Reims – Champagne, France: Underground Chalk Tunnels filled with Golden Bubbles

Upon arriving into Charles de Gaulle Airport from the snowy, icy Iceland morning we boarded the local TGV high-speed train for a quick 50 min trip to Reims, the epi-center of the Champagne region. Gone were the days of preserved seafood to withstand the winter and a language we couldn’t barely comprehend. Hello golden bubbles, fresh baked carbs galore, and the beginning of our culinary exploration.

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The Notre Dame of Reims

First things first, we headed to the closest Champagne house to find out that there were no more English tours for the day. While this was not the ideal scenario, the guide quickly sent us in search of our first glass of bubbles at a local wine bar, ran by two young men in their early thirties. Sounds right up our alley!

It’s 5pm at this point and we stroll up to LE COQ ROUGE. No one is inside but 2 men and a small boy, sharing conversation and espresso. We pop our head in and ask if they are open. Why yes – but the kitchen does not open for about another 3 hours (Our first experience with the European timetable). We sit and enjoy a couple glasses of wine, the first a taste of the local gold, Champagne. After asking where we should go for dinner, the owner advised we should stay but we would have to come back around 8. Heading out for a quick stroll to see the town in the evening, we return for dinner to a completely full restaurant.

The food was OUTSTANDING! A 22/23 year old young woman chef with the drive to explore beyond traditional French cuisine. On the menu – Incredibly deep Bone Marrow roasted to perfection with Herbes de Provence, Rich Pork Rillette mixed with Coffee (a combination that soon grew on me), Jamon Croquets (mini grilled cheese filled cured ham and bits of winter truffles), a fresh fish Sole terrine (who does that?) with vegetables in a puff pastry crust, and for dessert a rich molten chocolate cake and homemade ice cream. Words can just not describe the tastes and smells coming from our plates. Tired from an early morning flight and being in slight food coma, we headed back to our Airbnb still talking about the outstanding dishes we had just consumed.

The Champagne Process in a Nut Shell

Before visiting, neither Drew or I had any real knowledge of how Champagne differs from the production of “still wine” – so here is our quick review for you!

  • 3 grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier) are harvested from each Cru or village in the Champagne region – the villages that produce the best quality grapes are called Grand Crus.
  • Every single vineyard and varietal is kept separate – they are crushed immediately and put stainless vats for the first fermentation process.
  • Blending is then done with these still wines to ensure the product is identical from year to year (a process that could utilize over 200 different wines!)
  • Once blended, the wine is bottled and yeast and sugar are added or a second fermentation (finally causing the bubbles). The bottles get stacked into the caves sideways to begin the aging process. Once the yeast dies, sediment forms and releases flavor. Champagne can only age if there is sediment in the bottle.
  • After aging is complete (a minimum of 15 months), the bottles then begin the riddling or turning process to move the sediment into the neck of the bottle. For the best bottles this is still done by hand by a Riddler.
  • With the sediment in the neck and a ton of pressure built up, the bottles are turned upside down and dipped into a bath to freeze only the tip of the neck, capturing the sediment in the ice.
  • The top metal cap is released, the ice shoots out expelling all of the sediment, and a small amount of sugar and champagne are added back in. At this point the bottles get corked and are now ready to consume!
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A Diagram showing the aging a riddling process. As the bottles are turned by the riddler, their angle in the rack gets more severe so that the sediment ends up in the neck.

The Champagne Houses

During our time in Reims we were able to visit 3 of the main Champagne Houses – TAITTINGER, G.H. MARTELL, AND G.H. MUMM. Each tour was uniquely different which allowed for a rounded view of both past and present production techniques. Underneath Reims is a web thousands of pyramid shaped chalk tunnels. This chalk was quarried in order to build the city and is also why the soil in the region produces varies for the growing of the champagne grapes. Today these medieval tunnels store millions of Champagne bottles in optimal conditions, a constant cool temperature (11-12°C) and level of humidity (90-95%).

TAITTINGER – 1932

The Taittinger headquarters sits on the site of a 13th century Abbey which was destroyed during the French Revolution. The caves below were used by the monks for the storage of their wine, and today it is where Taittinger’s premier label is kept aging for up to 10 years. Over 3 million of these bottles are turned by hand by 2 riddlers. Their caves were magnificent and it was great to see the product amongst them.

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At the end of the Taittinger Tour, enjoying a glass of their bubbly!

G.H. MARTEL – 1869

Martell had some of the oldest caves, dug between the 4th and 15th centuries. With modern technology they have since moved production away from the original caves in Reims. The tour of this house served more as a museum, showing some of the original equipment.

MUMM – 1827

Mumm was situated a little outside of the center of town, but this was due to the fact that all production is done on site (except crushing which is done as close to the vineyard as possible). This was the largest facility that we toured, around 25 million bottles produced each year! The city of tunnels underneath their headquarters were newer than the others, but VAST. There are so many meters of tunnels that they treat it as a city, giving each a “street name”. The too had a large collection of old production equipment which served as a museum. Overall a very nice tour of an impressive company.

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Aging bottles at G.H. MUMM

 

Most of our time was spent wondering around this lovely city (we had the BEST cured ham and chevre cheese panini from a tiny little shop down the street from the basilica). Quaint but bustling with locals on Friday night and Saturdays. On the way to dinner Friday evening in the Boulingrin area, we stumbled upon the Reims start of the Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique. All over Europe, cars that took part in the actual Rallye Monte-Carlo from 1955 until 1980, leave their city and all convene in Digne les Bains at the same time for the start of the years race. What an incredible event to have just come across! We had a lovely time in Reims and look forward to visiting again, when the grapes are growing and we can explore further Champagne houses. Now on to Paris!

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One of the classic cars in the Rallye

Our Stark Perspective (Tips):

  • It is a very quick train ride from Paris, but save some money by getting to the center of town via the tram from Champagne TGV, instead of switching trains.
    • There are also two bus companies (similar to Megabus) directly from Paris for much less.
  • Reims has a Notre Dame, just like Paris. The exterior of the Reims Notre Dame is more ornate and Drew actually found it more impressive than Paris.
  • Food was hit or miss. Whatever you do, go to LE COQ ROUGE. Boulingrin is a good area for a wide variety of restaurants, frequented by the locals, however we had a couple dishes that weren’t so great.
    • LE BOCAL is a seafood in the area which we were told was great. Both nights they were full, so try and make reservations ahead of time – even just by walking in.
  • Spring/summer is optimal time to go, as this month many of the Champagne houses were closed. While there will be more tourists, the vineyards will be lush and all of the houses open for tours.

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