Have you ever wondered where does your bottle of sparking wine come from? Just as you, we were curious and we set out to find the source of these delectable products of France (not the ones from elsewhere). Where else to start but in the country of France itself! Our snooping took us to the far reaches of France during a series of road trips that would span the length and breadth of the country. In this essay, we will show you what how to go “champagne hunting” in where else but – Champagne!
Our road trip started out from Paris, where Mel had just concluded a business conference.
Our first stop was a small mountain top town of Provins; about 50km southeast of Paris. This mountain top town has preserved its old character and boasts of a medieval wall.
From the center of the town, we decided to take a walk around using the sign posting as a guide. We came up to a structure that looked like a cathedral. As it was early in the morning (oh did we mention it was winter?), the place was not open. So we walked around, trying to find a better vantage point, but did not find it.
The town’s medieval wall is still intact, in fact very as you can see! A thought entered our minds : it seems possible to drive along a small road that runs along the wall, but we did not do that. Hehe.
But then we realize that there was practically nobody on the streets. It’s cold. Time to get back into the car. Obviously because these two duckies were almost frozen!
Drunk with ecstasy
Driving through the national roads, we headed next through the vineyards of Champagne. They were all bare since this is still winter. So all we could see were the vines. So quaint looking and different then when it was bosomy with leaves and grapes. As we entered the town of Epernay, we drove straight up to the Avenue du Champagne, because we came and we conquer!
Epernay itself does not have much in the way of historical sights and when we arrived it was lunch time (ie 12-2pm). You know in France the folks take their lunch hours seriously, so we had to wait till 2pm to visit our first “Champagnerie” (as we call it) at Castellane. The winery houses a museum with a lot of old tools used in the champagne trade.
The visit costs €7pp at the time of our visit and it includes a guided tour through the caves, concluding with a complimentary drink. The visit is worth it, to experience the walk through the cellar caves and the many miles (we thought) of aging wines and champagne. During the tour, the guide gave explanations about the aging process of the champagne. Unfortunately, it was conducted in French!
However that did not mean we were lost. You see, we did do some homework ahead of the journey. Plus they did shove an English narrative into our hands and gesticulated “recit, recit”. So not all was lost. As we were led through the dark caves, we noticed the similarities – ie the constant and cool environment in which the fermentation takes place for the ageing process of the wine (ya, bring warm clothes!). Humidity too is a constant and probably helps in this process. In the words of the experts, a “secondary fermentation” takes place, the process by which carbonation occurs. This is what gives the sparkling bubbles in the wine – now called a champagne. Aha! So they don’t pressurize carbon dioxide into the wine!
The use of the word Champagne to describe a vineyard’s sparkling wine is actually limited. Even within France itself, only sparkling wine from this region can call theirs as such. It is prestigious trademark and infringement is frowned upon with threat of punitive actions. We learned that the primary grape varieties used in the making of champagne are: Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. So at least this journey was educational.
While other regions such the Loire also produces fine sparkling wine, theirs are called “cremant”. And though most champagne are white, there is an increasing number of viticulturalists who are producing red or rose champagne (such as Ackermann in the Loire). We concluded our champagne examination with a visit to Mercier, yet another wine house, before making it to Pommery the next day. Quite a fair amount of drinking and if you drive….
All across France, you will be able to stop at the locales where grapes are cultivated and wines produced for a tasting. Do you know that the annual mean temperature of between 10°C to 20°C is optimal for
vines to thrive? That and between 1300-1500 hours of sunshine is needed to sweeten the grapes before harvesting. It is probably the unique geography of France that makes it well suited to cultivate this fruit, as it lies entirely within the temperate latitudes of 30°N and 50°N. There is an interesting spin on how the bubbly wine came into being and if you have time, look it up in the web.
More than just bubbly
Well you would think that Champagne is all about the sparkling alcoholic drink right? Wrong!
From Epernay we had driven away in the evening and stayed overnight in Reims. Remember we said it was winter? Well, the snow covered almost the entire car and we spent ½ hour getting the snow off the car because we forgot to bring our snow wiper!
When we finally managed to clean off the snow, we drove into the center of Reims to the grand cathedral of the city. This cathedral is indeed beautiful! We spent some time admiring the stained glasses and sat there contemplating. The stained glass of the cathedral is really beautiful when the sun is shining through it, producing for us a halo effect.
As there was no service at the time, we had freedom to take pictures as we please. Though the Bishop’s palace that is located next to the cathedral we did not visit. Entrance to both are free, but parking in the area is really hard to find…
And just before we left Champagne, we made a stopover in the border town of Sedan. The site of the largest fortress in France, this citadel was one of the many erected to protect France’s Eastern frontiers. You recall in our other essay on Alsace and Lorraine (here) about the historical rivalry between France and Germany?
Well, the renowned French military strategist Vauban constructed a similar series of fortifications in this region to prevent the rising German power (Prussia) from encroaching on what was (is) considered French domains. See how strong the walls are?
Our journey back to Amsterdam was relatively uneventful, except for the bountiful snow-scape that enveloped the views on both sides of the road. So you see Champagne is not just a land of sparkling wine! It was fortunate that the day turned out to be clear and beautiful, which also meant it was very cold…
Doing such a road trip even in the depths of winter is wonderful. You do need to be careful with driving on icy roads, but the rewards are just and we are sure you will come away pretty pleased.
Such wonderful pictures taken as we drove our way home.
This journey took place in February 2005