I have always wanted to visit the famous Champagne region in France. Finally I got the chance to do it.
The Champagne wine region is a historic province within the administrative province of Champagne in the northeast of France, about 140km from Paris. The area is best known for the production of the sparkling white wine that bears the region’s name. In fact, EU law and the laws of most countries prohibit the term “Champagne” to be used for wines from outside this region. So real champagne can only come from Champagne. This makes champagne and the area extremely exclusive. Since Reims is kind of like the champagne capital, I have always wanted to visit it, to learn more about this special drink and fascinating region.
Our journey started early in the morning. Me and 4 other girls from Sciences Po. To be honest, almost all of us were complete strangers to each other but by the end of the trip we had become new friends. That’s how life works here. Anyways, this French girl Mara has a car, so we opted for that since it’s more convenient to get from one place to another, even though later on we found out that Reims is actually rather small (almost 200 000 people) and very walkable. Our first stop was to Sciences Po’s campus in Reims because apparently we are very loyal students. It was really nice and freshly renovated, located in an old monastery building. After that we had some seriously French lunch aka sandwiches (Of course with jambon and fromage with loads of butter) and French pastry.
After the lunch break it was time for the highlight of the day – Champagne house tour. We chose Taittinger because it’s one of the nicest ones in the area and the student ticket was reasonably priced (13€). Taittinger Champagne house was founded in 1734 but its wine making history goes way back, to 13th century, when instead of this champagne house there was a huge cathedral standing in the same place. Unfortunately it was completely destroyed by angry revolutionaries during the French revolution. However, same wine caves are still used today.
So where do they make and store the champagne? There are two sorts of caves down below Taittinger house – firstly, the ones from 13th century from the time of the monastery where the temperature is constantly 12 degrees Celsius and secondly, the ones that date back to the Roman Empire, to 4th century (it’s also an UNESCO World Heritage site), where the temperature is always 8 degrees Celsius. It was very damp and cool in the cellars which reminded me of Irish summer again, haha. An interesting fact – the same caves were a home for war refugees during the First World War. Many people stayed down there for two years in a row. There are sun, moon and stars drawings on the walls because you can only imagine what it must have felt like to not see the sky for many years in a row. So these caves have seen an insane amount of history and their new task is to store about 3 million bottles of champagne in them.
So basically Taittinger makes 3 types of champagne out of which Comtes de Champagne is the most famous and expensive one (160€). It takes 10 years for that champagne to get ready for consumption. And even the “cheapest” champagnes take 3-4 years to get from grapes on the field to a drink in my glass. So I’m not even surprised that it’s such an expensive drink. The Taittinger family that owns this champagne house keeps one bottle from each vintage year in their personal vinoteque. You can only imagine what those bottles cost. Basically vintage means that it has been an exceptionally good year for grapes, they only use grapes from that year and so the champagne turns out better and different than usual. That’s why they write down the name as well. Non-vintage champagnes are the ones that are produced on the years when the condition of the grapes is average and they blend the grapes so champagne should taste exactly the same as it did from another bottle that was made 10 years ago.
So how is champagne produced? First step is to harvest the grapes which will be in September, 100 days after the first bloom. For that time, champagne houses recruit about 800 workers to hand pick the grapes because apparently, as I learned, the drink can only wear the name of champagne when the grapes have been hand picked. There are 3 types of grapes: white skin Chardonnay and the dark skinned Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. After the grapes are separated they go into a wooden press where they are pressed only ONE time so any grape skin doesn’t get in the juice. The grape juice is then left to a large open barrel where it will go through the first fermentation process after which the professionals will come and taste whether it’s a vintage worthy year or not.
The produced still wine is then bottled and the drink will stay in the same bottle until the champagne is ready to drink. That’s also how the bubbles form – because all the gas is trapped in the bottle until it is eventually opened. They also add yeast and sugar and when the yeast dies it gives the drink its specific colour and taste. The longer the yeast stays in the bottle, the stronger and more specific the taste – as it is for the more expensive and older drinks. In the end of the process they have to get the dead yeast out of the bottles so they hire loads of people to turn the bottles 16 times during a two week period that in the end the yeast ends in the cork from where they can extract it. One person turns about 80 000 bottles per day! After that they add the last tiny amount of sugar syrup, leave it for two weeks and then the champagne is finally ready to be labled, boxed and sold.
Most of Taittinger’s export goes to the UK, followed by the US and Germany. We got to taste the classical Brut as well and it did taste marvellous. I also couldn’t help myself and purchased one regular size bottle (to celebrate with my parents at home) and one demi-bottle for good times in Paris. It cost me a little more than 50€.
Happy and tipsy we made our way to the famous Notre Dame de Reims, built in the 13th century. Honestly, it is way nicer than the one we have in Paris. Plus it has crazy amount of history. For example, it’s the place where 33 of French kings were crowned. Not too shabby.
To end this lovely day we had a nice walk around the old town, enjoyed some live music (there were bands and orchestras playing on every corner) and had some nice French food. I still can’t believe how big the portions are. And also, all salads have loads of meat and cheese and dressings on it so I think it would be more healthy to actually order a steak. For example, one salad had a HUGE pile of fried potatoes and ham on it, so you could not even see the greens under it. Plus it had white bread and fried chicken on the side. You call that a salad?
After 15 hours I arrived back home. Extremely tired but very happy. I enjoyed it a lot, especially the part in the Champagne house as you can tell from the amount of text I wrote under that part (sorry for that). Anyways, I am loving this life in France and I can’t wait to experience more of it!
Until next time,