How do you convince Natasha she is ready for another trip to Paris as opposed to another location? Promise her a day in France’s Champagne Region. Anyone that knows me knows my beverage of choice is champagne. At home, there are always at least four chilled bottles on hand and the wine rack is full of champagne bottles. Emma has also decided that I need a collection of champagne buckets and gave me two vintage ones for Christmas.
We are going on a small group day-trip out of the city. I am sure you can reach at least some the locations by train, but with an on-going transportation strike our choices are more limited. Boris and I will be joined by 3 other couples and our guide. Fortunately, Maison Astor begins its fabulous buffet breakfast early, so we had a chance to eat before our 7:15 am pick-up at the hotel. Boris and the guide instantly hit it off. The guide was of Italian heritage and he and Boris had several conversations in Italian. As it turns out, all of the other participants were in one family and from our home state. We only had one more hotel stop.
Unfortunately, part of their group overslept. We are traveling with a wife and husband, mother and step-father to two adult girls who are on the trip with their boyfriends. Well actually one of the boyfriends became a fiancé (just days ago while on the trip) to the daughter who has graduated and is out working; the other daughter is celebrating her college graduation.
We waited quite a while for them to be ready. I would have enjoyed the extra 45 minutes of sleep. This is how things go on these tours. If you have the larger size group you can somewhat control the timeline. Boris was not happy. He sat shotgun and didn’t talk to anyone for a while.
Our first stop is Reims and its wonderful Cathedral. This is an add-on to the excursion that I am glad we didn’t miss given the delay. Our guide drove like a bat out of hell. I was center in the front seat and saw everything. Well actually I didn’t see everything. It was raining and the guide couldn’t really figure out or didn’t try to use the defroster. Honestly, I don’t know how he saw anything.
We had a short 45-minute stop to see the Cathedral, Notre Dame de Reims (“Our Lady of Reims”). The first church at this location dates from the 5th century. Although not fully completed until the 15th century, the present French Gothic Cathedral was started in 1211 and mostly finished within 60 years.
The Reims Cathedral is the traditional location for the coronation of the Kings of France. King Henry I of France was crowned here in 1027. All but seven of France’s future monarchs would be crowned at Reims, including Charles VII, crowned in July of 1429 with Joan of Arc by his side. A statute of Saint Joan of Arc is found in the Cathedral. There is also one in the courtyard, but it was surrounded by the Christmas stalls that were closed, but yet to be taken down. It looked like they were going to start the process of dismantling the Christmas market that day.
In spite of the fact that the Reims Cathedral was “an important symbol of the French monarchy”, it experienced relatively little damage during the French revolution. However, it was severely damaged during WWI. I have figured out that the give-away is the mismatched stained-glass in a church. Normally that is the result of wartime damage and later replacement, although it might also be damage from a natural disaster. Today, some of the beautiful glass is the work Marc Chagall and Notre-Dame de Reims is an important stop when touring his creations.
Reims Cathedral was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. Pope John Paul II visited here in 1996. Although I had to shoot around the Christmas Market stalls, I took a lot of time taking pictures of the exterior. Not to be missed however, was the beautiful interior with the marvelous stained-glass. When the light came through those beautiful windows, a wonderful glow and ambiance was created inside . Magical. I am so glad the rain had stopped and the light came pouring through; we were able to see the interior in all its glory.
After the Cathedral, it was time to visit our first champagne producer. Reims is considered to be the “unofficial capital of the Champagne Wine-Growing Region.” It has also been called an “essential stop on France’s Champagne trail.” We will be visiting one of the city’s top champagne houses and a highly recommended tour stop, Taittinger. It is particularly recommended for its wonderful cellar.
Apparently, the matriarch of their tour companions had called ahead and tried to dictate our stops, however we are at the mercy of availability, both in terms of space and what happens to be open that particular day. The day after the holiday limited the choices. I was fine not going to Veuve Clicquot, which is apparently “popular with Americans and fills up weeks in advance.” One of my new vintage champagne buckets from Emma is marked Veuve Chicquot.
I like Taittinger Champagne. It is widely available at home, although not in the extensive varieties available in the winery’s shop. We began with the tour of the champagne cellars. Most winery tours tell you a little bit about production. I have been to sparkling wine producers’ cellars before so I am somewhat familiar with the process.
However, I did learn some things that are particular to champagnes rather than sparkling wine in general. Champagnes come from three grape varieties in varying quantities. The three main varieties used are Pinot Noir (a red), Pinot Menuier ( a red related to Pinot Noir), and Chardonnay (a white). A producer does not necessarily use the same percentage mix each year; the goal is consistency in taste from year to year. They may also mix grapes from different harvests to get that taste consistency. I did find that I really like the selections that came from all chardonnay grapes-the blanc de blancs (white of whites in English). I also definitely like the brut rather than the sweet champagne.
The Taittinger cellars are part of the former Saint Nicaise Abbey, dating back to the 13th century and the deep cellars (60 feet/18 meters down) have Roman origins. The caves are listed as a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. During the tour you visit the 4th century chalk quarries that were dug out to provide building materials. These quarries later became the Abbey cellars
From the Champagne House’s website: “[the chalk quarries] became a network of galleries; linking cellars, crypts and vaults for storing wine first made by the Benedictine monks in Champagne. The Abbey was destroyed during the French Revolution, but the cellars remain intact. They now belong to the Taittinger Champagne House and are notably used for maturing bottles of the Comtes de Champagne, which can be seen all throughout the cellar tour. Over the course of a year, the sight welcomes over 70,000 visitors, who come to admire the remains of one of the best examples of the Gothic style in the Champagne region.”
It really was an impressive setting. Long tunnels were stacked high with bottles just waiting to mature and find a home. (I know a welcoming one in Houston.) The tunnels, alcoves, quarry markings, and the staircases to nowhere (well originally up to the Abbey, but now just sealed up), made it a great choice for touring. The dim lighting created a romantic setting.
Our cellar visit complete, we made our way to the tasting room and shop to get our sample. Depending on what ticket you had, you may get a choice of which champagne(s) you get to sample. Unfortunately, our ticket didn’t give us a choice so I ended up with their best worldwide seller which I like, but have had before. If you wanted something else, you had to go back to the front where we entered and upgrade your ticket.
I knew we had limited time, so I didn’t go upgrade. That didn’t stop other members of our group. So after that wait, then it was time to purchase. Then there were further delays when the matriarch wanted her champagne shipped home. I didn’t get anything since I could buy what I sampled at home and didn’t want to purchase something unique without trying it.
By the time we left we were behind schedule again and it was another fast drive to our second champagne house, Voirin-Jumel, in the village of Cramant where we will also be having lunch. Voirin-Jumel is a small multi-generational family producer. The original plan was to begin with a tour, but because we are so late part of the group had already started lunch and the owner was giving a demonstration. We joined the food and champagne pairing. It was wonderful and presented in multiple courses. Our guide told us he had been to this winery before, but had never had the lunch. The wine-makers did an excellent job.
There was no time for a tour, but we were offered dessert and coffee in their tasting room. I liked the champagne and some of their accessories. I did make some purchases, including some honey that Boris wanted. Family member Valerie was our hostess.
From importer Charles Neal’s website: “The Champagne region, like that of Burgundy, has many producers with double-barreled names. These names usually occur when the offspring of one producer marries another, creating a new identity for certain parcels of vines passed on by the parents. Voirin-Jumel, a récoltant manipulant located in the grand cru village Cramant, is one example of this. Jean Voirin, who owned some vines and sold all his grapes in bulk, decided to begin bottling his own champagne at the end of World War II. The Jumel family started producing champagne around the same time—René Jumel had a transport business and his wife’s family had some vines that they cultivated. As the champagne market grew, René began selling some of his trucks and buying vineyards around the Côte des Blancs, which his wife, Paulette Richomme, worked and oversaw. Between 1950 and 1970, all the grapes were sold in bulkIn the early 1970’s, Francoise Jumel (daughter of Paulette and René) began bottling champagne with her husband Gilles Voirin under the name Voirin-Jumel. That year they sold nearly 10,000 bottles. In the 1990s, Francoise’s children, Patrick and Alice, along with Patrick’s wife Valerie, began running the domaine. Today it is a true family affair, and they own 11 hectares of vines in 11 different villages.”
Our guide did an excellent job of varying of our experiences. We had gone to a large producer, then a small one, and our third visit was to a co-op arrangement in the village of Passy-Grigny, near the Marne River. In 1929 the local abbot, Leon Emile Aime Caudron, donated 1000 francs to 23 grape producers to help start a business. The group were collectively farming 40 acres (16 hectares) of the Pinot Meunier grape, one of three varieties used in the production of champagne. The wine growers pooled their resources to first buy a press and then produce wine under a single label. The original press is now in the winery’ museum.
After starting in the museum, we got a tour of the production and storage facilities of the Dom Caudron Cooperative. Afterwards there was a tasting of several of their wines produced with 100% of the Pinot Meunier grape. Traditionally, Meunier grapes have been used as a blending grape in champagne. “Until recently, producers in Champagne generally did not acknowledge Pinot Meunier, preferring to emphasise the use of the other noble varieties, but now Pinot Meunier is gaining recognition for the body and richness it contributes to Champagne. Pinot Meunier is approximately one-third of all the grapes planted in Champagne.”
Apparently this isn’t the grape for me; I didn’t like anything I tried. Boris wasn’t wowed either. We got a nice stopper to preserve the bubbles, but other than that we didn’t make a purchase at the Dom Caudron Cooperative in Passy-Grigny.
After waiting for everyone to make their purchases, we were running a little behind, surprise, surprise. I thought the guide had been extremely patient all day. On the way back the matriarch was at it again trying to find out where she needed to be left off so she would be able to make her designer handbag purchase before the shop closed at the end of the day. Since she was the one who made us late all day, it was a little hard to be sympathetic. Unlike the morning when we were picked up at our hotels, the tour ended at a central metro location. That would have been fine, if the metro had been working.
Our driver agreed to take us closer to our hotels (very kind, it probably meant an additional hour of driving for him). In route, one of the daughters had to go to the bathroom and we made a stop. Fortunately, it was a picturesque spot and I got a great photo of the lighted watercraft on the river with the Bastille monument in the background.
We were headed to the Place de la Concorde and were stopped at a light just before crossing the bridge when the matriarch announced she was getting out. Of course, then there was the discussion about who was going and what was going to happen to all the packages of wine in the back. Next, the light changed and the drivers in the cars behind us were furious as people piled in and out of our van and we didn’t move.
Four of us stayed in the van until Place de la Concorde. I felt sorry for the young couple who ended up with all the packages for the group of six. Champagne bottles are not light. We tipped the driver well and reconsidered private tours for the future. All in all it was a great day. I always love my bubbles.