October 19, 2011

The Art of Champagne: Our Visit to Reims

Our trip to Reims to learn about champagne (and taste it!) was kind of last-minute, so we didn’t have a lot of options available for tours and although I kind of balked at spending 75€ for a “private tour” at Veuve Clicquot, I can tell you it was absolutely worth it. There were only 4 of us on this private tour which lasted almost 3 hours.

I learned that champagne is actually comprised of three grapes: pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier. 

The history of the champagne region, its producers and the bureaucracy of the rating system was pretty fascinating. Founded in 1772, Philippe Clicquot-Muiron established the original enterprise which in time became the house of Veuve Clicquot. His son, François Clicquot, married Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin in 1798 and died in 1805, leaving his widow (veuve in French) in control of the company.

Madame Clicquot

During the Napoleonic Wars, Madame Clicquot made strides in establishing her wine in royal courts throughout Europe, notably that of Imperial Russia. By the time she died in 1866, Veuve Clicquot had become both a substantial Champagne house and a respected brand. Easily recognized by its distinctive bright yellow labels, the wine holds a royal warrant of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom.

A Step for Every Vintage Year

Madame Clicquot was quite the business woman (she had brains, but not beauty?) and was credited with a great breakthrough in champagne handling that made mass production of the wine possible. In the early 19th century, with the assistance of her cellar master, Antoine de Müller, Clicquot invented the riddling rack that made the crucial process of dégorgement both more efficient and economic. Clicquot's advance involved systematically collecting the spent yeast and sediments left from the wine's secondary fermentation in the bottle's neck by using a specialized rack.

Composed much like a wooden desk with circular holes, the rack allowed a bottle of wine to be stuck sur point or upside down. Every day a cellar assistant would gently shake and twist (remuage) the bottle to encourage wine solids to settle to the bottom. When this was completed. the cork was carefully removed, the sediments ejected, and a small replacement dose of sweetened wine added. 

During the bombardment of German artillery of World War I, many Champenois took refuge in the underground limestone caves (crayères) used for Champagne storage. We loved how cool it was down in the caves -- given the unusual heat during the month of September, this was probably the first time during our trip that we were "cool."


I thought it was kind of neat that the company honors long-term employees by "naming" crayères after these employees.

This employee worked here for 67 years!

The tour was focused on their vintage champagnes and included 5 glasses of champagne (this was before noon!). We tasted two vintage whites and two vintage rosé champagnes and then the fifth glass of champagne was our choice based on our favorite. I adore champagne (especially the expensive kind) and the champagne we tasted was no exception.

It was perhaps the five glasses of champagne that I indulged in that led me to acquire two very expensive bottles of their vintage 1990 champagne to enjoy for my "milestone" birthday next year. As our French saying goes, "it is what it is." Seriously, this champagne was delicious!

After our drunken tour ended, we wandered around the city of Reims for a few hours and visited the Cathedral of Reims.


The Cathedral of Reims (heavily damaged by the Germans during the First World War but restored since) played the same role in France as Westminster Abbey has in the United Kingdom as the traditional site of crowning of the Kings of France.


It still amazes me that these buildings were constructed before the advent of power tools. How did they do that?


Probably one of the most useful pieces of information that I took away from our tour was that champagne is mostly comprised of a blend of steel-drum wines from multiple harvest years (the term used for the wines fermented during the first stage of production and often number more than 500+ wines per harvest). If a particular steel-drum wine is deemed worthy of a "vintage" year, then the champagne produced from that year's harvest is NOT blended with other harvest years.

So if you ever see a bottle of champagne with a date on it, it's a vintage year and will be superior to the blended champagne. We were also told that France is pretty stingy with their vintage bottles and don't export very large quantities making them much harder to find in the United States. So if you're not sure what to get me for a gift . . . champagne is a good call!

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