June 16, 2019: Champagne and History
I was in Paris, France for 10 days for my girlfriend’s fashion brand launch. She was busy during most of the days with meetings, but I was free and was looking to take a day trip There are huge number of stellar day trip options. I settled on Reims, capital of the Champagne region because my girlfriend is allergic to grapes and wouldn’t want to go there with me. There are many many other worthy choices. You could take a two-week trip to Paris, only do train day trips and not get bored.
Reims was only a 46 minute ride away from Paris’s Gare d’Est on the high speed SCNF trains. I left on a 9:30 AM train and booked a 6:30 PM train back.
My first stop was the famed Reims Cathedral: Notre-Dame de Reims. This unbelievably impressive church was the site of the coronation of French kings. It was far more impressive than the Paris Notre Dame Cathedral (before the fire). Since 987, all but 6 French kings were crowned in the Reims Cathedral. They chose Reims because the city was the site where St. Remy converted Clovis, making France (or its predecessor) a Christian country.
The cathedral saw a lot of damage from both World Wars. Many of the windows were destroyed during World War I. The destroyed windows were redone over the years by modern artists including Marc Chagall.
I then walked 20 minutes south through the town to my first stop: the Taittinger Champagne cellar. All visits to champagne cellars must be pre-booked. Walk-ins are almost never allowed.
It was weird to see a winery in the middle of the city. Usually they are surrounded by grapes. The austere visitor center was barren and had nothing besides a desk and a couple bottles behind exhibit glass.
When the tour began, my group was led into another room to watch a film on the history of the cellar and champagne. While many places produce sparkling wine, champagne can only be grown in one of 128 villages from this part of France. Traditionally, champagne is made from white wine grapes only, but many of the cellars have also been producing sparkling rosé.
Then we started the real tour. We went down 60 feet down a spiral staircase and ended up in the cellars. These cellars are a 4 kilometer-long network of tunnels that were originally dug by the Romans but then expanded in the 13th century by monks. The tunnels were underneath a now-destroyed church. These monks discovered (or at least perfected) the process of creating sparkling wine which they then sold to visitors of the church. These caves were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.
Champagne production has occurred in these caves for 800 years but the current ownership only bought the cellars in 1923. Taittinger owns another- much larger cave where most of their champagne production occurs- although everything in the other cave is mechanized and therefore there is no room for tours. This cave has 2 million bottles of champagne but the other cave has 27 million bottles of champagne. I can’t even imagine how much that is worth.
Champagne is created like most wines- white grape juice is mixed with yeast that ferments for a few months in a large vat. Sparkling wines also then go through a second fermentation. Another yeast is mixed with the wine in a bottle then it is sealed with a metal cap. For simple champagnes (such as their Brut), this process takes 3 years. For expensive champagnes (such as the Comtes de Champagne) this process can take up to 10 years.
The final step in the champagne creation process is the removal of the undrinkable yeast- which is way more difficult than it sounds. Over the course of 3 months, the champagne bottles are slowly tilted more and more so eventually the yeast gathers at the neck of the now upside-down bottle. Then, the tips of the bottles are dipped in a freezing solution which immediately freezes the part of the bottle that has the yeast. The cap of the bottle is released. The pressure causes the frozen champagne to launch in the air, creating a now pure bottle of champagne.
After an hour of walking around, we ascended the stairs and got to taste the famous champagne. Everyone gets to try the Brut- their cheapest and most popular champagne: 40% Chardonnay, 40% Savignon Blanc, 20% Savignon something else.
When booking your tour, you have the option to purchase a second glass of a better champagne. You cannot purchase a second glass on the tour. The rule is dumb because the guide spent a lot of time talking about how good the better champagnes are. Luckily I was able to guilt-trip the guide into giving me a sip of the Comtes de Champagne – 100% Chardonnay which goes for $200/bottle. Note to Taittinger, I would have gladly paid on the spot for another glass.
It was now about 1pm and I was hungry. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday and virtually everything was closed. In fact, France has laws preventing people from working on Sundays in most towns – which is INCREDIBLY annoying as a tourist. What do French people do for fun on Sundays?!?! I walked for almost 90 minutes struggling. The only thing I could find was a raspberry tart.
Near the lunch spot was the Abbey of St. Remy. This incredible church is dedicated to St. Remy who converted Clovis to Christianity. He is buried in the crypt. While not as impressive as the cathedral, it was very very impressive. But for some reason, tourists have not found it and I had the massive church to myself. The church also had a museum with ancient relics.
The most impressive museum in Reims was the Palace of Tau. This UNESCO World Heritage-listed building- contained the cathedral’s treasury and the many relics of the church. These relics included Charlemagne’s necklace, numerous coronation pieces and ancient statues. Like much of Reims, the building was restored after World War I. As a result, the building didn’t feel historic even though it was.
I then walked over to the north side of Reims to visit a more modern historic site: the museum of the German surrender, which marked the end of the European Theater of World War II. The museum was in Eisenhower’s command in the city- an old schoolhouse. At 2:30am on May 7, 1945: three Nazi commanders representing the German command surrendered. They included Hitler’s chief of staff and the head of the navy. Hitler has already committed suicide at this point. On the allied sides were Eisenhower’s chief of staff (Ike didn’t attend) as well at representatives of the UK and the Soviet Union. The map room – where the surrender actually happened – was perfectly preserved.
Fun fact: when Stalin learned about the surrender, he requested that another surrender ceremony happen on the eastern front. All the sides agreed so 2 days later another ceremony was held in Berlin. I was surprised how few Americans know about this very important part of history.
With that, I walked back to the train station for my 46 minute ride back to Paris. I had a full day and learned a lot. Reims is a very worth day trip.