Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Paris day 5 - champagn-ya, darlink?

I couldn't resist.  I loved that SNL skit with Christopher Walken.  "What's the matter, darlink? How about a little champagn-ya?"  Reims, France.  We didn't know if it was pronounced "reeems" or "rems" and then were told it's "rants" like France.  Champagne capital of the world and a spectacular place to go relax, taste some fine bubbly, and get out of the city for a spell.
Evan booked tickets for us on the "TGV" from Paris to Reims.  Super easy after a short walk from our hotel and one Metro ride. We hoped on the TGV for an hour trip and arrived at this idyllic little town (founded circa 80 B.C.) of 200K people (which doesn't feel that big at all).  We decided to make our way to the Ofc of Tourism to get a map so we could make our way on foot to the champagne cave tours we'd booked.  The town is not that big so if you're up for the challenge we recommend walking.  You see so many cool buildings you'd miss on a bus or in a taxi.  We had to take this shot because someone left their empty champagne bottle in the window of the Ofc of Tourism.

Across the street from this restored ancient building is the awe-inspiring Notre Dame.  The detail, the windows, the architectural wonder of this place left us speechless.  Imagine, every king held their coronation in this church.
The woman at the Ofc of Tourism was pleasantly surprised we were planning to walk to our first cave tour at the Chateau Pommery.  Her smile made us feel like we'd made the right choice.  She suggested we walk the route of the King's coronation.  She said we'd find a beautiful park on our way to Pommery, which we did.
We also saw many buildings rich in history.  One building we saw was built in the 10th Century to protect the Abbey and the Church of St. Remi after viking raids in the 9th Century.
After all of this walking we were getting thirsty...it's time for champagne!  Our tour was scheduled for 11:45am and it was 11:30am.  Time to hussle!
We weren't very familiar with Pommery Champagne but quickly became fans because not only is it one of the oldest but it was also one of the first to be run by a woman!  I love the packaging too!  They have cute little bottles that I'll show a little later.  I wish we could travel with liquids!!  We begin with the Chateau, which was stunning.  A little history about this area - it's full of chalk pits which were originally dug by the Romans, perfect for keeping champagne at the perfect temperature and humidity.  At Pommery, we saw 4-5 of the 70 or so chalk pits Madame Pommery had dug to store the millions of bottles of champagne her company was producing annually.  The quick summary of champagne production is as follows:  1) grapes are picked and gently squeezed for juice, 2) juice sits in vats for 10-12 days with sugar and yeast, which makes "still" wine, 3) blends are made and put into bottles with a little more sugar and yeast.  This is double-fermenting. 
Taittinger bottle with dead yeast residue

Our tour guide had an adorable accent.  She kept saying, "ju no for zhee, ow u say, zee boobles?" 4) The filled bottles are laid flat until the yeast finally dies,

5) the bottles are then tilted at an angle and inserted into riddlers (I think), 6) Riddlers (the bottle turners) then slow rotate them a quarter or eighth turn in either direction.  This is all to slide the dead yeast down eventually into the 1/2" space in the neck of the bottle near the cork.
The riddlers will paint a small mark to know where they left off in turning.  Once the yeast sediment is in that little space in the neck, they flash freeze the bottle, remove the metal spike cap (no cork yet), turn the bottle over and let the ice "cork" pop removing all of the icky sediment with it.  They refill the lost liquid with a little wine and a small amount of sugar to continue the fermentation process.  They then cork the bottle, wash it and label it for selling and hopefully drinking!!  Which we did...
The caves were incredible.  I was trying to imagine the walls being chipped away by ancient Romans and was just blown away by the sheer scale of these pyrimidal (sp?) shaped pits or "crayeres".  Evan was able to dig his finger in a little and pull up a bit of chalk.  They are soft and it's incredible they haven't fallen apart over the years.  There have been some World Wars, mass destruction during the Revolution, etc...  It's quite impressive.
116 stairs to climb down & up!

We totally recommend doing this if you have the time and feel like tasting some fantastic champagne.  We don't recommend driving!  Take a taxi or bus from the train if you aren't up for the walking.  We also booked a tour at Taittinger.  It is a younger business but built on chalk pits that are similar in age.  The history of the land that Taittinger is built on is quite amazing.  The Abbey of Saint-Niclaise was completely destroyed in the Revolution.  However, many of the caves and stairways (now leading to nowhere) have been preserved.  The champagne was very good and the staff was very helpful.  We enjoyed both.  Originally I had put Veuve Cliquot on my list of must sees but we were too late to get an appointment and you can't taste without a tour.  We did stop in to check out the gift shop and see the grounds.  Very chic!  There's a five star hotel and really nice restaurant across the way.  It along with Pommery had the coolest colors and packaging!  They know how to get the ladies!!  haha! 
Gift shop in Veuve Cliquot
"Pop" art bottles at Pommery
I took this next picture at Taittinger because I was drooling at the largest bottle of champagne.  It takes two men to serve champagne out of the largest bottle...now that's a party!
Inside the facility were 3 gorgeous doors that were built using the iron pieces found among the ruins and restored.  The last picture is of the stairwell you have to climb to get back out of the caves.
Well, that was our wonderful day in Reims, France.  We're off in search of the most delectable Caramel Souffle.  Evan is on his own personal mission!  We'll let you know how it goes.  In the meantime, here I am in front of my dream cellar.  Au revoir!