Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Champagne, yummo!

The other weekend I spent a day out in the Champagne region of France, in particular Epernay and Reims. Just a note about Reims, it's actually pronounced Rance, and you have to say it with a real British accent. I asked the Frenchies how such a strange pronunciation occurs, because I couldn't understand where the '-nce' sound comes from, but I couldn't get a satisfactory answer from them. It seemed perfectly obvious to them and how else would you pronounce it?

Epernay and Reims are about an hours train journey to the East of Paris and where pretty nice cities, I was particularly taken by Epernay. Reims was a little off-putting simply because as I was sitting in the railway cafe waiting for the train back to Paris a lady had what looked like a heart attack and collapsed on the floor. So a massive conversation commenced between the husband, the lady, the staff and random strangers before finally an ambulance was called. Then once the ambulance arrived the lady, husband and ambulance officers started arguing, with the ambulance officers getting on their mobiles for a long discussion before finally the lady was walked into the ambulance. Throughout all this commotion the lady is sitting there moaning, rubbing her left arm and her heart and just generally looking like she was about to cark it, in between arguing with people. But apart from that strange ending the whole day was really good.

If you are wanting to do any champagne tastings then Epernay is the place to go, there are so many champagne houses (or maisons in French) there that you could spend the whole day walking between different tastings. And whilst the companies advertise "tastings" at the end of the tours, they are like no tasting I've ever done before. When I turned up to my first one at 10:30am I was expecting a little bit of champagne at the bottom of a glass, a taste you know? But instead I have two whole glasses to down before the tour group could leave, so that was a bit of fun. The "tastings" are actually an entire glass of champagne no matter which house you visit, now that's what I call a taste!

First up on my morning of alcohol was Moet and Chandon, this really is the champagne in Australia, I don't really know any other champagne company that have marketed themselves so successfully in Australia. When I turned up to the Moet and Chandon house they even had an Australian flag out the front, along with a French and EU flag, pretty special on Australia's part. I forgot to ask why that was once I was on the tour, so I don't really know the reason. The maison is to the left and you can see the Aussie flag between the French and EU one.

The tour of the Moet and Chandon house was definitely a high-light of the day, if you visit Epernay this place is a must. These guys were the epitome of class and professionalism, all the guides had impeccable English and were all dressed in very stylish suits. This really is the look they are going for, unlike some other champagne houses which I'll mention later, and it really works for them. They were established in 1743 and are one of the biggest champagne houses with something like 29kms worth of cellars and the largest grape buyer in the area. This house has been the house of royalty since it's inception, having been drunk by Louis XV, Napoleon and is the official supplier of the royal courts of Europe. They really know which angle they are going for! But the tour was amazingly informative and the guide really loved his champagne.

The making of the champagne was quite interesting, it is made by a double fermentation process. After the first fermentation the bottles are opened, releasing the carbon dioxide and leaving a still, white wine. More sugar, yeast and a particular liqueur is then added for the second fermentation. After a few weeks the yeast is all dead but it remains in the bottle in the cellars for at least a year. Of course before the champagne is sold this dead yeast (called a deposit) must be removed. The bottles are placed in riddling racks (I'm not sure about the spelling) which you can see to the left. Every few days the riddler will go round and turn all the bottles a quarter turn and push them further in, a good riddler can turn 50,000 bottles in one day. Eventually the bottles will be vertical (upside down) in the racks and the deposit will be gathered in the neck of the bottle. This is then snap-frozen and so when the bottle top is removed the frozen deposit plug shoots out, the bottle is then corked, washed, labelled and sent off to the supermarkets. Most of this stuff is done with machines now, but their most expensive wine, selling for 200 euros a bottle, is all hand done.

The head cellarer sounds like a pretty cool guy, it is his job to make sure that every single Brut Imperial tastes exactly the same, kind of like the MacDonald's of champagne, so before the second fermentation the wines are blended with different vintages to make sure this particular type of champagne is always the same. Of course they also have vintage wines, which are only the grapes harvested in one year and are stored for 6-7 years in the cellars before selling them. These vintages go back decades, the bottle in the picture to the left was actually behind a massive locked gate and all the really old vintages are stored in these locked cellars. Really rich people can buy particular bottles, say of their birth year, like the Queen's mother, when she visited she took home a bottle from the year 1900.

We then had our "tasting" session which was two big glasses of champagne, I went for the vintage wines, as I'm fairly sure I'll probably never have another chance to drink vintage champagne (though only from the year 2000). Still it was good, nicer than other champagne's I've had. During the tasting session they also explained the difference between the different wines and how they were made and the different tastes, so all in all it was a fantastic, hour long tour, highly recommended! I mean I could just keep writing with all the stuff I learnt in just that one hour, but I think that is enough of the classy, now onto the brash.

My next champagne house was Mercier, which is the most famous in France, though I had never heard of it in Australia. This was founded in 1858 by Eugene Mercier and he never let a thing like classlessness stand in his way. Moet and Chandon must have hated it when this guy set up his business just down the road from them. He was a shameless self-promoter and was really the one who marketed champagne to the masses, before him it was very much an upper class drink. In his first few years he had a massive wooden cask built, large enough to hold 200,000 bottles worth. Once he had this monstrous cask built he then decided to move it to Paris for the 1889 World Exhibition (the same one the Eiffel Tower was built for). It took 24 oxen and 18 horse 8 days to travel the distance, with a number of buildings paying the price along the way. The photo to the left is a model of the barrel with the little oxen pulling it. It is positioned next to the massive barrel in the middle of the visitor's centre. Eugene's other ideas to promote the brand were balloon rides over Paris in the Mercier hot air balloon, along with a glass of champagne, as well as filming one of the first ads, which was watched by over 3 million visitors during the 1900 World Fair. I suppose you have to give it to him, he was new in the field, obviously knew nothing about making good champagne, but through determination and mass-marketing Mercier is still around today.

It was strange, this champagne house was much more popular than Moet and Chandon, I had to queue to get a place on a tour, but then like everything Mercier did the tour was very much flash and not much substance. You go down into the cellars in an elevator which has a glass window. As you slowly descend music starts playing as you look out on models of things like the hot air balloon, or vineyards or people drinking champagne. Once you are in the cellars you all board a laser guided train, a normal train is not good enough, and you are driven around the cellars whilst the guide mumbles unintelligibly at you from the front. After about 10 minutes of this you are back at the elevators, which thankfully go up a lot faster than they went down, and your tour is over. You are given your glass of champagne, which I have to say didn't taste anywhere near as nice as Moet and Chandon, and that's it, no discussion of what wine you are drinking or how it is created. I doubt the head cellarer bothers getting all the Brut's to taste the same at Mercier. I would recommend this tour only for the sheer freakiness though, definitely do Moet and Chandon first just so you know what the guide at Mercier is talking about.

Afer my champagne tasting in Epernay it was back on the train for a few hours in Reims. The main reason to go to Reims was really to see the cathedrale. I didn't find it particularly spectacular inside or out, but then what is amazing about this cathedrale is it's history. Nearly every king of France has been crowned in this cathedrale going back to the baptism of Clovius I in 496 AD, he is known as the founder of the French kingdom.

The cathedrale standing now was started in 1211 and finished 100 years later, but the site has been occupied by churches since the 5th century. One of the most famous coronations to take place here was that of Charles VII, with Joan of Arc at his side, in 1429. I think it is a bit of a shame that France had their revolution, their history is so complete going back to 496 AD. When I say complete I mean the country has pretty much been how it is now for that entire time, give or take a few little regions on the outskirts. Not like say Germany or Italy which have been fairly fragmented for much of their time. Things like William the Conqueror and Joan of Arc and all the Louis, I just think it would have been cool if they still had royalty living in some palace somewhere, a connection to the past. It's true that I wasn't one of the starving peasants and I wouldn't have to pay for their upkeep now, but I guess I like the idea of coronations still occurring in Reims cathedrale every now and then.

Back to the cathedrale though, it was very badly damaged in the First World War but then was restored by funds largely donated by John D Rockefeller and was reconsecrated in 1938 in time for the second war. That surprised me that Rockefeller gave the money to fix it, as I thought the French squeezed the Germans for every cent they could after the First World War, but perhaps that money would have taken too long to arrive. The cathedrale was very similar to quite a few others I have seen now, the same gothic architecture, a long narrow central part, with a big organ, fancy altar and various shrines around the place. The stained glass windows were particularly nice here, especially as the sun was starting to set and shining right through the big rose window above the door.

I tried to visit another champagne house here, there are one or two in Reims, but they are much further out of town than in Epernay and so the closest one I got too had finished their tastings for the day. Another highlight in Reims was the Porte de Mars, which is a Roman triumphal arch from the 3rd century AD, pretty impressive, though I think it has undergone some extensive, and fairly obvious, reconstruction work. Reims also had a really great town centre, just a big pedestrian mall from the train station out to the cathedrale. Unfortunately the French all eat much later than the Aussies so all the restuarants were still shut by the time I had to catch my train, and I was really looking forward to some typical Champenoise food.

Looking down the church, it was so cold inside this cathedrale, and the day was quite warm too, at least as warm as in can be in Europe in early Spring. I swear there was fog in this corridor, I suppose if hell is meant to be hot you want your place of worship to be as opposite as possible.

The light streaming in through the stained glass window as the sun began to set.

Porte de Mars

Chapelle Foujita, a little bit out of town and is apparently covered in neo-Romanesque frescoes, created in 1966 by the Japanese-born artist Leonard Foujita. I say apparently because it was unfortunately shut when I turned up so I wasn't able to see inside.

1 comment:

Giles said...

I'm guessing the Australian flag outside the Moet and Chandon maision is because M&C established a branch in Australia in the mid-80's: Chandon. A pretty good Australian sparkling wine.

And I reckon you want your parishioners freezing because they ain't going to fall asleep during your sermon then...