TCO Guide to Champagne: The Region & Its Bubbly
Text & photos by Marla Norman, Publisher
Pop! pop! POP! The joyful sound of corks exploding from bottles is heard all day, every day and into the night in Champagne. Locals here drink their bubblies at lunch, as an apéritif, during dinner and for dessert. Champagne is always the drink of choice here. And why not? Especially when you have some of the world’s most prestigious labels produced within your midst.
A few quick, eye-popping facts about the Champagne region. Over 309,000,000 bottles are produced annually, with sales totaling €4.7 billion or $4.9 billion.
France consumes 52% of the annual Champagne production, while 48% of the bottles are exported, primarily to the United Kingdom, with purchases of 34 million bottles yearly. The United States is the next largest consumer, with an annual in-take of 20.5 million bottles, followed by Germany and Japan, each of whom purchase about 12 million bottles annually. (Statistics from Comité Champagne)
The three primary grapes grown for champagne – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay – are cultivated by approximately 15,800 vineyards. There are about 300 main Champagne houses. The largest houses, in order, are: Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Nicolas Feuillatte, G.H. Mumm, Laurent-Perrier and Taittinger. Smaller, but highly sought-after houses include Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger, Charles Heidsieck, Louis Roederer, Krug, Perrier-Jouët. Even smaller houses, such as Salon (owned by Laurent Perrier) and Selosse produce cult wines with prices ranging from $125 to $500+ per bottle.
BEFORE THE BUBBLES
Interestingly, the first sparkling wines in France originated in Loire. Champagne produced wine since 57 BC, but essentially only red red grapes were grown. Indeed, for a number of decades, Champagne competed fiercely with Burgundy for the wine market. Eventually – and not surprisingly – Burgundy Pinot Noir was judged to be superior. Growers in Champagne switched to white grapes to survive.
But white grapes were also problematic for Champagne growers. Barrels of still white wine shipped to England frequently became carbonated once they had arrived. Wine growers in Champagne despaired as their wines developed a strange fizz. To compensate, they began shipping their wines earlier, working diligently to ship in cold temperatures as soon as the initial fermentation had ceased. But, to their consternation, the annoying fizz continued to develop as their wines sat in warm English taverns and experienced a second fermentation.
Then something remarkable happened…British society fell in love with the sparkly, fizzy wines. Wine purveyors began bottling the wine and even adding a little sugar to increase the carbonated fizz. A new wine was born!
But what about Dom Pérignon, who famously “drank stars” while discovering Champagne? As Cellar Master at the Benedictine Abbey of Hautvillers, Dom Pérignon developed a number of techniques to improve the quality of wines – including efforts to rid them of bubbles. A clever Moët & Chandon marketing campaign in the late 19th century is now attributed to the good monk’s starry quote and credit for “inventing” Champagne. (Hugh Johnson – The Story of Wine)
REIMS: ROYAL CITY
Reims may not be the official capital of Champagne – lovely Épernay claims a right to the title as well. But Reims is where French kings were coronated from the 5th century until 1825. And the city is also home to a new TGV route – the French bullet train carries passengers from Paris to Reims in a mere hour or so.
Dive right into the bubbles at the legendary cellars of Veuve Clicquot. Established in 1772, the charismatic and determined Widow Clicquot (Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin) survived both the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars to establish one of the premier Champagne houses in the world.
Three different tours are available at Veuve Clicquot:
Discover – Includes a tour of the cellars and a tasting of the Brut Yellow Label cuvée is included for €25.00 per person.
In the Footsteps of Madame Clicquot – Includes a cellar tour and a tasting of both the Brut Yellow Label cuvée and prestige cuvée, La Grande Dame for €50.00 per person.
Garden & Cellar – Focuses on aromatics, so essential to wine, with tours of the property gardens and cellars.The tasting includes Four vintages including two rare vintages, paired with cheeses. €120 per person. Be sure to make reservations several weeks before you arrive!
Back in the Reims city center, visit the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. This Gothic wonder is over 800 years old and considered one of the great masterpieces of the Middle Ages, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walk the long aisle – just like the 32 French kings. Notice the magnificent transepts and side chapels. When you reach the nave you’ll see the stone marking the spot where the kings were anointed.
Stained glass windows, dating from the 13th to the 20th century, are installed over the choir. A rare, centuries-old rose window has survived over the main portal. Marc Chagall and Imi Knoebel designed the stained glass windows at the east-end of the cathedral.
Climb to the top of the towers and view surrounding Reims. Look within the elaborate roof construction, which was re-built after being destroyed during World War I.
Across from the Cathedral, in a small plaza, is a statue of Joan of Arc. During the Hundred Years War, Reims and much of northern France fell to the English. In an extraordinary turn of events, the audacious teenager from Orléans liberated the city and led Charles VII to the throne.
The Palais du Tau sits adjacent to the Cathedral and houses the coronation robes and crowns of the French kings. The palace, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was used by the aristocracy to prepare for coronations and hold banquets following the ceremonies. Priceless tapestries cover the walls and a collection of chalices and reliquaries, including a talisman belonging to Charlemagne are on display as well.
For more modern history, visit Le Musée de la Reddition (Museum of the Surrender), located a few blocks away from the Cathedral. Here, on May 7, 1945, General Dwight Eisenhower met with General Alfred Jodl to sign the German surrender and an end to World War II. The museum presents numerous artifacts and memorabilia documenting the combat and eventual liberation.
Champagne suffered greatly during both World Wars. National treasures, like the Cathedral Notre Dame, were plundered and heavily damaged. Champagne houses were commandeered – their stock shipped off to Germany and property left in ruins.
During World War I, France lost 1.3 million soldiers and civilians; over 4.2 million were wounded. Champagne, because of its proximity to the German border, was the scene of some of the most horrific carnage. (Statistics from The Great War.)
Given the fact that the mere word “Champagne” is synonymous with celebration and the good life, it’s difficult to imagine that the area has known so much suffering.
Perhaps the region’s tragic past can explain the Champenois love for daily bubbles – a chance to celebrate all life’s good moments small or remarkable. And, of course, anything is better with Champagne!
If you’re ready for a Champagne break, stop by Le Parvis. – a Champagne shop and bar located directly across from the Cathedral of Notre-Dame.
Le Parvis offers an endless selection of Champagne. Once you’ve made a choice, find a seat outside and contemplate the exquisite facade of the Cathedral, with its perfect proportions and gravity-defying towers.
ÉPERNAY: THE OTHER CAPITAL
The main boulevard through Épernay is named “Avenue de Champagne” and serves as a reminder that the city is also a contender for the title “Capital of Champagne.” While Reims, with its magnificent Cathedral and aristocratic heritage feels a bit formal and aloof, Épernay is much more approachable. Its Belle Époque architecture, cute shops and parks are picture postcard charming. The city’s main roundabout sports a giant cork and bottle-top – slightly goofy, but guaranteed to induce smiles.
If you’re visiting Épernay in December, join in the Habits de Lumière, three days of fireworks, flamboyant light shows and street theatre. Needless to say, the Champagne is free-flowing and ever present.
Épernay does have its serious side, however. Champagne is, after all, big business and producing a good Champagne is hard work, as you’ll discover while touring the various houses.
The world’s largest Champagne House, Moët & Chandon occupies block after block within the city, with cellars spanning 28 kilometer or 17.4 miles. Take a tour of the famous labyrinth and enjoy a tasting afterward. The property is typically open 7 days a week.
NOTE: At some point during your stay, visit Hautvillers, the abbey where the legendary monk Dom Pérignon experimented with various techniques to improve wine. Pay your respects at his tomb located in a tiny Benedictine chapel – now owned by Moët & Chandon.
Épernay is also home to Champagne icons Pol Roger, Mercier and Perrier Jouet. Mercier is undoubtedly one of the most modern houses. Book a tour there and ride an electric train through the tunnels. Unlike most cellars that evolved without a plan over centuries, Mercier was designed to be accessible. In fact, the layout was inspired by New York City streets.
The Mercier cellars are also renown for sculptures carved into the chalk walls and a giant barrel which holds the equivalent of 213,000 bottles of Champagne.
Lesser known outside of Europe, but especially popular in France, is Castellane. At this property, see a history of Champagne. An extensive collection of old tools, bottles, labels and posters are on display. Visitors may also visit the cellars and bottling and label plant.
Épernay, like Reims, is filled with bistros, bars and opportunities to sample Champagne. C Comme Champagne specializes in Champagnes from small, independent production houses – over 350 champagnes from 45 different growers are stocked. Here you’ll find unique selections at very affordable prices.
C Comme also offers a weekly selection of Champagnes by the glass, showcasing a variety of styles. Small plates and charcuterie are available as well.
The Épernay Tourist Information Center, open daily from 3:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. often holds free tastings for visitors on weekends. Just pick up a ticket at the front desk to take part.
Whatever you do, take a few moments to toast the people of Champagne, who have spent centuries cultivating the perfect beverage to mark the best occasions and life’s most memorable events. Santé!