French history and culture has always attracted me. This has been one of the reasons for my now, third visit to France. Though my earlier two visits were limited to Paris, this time as a student in one of the prestigious colleges of this country, I saw France and was truly able spectate over and participate in the elite culture here. During one of the weekends of my stay here, I decided to visit a city in the eastern region of France, called Reims. Reims is best known for its cathedral, where generations of French kings were crowned. It is said, if you only get to see one French cathedral, it should be Notre-Dame de Reims. This place is not just limited to its cathedral but also is the home of Champagne, one of the most celebrated and celebratory wines in the world.
Our trip started at 10 a.m. from Porte Maillot bus station in Paris. All of us in the bus though a little sleepy, on the Sunday morning, were a little excited about what the day held for us. Our ride to Reims was one of the most scenic views I have seen in my entire stay in Europe, comprising of empty roads; beautiful champagne fields and the sunlight shining on them. I just couldn’t wait to step out of the bus and walk through the fields. At around 1 p.m. we reached the center of the city, and oh, what a city! Reims was like a walk-in history lesson. The first thing that caught my eye was the beautiful gothic art masterpiece, Notre-Dame de Reims. Everyone clicked a few pictures in front of the cathedral, which to me seemed like one of the most beautiful buildings ever built.
Our guide, Jeff then began to tell us about the history and architecture of the cathedral. The first cathedral built on the site of the present building is attributed to Saint NICAISE, who, mortally wounded by the Vandals, died at the portal of his church in 407. Oh yes, it is that many centuries ago. From 1027 onwards, all the kings were crowned in RHEIMS with the exception of LOUIS VI and HENRI IV. After the revolution, only CHARLES X received the sacrament in 1825. He also mentioned one of the memorable coronations which was of SAINT LOUIS, in 1226 when the cathedral was under construction; the young king was only 12 years old.
He also told us about how Gothic architecture is an art of light. Upon my visit inside the cathedral, I couldn’t take my eyes off of one of the windows, The Marc Chagall Windows, named after its decorator who made it in 1971.
The most intriguing part of this window was its central piece; it recalled the two great figures of the Old Testament, ABRAHAM and CHRIST. The principle events in the life of ABRAHAM are there: his covenant with Yah’veh ; the link of descent from Abraham to Christ; Christ on the cross, accomplishing the act of salvation. Christ can be seen rising from the tomb, depicted in red for glory.
Today, Our Lady of Rheims is under attack from both the weather and pollution. Its survival is threatened. I hope and pray that some action is taken towards preserving this gem of medieval architecture. After this unique experience, we were given 3 hours on our own for lunch and roaming around. I finished my lunch fast and strolled around appreciating the beauty of the old city. After that, everyone gathered together and headed towards our champagne tour to G.H. MUMM house, which has been in existence since 1827.
In this tour we learnt all about how champagne is made, experienced the historic wine cellar and of course tasted the champagne. G.H. MUMM is one of the largest Champagne producers and is currently ranked 4th globally. Who wouldn’t want to experience something like that with one of the best companies in the world? There we also learnt the process of how champagne is made.
The first step of ‘methode champenoise’ is pressing; grapes are pressed quickly after harvest. Extracted juice from the first press (vin de cuvee) is considered the highest quality. The 2nd pressing (vin de taille) is lesser quality but richer in pigments and tannins.
After pressing the juice settles and cools. The solids are then racked prior to first fermentation. Then comes the second step, 1st fermentation; the grape juice undergoes the first fermentation which results in a high acid base wine. Then comes an important part of the champagne process- blending. Many different grapes are blended to make a perfect assemblage. Superior growing years will produce vintage Champagne. A small fact- More than 80% of champagne produced is non-vintage. Then comes the step four, the 2nd fermentation also called the Prise de mousse is the heart of the methode champenoise process. A mixture of still wine, sugar and yeast is added to the wine then affixed with a crown cap. Bottles are stored horizontally and second fermentation begins, lasting up to eight weeks. Yeast slowly converts the sugar to a by-product of alcohol and carbon dioxide. Afterwards, the wine is kept for lees ageing, a minimum 15 months for non-vintage and 3 years for vintage for enhancing its flavors. After the lees ageing the bottles are placed on a special rack called pupitres that hold them at a 45 degree angle so that the dead yeast cells are pushed towards the neck of the bottle. Then the dead yeast later on is removed through the method of degorgement a la glace which involves dipping the neck of the bottle in a freezing brine solution. Then the bottle is then turned up right where the force of internal pressure will expel the semi frozen sediments as the crown cap is removed. After that a final cork is inserted and a protective wire cap is placed on the bottle. Then again the bottle is kept to rest for few weeks to several months before sending it to the market. Interesting isn’t it? Well it’s much better if you see the whole process with the machines that have been evolving with time. They had a machine for each process and it was amazing to see the evolution within each machine.
Our tour ended with all of us tasting the champagne and having a gala time while enjoying every moment. With so much to learn and enjoy, it surely was one of the best parts of my exchange in Paris and I will remember it forever.