Around the World: Celebrating Champagne!
Champagne‘s the sparkling wine that‘s launched a thousand ships, toasted millions of marriages, and ushered in new years since long before your great great grandfather was a lad. It's the universal standard for celebratory toasting. Pop that cork and the festivities officially begin.
Of course, Champagne’s also the name of the province in northeastern France where the world’s most famous celebratory drink originated and is still produced. In fact, only
the sparkling wines produced from this region's grapes qualify for the title Champagne.’ If you’re looking for genuine champagne, all other bubblies--even if they please the palate--are, technically speaking, imposters!
Champagne--the sparkling wine not the place--was created by French Benedictine monks. Frere Jean Oudart (1654-1742) and the more famous Dom Pierre Perignon (1639 to 1725), working independently as cellarmasters at their respective Champagnois abbeys of Saint-Pierre aux Monts de Chalons and Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers, invented methods of forming bubbles (or “mousse“) inside the bottles as their wines fermented and aged.
Actually, the two monks were pressed to cope with Champagne’s unusual growing and winemaking conditions. The region’s colder climate and shorter growing season meant that grapes had to be picked later in the year, leaving less time for fermentation before winter’s cold temperatures put a stop to the process by which the grapes’ sugars are
converted into alcohol. The method the monks developed was that of a second fermentation, a process that occurs in the bottle during the following spring. It‘s the
second fermentation that creates carbon dioxide bubbles for form in the special sparkling wine we know as champagne.
Champagne is a great place to celebrate champagne. Whether you get there for this, or next, or any New Year’s Eve, you’ll see that life in the region is very much about
wine-making. And so is tourism.
The lovely rural town of Epernay is the hub for making visits to winemakers. A stroll down Avenue de Champagne leads you to the three of the best.
At the historic headquarters of the famous Moet et Chandon, founded in 1743, you can take a guided tour that takes 45 minutes to an hour, and shows off the underground cellars, a caveau that stretches for about 17 miles (you don’t walk that much of it, but wear comfortable shoes anyway) and houses millions of carefully stacked bottles of the firm’s most celebrated product, Dom Perignon. The fascinating tours are conducted in various languages--be sure you sign up for one in English. You can sample the vintages for a fee.
Mercier Champagne offers tour of its cellars, too. Modern by Moet et Chandon standards, Mercier Champagne was founded in 1847, and the 45-minute tour features a laser-guided train and visit to the firm’s extraordinarily large 160,000 liter barrel (it took 20 years to build!). Again, you’ll want a tour in English.
Then there’s the very tourist-friendly Champagne de Castellane, where tours include the cellars, production site, a museum and the tower, an Epernay landmark from which you get marvelous views of the surrounding vineyards. For a small fee, you can have a tasting. And, you can buy bottles to bring home whatever celebration is on your agenda.
Champagne is also known for its abbeys and churches--not all of which are associated with winemaking. In the beautiful and historic city of Troyes, you’ll find some 30 Sixteenth Century churches, including the magnificent Cathedrale de Saint-Pierre at Saint-Paul, with structural elements dating back to around 1200, an ornate gothic Façade and extraordinary stained-glass windows--about 180 of them--that bathe the cathedral’s interior with colored lights during the day. The cathedral is open for tourists, but entry is restricted during mass.
The Twelfth Century Eglise Sainte-Madeleine is the oldest church in Troyes. The structure was modified during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and it, too, has a spectacular collection of stained-glass depicting the life of Madeleine and of several other saints.
Troyes’ Museum of Tools and Crafts is housed in the Hotel de Mauroy, a Renaissance-style building. If ever you wondered how artisans in ages past were able to build such
magnificent structures and produce such marvelous furnishings, this fascinating museum and its more than 8,000 beautifully displayed tools will give you some ideas and insights.
The Musee Saint-Loup’s medieval collection includes sculptures, enamels, archaeological treasures and other artifacts. Check beforehand for opening hours, which are very limited.
Musee des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie de Troyes exhibit’s a fine collection of 19th century statues and other works by Watteau, Natoire and Greuze, plus several important items of archaeological interest.
Then, too, just wandering the streets of Troyes is like being in a museum. You can sit down at an outdoor café and take a longer, more leisurely look at the buildings--perhaps
while sipping a glass of local wine, sparkling or not.
No visit to the Champagne region would be complete without a stop at its capital city, historic Rheims, and a visit to its amazing cathedral. This Haute Gothic urban masterpiece is where 24 kings of France were coronated, including Charles VII in 1429.
Charles VII was accompanied to his coronation by Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans who rallied French soldiers to defeat the English during the Hundred Years War. Joan was
later captured by the English, put on trial for witchcraft and subsequently burned at the stake in 1431. Almost five centuries later, Joan was canonized by the Roman Catholic
Church and there is now a statue of Joan astride a steed stands beside the cathedral where she had one of her crowning moments.
St. Remi's basilica, a UNESCO World Heritage site located about a mile from the center of town, is named for the Fifth Century Saint Remi, patron saint of Rheims. The
structure dates back to the Eleventh century, with later additions. It was badly damaged during WWI, but was restored following the war.
Next to the basilica, the Royal Abbey of Saint Remi dates back to the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The present abbey building dates back to the 17th and 18th
centuries and is open to the public under the banner of the Saint-Remi Museum.
In tribute to its more modern history, Rheims boasts the Musee Automobile Rheims-Champagne, featuring an expansive collection of some 200 automobiles, most of them
And, speaking of vrai vintage, there’s more champagne to be sampled in Rheims. You can visit the famous and historic Taittinger Caves, as well as the well-known Veuve Clicquot champagne house.
The Champagne region, its sights and sparkling wine will provide you with a memorable celebration. For more information, browse the Campagne Tourism Website at http://www.reims-tourism.com/Discover/Champagne. Then, sip and savor, and enjoy!