Saturday May 31, 2008
We got into Reims around 9:30 pm after going back through Metz, and it was dark and raining when we arrived.We set out on our trek to find our hotel, a little outside the city centre, by foot. The "20 minute walk" probably took an hour (even without Danny leading), and finally we arrived at our hotel-soaked. Luckily we decided to drink a little on the train so that made the walk a little more fun. When we got back we went to a local pizza place and had probably the best kebabs and pizza ever.
The next day we woke up and had the receptionist call a Champagne Cellar for us to book a tour. Once again we took a roundabout way (most of the streets did not have signs) and finally got there after walking for over an hour - luckily we were able to leave our bags at the hotel.The place/chateau was a lot more elegant and bigger than I was expecting. I figured some small shack with a few underground caves…instead we arrive to this huge gate with a large castle-like chateau behind. Also there was some Porsche convention/sale/show going on right outside the chateau, so it looked even cooler with shiny Porsches lining the driveways.
Our tour was only 15 euros and included 2 champagne tastings at the end. The champagne house was founded in 1858 with the primary business being wool trading. Louise Pommery dedicated the place to champagne production after her husband died. She purchased an underground network of 120 pits, and 18 km of connecting tunnels, originally dug out by Romans 2000 years ago. She was an art lover so she had 4 carvings made in various caves, all done by candlelight over the course of 3 years. At the end of this project, the artist became blind. In the caves she began to store and age the champagne. Whenever she found a new market to sell her champagne she would name one of the caves after it and keep that champagne in that cave. Now there are over 20 million bottles of champagne stored in the caves, which are no longer organized the same way, but still are systematically labeled and accounted for.
We learned all about how the champagne is made. It's fermented twice, compared to wine's single fermentation, giving it the bubbles. In the second fermentation, they add yeast and sugar to a regular wine (or blend of winese) and that is sealed and aged for at least 1.5 years. The yeast inside the bottle consumes the sugar, releasing alcohol and gas. There are 5 different bottle sizes that the champagne is stored in, the biggest being 9 L and the smallest being the size you usually would buy. As the champagne ages, the yeast begins to die, leaving sediment. As this happens, the bottles must undergo a process called riddling which involves rotating the bottle every few days and keeping it tilted upsidedown, so that the sediments, or lees, move down into the neck and can be removed. The riddling process is done by machine for regular sized bottles and magnums, but by hand for the larger-sized bottles. When all the lees are in the neck, they are then removed by freezing the neck (and only the neck) of the bottle, and removing the cap. The pressure from inside the bottle pushes out the ice with the lees frozen inside, additional blends of wine are added to top off the bottle and it is recapped. The winde does not lose all of its bubbles because the gas in champagne is actually in the wine itself, not just added carbonation. For this reason, if you do not shake a bottle of champagne, the bubbles should not go spewing everywhere and you could even keep it in the fridge for 24 hours after opening without it losing all of its bubbles. Before they discovered this process to de-sediment the champagne, they had no way of getting the sediment out of the bottle. Therefore champagne was used as a dessert drink because this allowed time for the sediment to settle to the stem of the glass, while dinner was being eaten. Also in the 1800's a glass of champagne had the same amount of sugar as a coke-18 grams, now only 10 grams are used.
After the tour we tasted our champagnes-Laura and I split four different types (check out the video for a bad explanation of each). Then we headed back to the hotel, got our bags, went to the city to get food and postcards, and headed out to the train. It was a good weekend overall and a fun way to get a "taste" of French culture!