy. Fortunately he broke up his lesson with some interesting trivia. He described how in the 1950s, the Merciers sponsored a racecar rally - in the tunnels of their cellars! Just thinking about how much all those bottles are worth, and how much damage a racecar twice the width of our poky little train and a zillion times faster could have done … that woke me right up.
I think I'd like the Merciers. They decorated their dank, slightly moldy tunnels with loads of statuary and Bacchanalian murals. They hired the first-ever female cellar master, Monique Charpentier, whose sensitive taste buds determine the right blend of "crus" (growths) for their champagnes. And they gave us a very classy tasting after the tour. We were served the top of the line Cuvee Eugene Mercier, which we sampled generously!
Mercier is virtually unknown in the States because it isn't exported outside of Europe, but it's the best-selling champagne in France. If Eugene Mercier were alive today, I bet he'd be on the next Concorde to New York with a case of Cuvee under each arm!
* The answer is "non"!
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on November 12, 2002
Didier is in charge of grape purchasing for "Mwettay Shawndoh", aka Moet et Chandon, and also helps his wife Karine run their own, more modest champagne house. He was kind enough to give up his lunch hour to show off the Moet facility. It was a real kick, having just finished being herded around Mercier's cellars in a tourist train, to go right back down with Didier and to march on foot through the very same tunnels. Train tracks? We don't need no stinkin' train tracks!
Didier is tall and perpetually hurried, so we struggled to keep up with him as he strode through the corridors, taking us deeper into the labyrinth until we were in unfamiliar territory and could hear the sound of machinery in the distance. This made it harder to hear him as he explained that LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, the French luxury brand conglomerate) also owns Mercier and Dom Perignon, and that the bottling, labeling, and distribution of all three brands is done in the same factory in Epernay that we were walking into. I couldn't help but wonder if they ever make a mistake and put a Mercier label on the Dom Perignon.
We'd had several lessons on the champagne-making process by now, but no one had bothered to explain what happens once the bottles leave the cellar. Corking, labeling, and shipping were clearly not something you show to tourists. But that was about to change! Stacks of labels, pallets of shipping boxes, and packing tape littered the room. The heavy clink of glass against glass filled the air. Champagne-filled bottles whirred by in every direction.
Didier was a hands-on guide; he marched us straight up to the assembly line, where a conveyor belt rushed endless lines of bottles through a mind-boggling array of machines. He grabbed a bottle off the conveyor belt, nearly toppling the two adjacent bottles, to better illustrate a point he was making about labeling. This grand gesture had unfortunate results. Alarms sounded and the assembly line slowed and stopped. We thought for sure we'd be kicked out of the factory, but the nonplussed workers just glanced up, flipped a few switches, and started it up again.
My favorite machine was the "corker." Didier reached into the belly of the beast and pulled out a discard: a perfectly cylindrical cork much larger than the neck of a champagne bottle. He explained that the corks are microwaved to soften them, then crammed into the necks and left to expand as they dry. That oversized, canister-shaped cork is the prized souvenir of my trip!
Ancient HistoryToday's stone structure is actually the third incarnation of the cathedral. The previous two, made of wood, fell victim to fires. Construction began in 1211 on the present-day version. Though inspired by Notre Dame de Paris (1163) and Chartres (1194), it is bigger and more modern than its ancestors. It is a fine example of High Gothic style, which trends toward taller, lighter buildings with dramatic tall arches and stained glass everywhere. The Champagne-Ardenne region is considered the birthplace of stained glass, and Notre Dame's 1500 square meters of windows helped build that reputation.
The cathedral was not only a place of worship, but also a center for the arts. It was easy for me to see why, as I wandered the perimeter admiring the statues and gargoyles adorning the exterior. Inside, the famous rose window glows with a thousand colors: a multihued aura meant to represent a portal between Heaven and Earth.
Times of WarWorld War I was tough on Reims. Shelling set the cathedral's timbers on fire, melting the bells and even the lead in the stained glass. Stone split and the building was decimated. Postcards from the era show morbid details of the ruined cathedral. One grisly casualty was the famous Smiling Angel statue. A fire in the scaffolding caused a heavy beam to fall right on the angel's head, decapitating it. News stories reported that "the Germans killed the smile of Reims."
Happily, the angel's head and neck were reconstructed from fragments and plenty of filler. Today, the angel is a somewhat gruesome figure: still smiling, but missing a wing and brandishing a stump instead of his right arm.
Reims was spared the ravages of WWII, in which it played a key role. General Eisenhower located his map room, where he planned attacks and deliveries of supplies, in Reims. On May 7, 1945, the Germans surrendered in that very room, ending the war. The room was left virtually untouched, and can be visited at the Museum of the Surrender. Inside the cathedral, a 1962 plaque commemorates the official reconciliation of Germany and France.
Modern TimesRestoration continued over the years, with donors like the Rockefeller Foundation funding pollution studies and world-class artists like Marc Chagall, who created a trio of luminescent blue chapel windows in 1974. UNESCO named the cathedral a World Heritage Site in 1991.
Walking down the length of the nave, you are following in the footsteps of 25 kings of France, Jeanne d'Arc, and Napoleon. If you're in the region, take some time off from the champagne to visit eight centuries of history.
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