Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reims, France: Champagne in Brut Force

Every upcoming February and September, I look on in dread as Fashion Week approaches. For most people, it sounds like an unending line of parties, runway shows and celebrity spotting. All very glamorous. And yes while it is all of these things, it means for everyone in the industry, sleepless nights, long hours at the office, and a whirlwind of travel for close to two months.

One of the perks is definitely heading to one of my favorite cities: Paris! Along with the gastronomical delights awaiting me there, the city is also filled with some of the most beautiful buildings in Europe. Every corner you turn there is always a unknown church or building with the most intricate, gorgeous carvings. In New York, I am always annoyed at the stream of tourists who just stop in their track, blocking the natural flow of traffic around them. In Paris, I am definitely one of those gawking tourists whipping out my camera at every corner, completely enthralled.

Since I am there for work, usually I don't have the time to really explore Paris except at night. This time however, I decided to carve out some time for myself by taking a red eye and getting in first thing in the morning. Thank you to the Mistress of Spices (my cohort in crime whenever I am in Paris) for suggesting an easy day trip to Reims to spend it sipping bubblies and making all the necessary arrangements.

Reims is an easy 45-minute train ride 80 miles Northeast from the center of Paris in the Champagne-Ardenne region. To give a basic history of Reims, the Romans were the first to plant vineyards in this area of northeast France around the 5th century. 

When Hugh Capet was crowned King of France in 987 at the cathedral of Reims, located in the heart of the region, he started a tradition that brought successive monarchs to the region—with the local wine being on prominent display at the coronation banquets. The cathedral, built in the early 13th century, is almost as beautiful as the infamous Notre Dame in Paris.
The addition of a set of stained glass windows towards the back of the cathedral by Marc Chagall created in 1974 (One of my favorite artists! His "La Mariée" hangs in my apartment) was one of the best surprises.
While hunting for some lunch before our appointments at the champagne houses, we stumbled upon a little farmers market in the square called the Marché du Boulingrin. It was filled with the usual assortment of local produce, cheese and meats.  Like the carnivore I am, I devoured the roasted chicken I purchased there for my lunch as we were walking to Mumm. It was perfectly roasted in an unusual curry-based seasoning. The French do know how to roast their chicken...delicious!!

We did eventually get to the main point of our trip which was CHAMPAGNE! I had the pleasure of taking a cave tour of both Mumm and Pommery. While the basic concept of champagne-making is pretty similar, the two cave tours were definitely a different experience from the other. Mumm was a more intimate experience while Pommery was much grander with random offerings of modern artwork throughout the cave tour as Louis Pommery was an art lover.

The caves are typically built at a distance of about 30 meters (roughly 98 feet) underground to maintain the proper storage temperature for champagne which is about 10-12 degrees Celsius (50-53.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Traditionally, massive cellars were drug underground or limestone quarries converted into cellars. Since the Roman times, these quarries have been exploited to get limestone for the building of walls and houses. In the Champagne-Ardenne region, the soil usually consists of chalk. All the caves are hand-carved! Since some of them are miles long, it is definitely a huge feat of man-work with no machinery.


In the European Union, only wines coming from the Champagne region can wear the name Champagne on the label. In the area, 300 established wineries produce champagne. 


A percentile system known as the Échelle des Crus ("ladder of growth") acts as a pro-rata system for determining grape prices and grape quality. Vineyards located in villages with high rates receive higher prices for their grapes than vineyards located in villages with a lower rating. While the Échelle des Crus system was originally conceived as a 1-100 point scale, in practice, the lowest rated villages are rated at 80%. Premier crus villages are rated between 90 and 99 percent while the highest rated villages, with 100% ratings are Grand crus. 

Champagne is made from three varieties of grapes:
  • Chardonnay: used to bring a lightness and elegance 
  • Pinot Noir: used to give longevity, spiciness, and finesse
  • Pinot Meunier: used primarily for younger champagnes since the grape brings character and roundness that is usually achieved by a longer aging process
Most champagnes are made from a combination of chardonnay and pinot noir. Rosé wines of Champagne are produced either by leaving the clear juice of black grapes to macerate on its skins for a brief time (known as the saigneé method) or, more commonly, by adding a small amount of still Pinot noir red wine to the sparkling wine cuvee.

Méthode Champenoise is the traditional method by which Champagne is produced. After manually harvesting the grapes, they are pressed (pressurage) in order to break open the berries without damaging the structure of the bunch. Unlike the process of making wine, the red grapes produce a white color for champagne since the skin is removed during the process. 

After pressing, the juice is put in vats for about two weeks at a temperature of between 18 and 20 degrees Celsius for the first fermentation known as "alcoholic" fermentation. It used to be stored in concrete containers like the one photographed below before finally moving to copper. Each container is labeled with the vineyard and a secret code of numbers known by each house identifying the date it was first stored.

According to the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (known as AOC which is the French certification of authentication for wine, cheese, and other agricultural products) a minimum of 1.5 years is required to completely develop all the flavor. When the harvest is exceptional, a millesimé is declared and some Champagne will be made from and labeled as the products of a single vintage rather than a blend of multiple years' harvests. This means that the Champagne will be very good and has to mature for at least 3 years. Each house has a special blend (known as a cuvée) that takes several months for the "Chef de Cave" (Cellar Master) and his assistants to approve, tasting and mixing various years to create the perfect cuvée; this period is known as "assemblage".

Each house stores a history of the best wines they have produced over the years in a sealed storage area that only a few have access to including the "chef du cave".

After the primary fermentation and bottling, a second alcoholic fermentation is induced by adding several grams of yeast and several grams of sugar. Natural yeasts convert the sugars in the grape juice into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This is where we get the bubbles we love that are characteristic in champagne, known as prise de mousse. During this time the Champagne bottle is sealed with a cap similar to that used on beer bottles and then aged (vieillissement) laying down, for a period of 15-30 months for normal champagnes to 3-5 years for millésimes. 
After aging, the bottle is manipulated, either manually or mechanically (nowadays mostly all houses are mechanical due to the high costs unless it is a prestige cuvées), in a process called remuage ("riddling" in English), so that the lees (yeast residue) settle in the neck of the bottle. During this stage the bottles are placed on special racks called pupitres. This places the bottles at a 45° angle with the cork pointed down. Every few days the bottles are given a slight shake and turn and dropped back into the pupitres (eventually the angle is increased). The drop back into the rack causes a slight tap, pushing sediments toward the neck of the bottle. In about 6 to 8 weeks the position of the bottle is pointed straight down with sediment in the neck of the bottle.  According to our guide at Mumm, a good riddler can turn up to 60,000 bottles in one day! That is NOT a job I would like to do every day.
To take off the cap, the bottle's neck is frozen for easy removal. The pressure in the bottle forces out the lees and the bottle is quickly corked to maintain the carbon dioxide in solution. Some sugar and reserve wine (le dosage) is then added to maintain the level within the bottle.

The early wine of the Champagne region was a pale, pinkish wine made from Pinot noir which was considerably sweeter than the champagne we all know and love today. The addition of sugar to the wine is what typifies the category of champagne.  It was only in the mid-19th century that a drier wine was introduced for the British market; this is what we know today as brut champagne. Contrary to what our tour guide at Pommery said that Louis Pommery was the one who introduced brut champagne, Wikipedia attributes this stunning turning point to Perrier-Jouet in 1846!  After all these years of thinking "Extra Brut" meant more sugar, I found out on the tours that it was the opposite!  This useful table from breaks it down nicely:

Type of Champagne
Extra-Brut, Brut Integral of Brut Zero
For the expierenced Champagne drinker and/or the person who likes very dry Champagne

For the majority of the Champagne lovers

1-3 %
A compromise between sweet and dry

For the lovers of sweet Champagne, often preferred by ladies

For lovers of very sweet Champagne

After all that information was poured into our heads, we were finally lead out of the caves for the much anticipated tastings where they proceeded to get us a bit tipsy.  These tastings are not what we know as tastings in America as we received FULL glasses at  both Mumm and Pommery.

While I was enamored with the blanc de blanc I tasted at Pommery, the cost turned me away so I settled with walking away with my second choice, the brut apanage, that was created specifically to be paired with food. It is a buttery, lively champagne with a taste of mangoes, apricots and vanilla...a party in my mouth to be sure!

All in all, it was an eventful, but relaxing way to spend my first day in Paris. Who knew that so much was located within such an easy distance outside the city!

1 comment:

  1. Very informative and well-written post! Too bad that all I could find at that damn market was that blood orange! The champagne more than made up for it though. When are you going to pop that bottle of apanage?