It’s Champagne Time

Who doesn’t like a glass of champagne? It’s the perfect drink for a celebration and a great way to start a party. It goes equally well with strawberries and seafood. Sometimes the mere sight of a flute of champagne can evoke mouthfuls of hidden delights.

But tasting the bubbly in Champagne, its original home in France is not just sipping from a couple of different bottles, it is a great experience.

First of all, you have to remember that the prestigious name champagne can only be used for the sparkly white wine produced in the Champagne region in Northern France. All the other producers must use names such as Cremant (elsewhere in France), Prosecco (in Italy), or Sparkling Wine (in US) to brand their produce.  Here are some fun facts on champagne:

Dom Perignon from  Warhol's eyes
Dom Perignon from Warhol’s eyes

–         Romans as early as the 5th century started to produce wine in the region.  However the champagne taste that we know and love come from 17th century when a Benedictine monk called Dom Perignon had redefined the champagne making process by producing a clear white wine from the rich red grapes.  Today his name is the brand name of  Moet & Chandon’s most prestige cuvee. He’s famously quoted as calling to his fellow monks :  ‘Come quickly! I’m tasting the stars.’

–          When you visit the cellars,  your guide will explain how meticulously they twist and turn the bottles to create the perfect amount of bubbles but one thing he/she will forget to mention will be the English influence at champagne making. For a period of time the French producers tried to produce a still wine and eliminate the bubbles. The English were one of the first who saw the tendency of Champagne to sparkle as a desirable aspect and tried to understand why it did bubble. They also reinvented the use of corks for sealing bottles, which was used originally by the Romans but forgotten with the fall of the Roman Empire .

Perfecting the bubbles
Perfecting the bubbles

–          Champagne was not only the favourite drink of gods but kings and queens as well. The regions association with royalty started very early when the French Kings who were crowned at Reims Cathedral demanded to be served the Champagne wines only. The most famous of them was of course Louis XIV, who following the advice of his doctors, has drunk only champagne with every meal for almost all his life.

–          Marie Antoinette, perhaps the most hedonist queen ever lived, has said to drink champagne only from bol-sein, a cup modelled after her own breasts. Lagerfeld recreated the bol-sein for Dom Perignon , using Claudia Schiffer as inspiration.

Bol-Sein a la Lagerfeld
Bol-Sein à-la Lagerfeld

–          “I drink Champagne when I win to celebrate and I drink Champagne when I lose to console myself.” Napoleon first met Champagne maker Jean-Remy Moët while at French military school. The friendship of these two men would have lasting impact on the history of the Champagne region and on the beverage itself as Napoleon actively supported his friend and stopped by his Château often even after making himself the emperor.

–       The association of champagne with royalty is visible even in the bottle names, where the large bottles are named after ancient Babylonian Kings.  There are nine different sizes of bottles used by the champagne producers. Their names are Split (1/4 litres)  , Half (1/2 lt), Bottle (1 lt), Magnum (2 lt), Jeroboam (4 lt), Methuselah (8 lt), Salmanazar (12 lt), Balthazar (16 lt) and the largest of them all, the Nabuchadnezzar (20 lt).

From Split to Nabuchadnezzar
From Nabuchadnezzar to Split

Champagne tasting is really a great experience in Champagne. Every major house tries to add a twist to make the experience even more memorable.  The cost of a visit to a major producer starts from 10 EUR per person and can go up to 30 EUR depending on how many glasses of champagne you wish to taste after touring the cellars.  The major estates are constantly collaborating with artists and celebrities like Karl Lagerfeld,  Marc Jacobs, Patrick Demarchelier,  David Lynch and Roger Federer to create images to capture our imaginations as well as our taste buds. As a result, Moet & Chandon has great stories to tell ranging from Dom Perignon to Bonaparte to Federer ; Mercier has the underground laser operated train touring its cellars which is a must-do for any age group; Veuve Clicquot has the best designer goodies and Mumm, being one of the official sponsors of Formula 1,  successfully associated itself with celebrations and winning.

Mumm's Cellars
G.H, Mumm’s Cellars

After tasting the champagne of these great names, you can also visit some of the dozens of small producers in the region who produce great champagne and anxious to introduce you to their world with very reasonable prices.

In one of our visits, we stayed at Château d’Etoges near Epernay, a château turned into a charming hotel with its own moat and surrounded by gardens. Its restaurant, L’Orangerie was excellent for a special night out.

Château d’Etoges
Château d’Etoges

The Champagne cuisine is a mix of fine French cuisine and rustic regional specialities. As the region borders Belgium, there are also plenty of Flemish dishes on the menu. However the authentic regional cuisine is based on game such as venison, boar, rabbit and pheasants. Large areas of the region are a game hunter’s paradise and France’s traditional (and royal) hunting ground Foret d’Arc – en Barrois is located in the region.

Reims Cathedral at night
Reims Cathedral at night

The champagne region offers a lot more than the delicious bubbly. Reims is one of my favourite cities in France with its gothic masterpiece, Cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims. The cathedral is founded on an ancient basilica of which some parts are still visible. Reims Cathedral played a very important role in French history, from 466 AD onwards the majority of the French Kings were crowned there.  There’s a permanent exhibition within the cathedral showing the various ornaments, jewels and of course the crowns that were used in the ceremonies.

In one of the chapels you’ll see three very striking glass windows created by Marc Chagall in 1970s. He created some very strong colours which are intensified by the natural light and change according to where the viewer is standing.

Chagall's Blues
Chagall’s Blues

Another interesting and delicious thing about Reims is its Pink Biscuits whose tastes truly come out if dipped in a glass of champagne just before eating. In fact, the locals believe that it was a fellow patissier who invented the biscuit in 17th century and the name bis-cuit (meaning cooked twice in French) come from the cooking process.

If you plan a visit to the region, don’t forget Troyes, whose historic centre with its timber buildings and narrow streets remind me of Shakespeare’s mediaeval England rather than a modern city in the heart of France. Some streets are so narrow two people can’t walk together and their walls are lined with niches and stepping stones every few meters. In medieval ages when a horse passed people had to step on those stones in order not to get into horse’s way.

But back to the delicious bubbly. I read somewhere that Bette Davis once said ‘There comes a time in every woman’s life when the only thing that helps is a glass of champagne.’

How very true.

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