Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Taste of Travel: French Champagne

France considers its wine a national treasure, and the crown jewel of that treasure is champagne. The houses - Bollinger, Krug, Pommery, Taittinger, Veuve Cliquot - are well known to aficionados and many welcome visitors for a look behind the mystique.

By law, only champagne created in the Champagne region of France can bear the name - everything else is merely sparkling wine, and no matter how good, lacks the prestige of the iconic French bubbly. Though you can travel to myriad small champagne vineyards throughout the region, the most accessible place to enjoy a glass of authentic bubbly is in Reims, capital of the Champagne province and a short 45-minute TGV train ride from Paris.

Rich in history and home of the cathedral where France's kings were crowned, Reims has a lot to offer, but for a touch of life in the lap of luxury, two cellar tours top the list. Domaine Pommery and G.H. Mumm are both walking distance from the city center, and the cellar tours give visitors an excellent overview of the process of making world-class champagne along with the history of champagne and the individual companies. Keep in mind, tours of the champagne caves should be booked in advance to ensure a spot in an English-language tour. Each lasts about an hour, with a tasting at the end.

Madame Louise Pommery built the Domaine Pommery Estate ten years after taking over her late husband's champagne business, and she was responsible for creating brut (dry) champagne in 1874. Before that time, champagne was a very sweet drink, generally consumed with dessert. Brut is also lighter and fruitier than the original.

In addition to playing a key role in the history of champagne, Madame Pommery was also a great supporter of the arts, and as you follow your guide down the stairs into the caves, which were originally carved out of the chalk earth 2,000 years ago by Roman slaves, you will see numerous pieces of art spanning a variety of genres.

The caves at the G.H. Mumm Estate, created by Georges Hermann de Mumm, a short distance away are newer, but fill the same function of keeping the 20 - 25 million bottles at a constant 10 to 12 degrees Celsius and 85 percent humidity. Similar in size, both Pommery and G.H. Mumm produce about 5 million bottles each year.

Following your guide through each tour, you will have the process of making champagne explained in depth, from the planting and harvesting of the grapes to the aging process, riddling and removal of sediments and, finally, opening the bottles. Each tour travels past stack after stack of bottles, walls in their own right, frequently pausing at points of interest to talk. Pommery's caves still have labels on the walls of various cities throughout the world - reminiscent of the time when champagne was prepared differently according to a particular region's tastes. Now, however, it follows the same recipe.

Champagnes are blends of wines, and the cellar masters have the ultimate say in which wines will be selected for that year's vintage, giving the champagne its final style. At Pommery, up to 150 different wines are involved in the process.

After blending, the champagne is fermented with yeast and sugar. This is the second fermentation in the champagne process, as the blended wines are each previously fermented. The second fermentation must be aged at least 15 months, but both Pommery and G.H. Mumm age all of their bottles a minimum of 30 months.

The second fermentation leaves sediment of dead yeast, and that must be removed before the bottle is eventually sold. To get the sediment to the neck of the bottle, it subjected to riddling, the careful twisting of the bottle at different angles during the fermentation to allow sediments to collect at the neck of the bottle.

In the past, the sediments were removed by quickly opening the bottle and allowing the pressure to shoot them out before re-corking. That had to be done with skill, to prevent losing too much of the champagne, but still allowing the removal of the sediment. Today, the necks of the bottles are frozen, so the sediment is trapped in a block of ice. The bottles are opened, the frozen sediment is expelled under pressure, and the bottle is re-corked.

At G.H. Mumm, there is a small museum featuring some of the antique tools and devices used in the champagne-making process in the past. Pommery's caves are adorned with objets d'art throughout, but both take tours past their most precious bottles - safely behind protective bars.

On display at Pommery is a bottle of the first vintage of brut and every vintage since. G.H. Mumm has a similar display, with bottles from the current vintage all the way back to the 1800s.

At the end of each tour, there is a tasting. The basic tours include one glass for about €10 per person. Additional glasses of champagne will add to the cost and the experience. Bottles, t-shirts and a number of other souvenirs are available in gift shops at each estate.

Practical Info

Reims can be done as a day trip from Paris if your only goal is to tour champagne caves, but even then, it is best to stay at least one night in the city.

Getting There: The best way to get to Reims is on a direct, highspeed TGV train leaving from Paris Est station. Prices start as low as $20 one way if booked online in advance ( A tram is being built in Reims to make transportation within the city even easier, though construction is ongoing.

Reims Info: Online Guide to Reims

Champagne Houses

Domaine Pommery
5 Place General Gourand, +33 (0) 26 61 62 55
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Tours start at €10

Hours: Easter to mid-November 10am - 5pm daily

G.H. Mumm

34 Rue du Champ de Mars, +33 (0 )326-49-6967
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Tours start at €10

Hours: Daily March 1 to October 31, 9am - 11am and 2 - 5pm; other times weekend and holiday afternoons

9 Place Saint Nicaise, Reims Cedex, +33 (0) 326-85-4535, Website

Hours: mid-March to mid-November Daily 9:30am - 1pm, 2pm - 5:30pm; other times Monday - Friday only.

Veuve Clicquot

12 rue du Temple, Reims Cedex, +33 (0) 326-89-5440
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Visits by appointment only

Note: This article was originally published on The Savvy Explorer

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