“Brothers come quickly, I’m drinking stars!” Monk Dom Perignon reportedly uttered this exclamation upon discovering how to make sparkling wine in Reims around 1700 CE. Ever since, the Champagne region has been synonymous with the bubbly beverage.
Nowadays, flutes of bubbly wine appear like magic at celebrations around the world. Weddings, birthdays, and parties of every persuasion are marked by a toast with this effervescent libation. Is Champagne really any different from California wine, Italian prosecco, or Spanish cava? Besides the price tag? I didn’t think so – until I visited Champagne, France.
Road Trip to Reims, France
In the early 2000s, I was living in Paris on a shoestring budget with my boyfriend and wiener dog and working as a private guide. We ate meat once a week, not to save the planet or protect our health, but because that’s all we could afford. But traveling to new places for new experiences has always been a priority for me, so we set off on a road trip looping through France in the name of research for my guiding business. We slept in our tiny rental car during the ten-day trip, all three of us – because you can do that in your mid-20s and not wake up incapacitated.
We drove east toward our first stop: Champagne. Low, easy rolling hills flaunted row after row of green vines heavy with gemstone grapes. It was harvest season. I might have been living on a diet of cheese and crackers, but a visit to one of the region’s famous cellars, or crayères, would be worth the expense. Besides – Champagne pairs perfectly with Brie. I climbed down into the cellars of Taittinger in the city of Reims, and emerged a couple of hours later a full-fledged Champagne lover.
What I Learned About Champagne in Champagne
- Champagne from Champagne really is different because of the terroir (the natural environment) of the region – especially the soil, which has a very high chalk and mineral content. A unique, porous combination of limestone, chalk, and marl stabilizes the soil’s moisture level, creating a delicate balance of acidity, ripeness, and aroma.
- Romans built these wine cellars. Ancient Romans loved the chalky soil in Champagne for another reason: the ground was easy digging. Circa 80 BCE they started carving out the ground in order to harvest salt and chalk, which made excellent construction stones for triumphal arches and building projects. Romans dug many of the cellars in Reims including those of Taittinger, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- The French hid in these wine cellars. Caves located deep underground also make great hideouts. Local residents and Allied soldiers used them well during World War I and II. These aren’t just cellars, they are labyrinths of secret passageways and hidden rooms. You can tell that people have spent a lot of time under the vaulted ceilings of these wine cellars because of the graffiti carved into the walls by soldiers – including a game of tic-tac-toe.
- Champagne bottles are still turned by hand every day. Workers called “riddlers” twist every bottle 1/8 of a turn daily. There are 3 million bottles of Champagne in Taittinger’s cellars in Reims alone, and over 1 billion bottles in storage worldwide.
- Red grapes can make white wine. White wines like Champagne are simply fermented with the juice only; no red grape skins are added. In fact, Champagne is primarily made from three grapes, two of which are red: Pinot Noir (red), Pinot Meunier (red), and Chardonnay (white).
- Always dry your Champagne flutes with cloth. If you like lots of bubbles, that is. Cloth towels leave microscopic fibers in the glass that give the bubbles purchase. Dry your flutes with a paper towel or in the dishwasher and you’ll see fewer of them.
- Hold the cork and twist the bottle to open. Unless you want to rocket off the cork with a fountain of foamy wine, the best way to open a bottle of bubbles is by holding the cork still and slowly turning the bottle while pulling down. You can also cover the action with a hand towel to further prevent flying corks and spewing wine.
- Don’t call it “French Champagne.” All Champagne is by definition French. Everything else is simply sparkling wine.
- Every day is a reason to celebrate. In Champagne, they don’t wait for a holiday or special occasion to sip their sparkling wines. Or as the kids say, #YOLO.