Reims Cathedral, It’s History Has More Drama Than A Telenovela

When I visited Champagne, I had to stop by and see the cathedral in Reims.  I’d heard so much about it and had to see it in person.  Yeah, from a distance, it might look a lot like many other French cathedrals, but this one is different.  It’s beautiful, light and airy, but that’s only scratching the surface.  It’s fascinating because of its dramatic history.

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims is considered by many to be the world’s most perfect Gothic church.   Located in eastern France (an hour or so away from the WWI battlefield of Verdun),  it was almost completely destroyed during the First World War.    On September 19-20, 1914, 25 German shells struck the cathedral which then caught on fire, causing massive damage.  It became known as  the “Martyred Cathedral” a symbol of destruction during the Great War and brought out strong emotions in the French.  Strong emotions are an understatement.  Several injured German prisoners found refuge in the cathedral but were killed outraged French.

In 1924, billionaire American John D. Rockefeller, gave money to restore the cathedral.  Fabulously wealthy Andrew Carnegie kicked in some money too.    Today, it’s mostly restored, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and definitely worth the few million they poured into it.

Reims has been a town since Roman times. In 498, Clovis was baptized as the first Catholic French king at the church.  This was a big deal.  If you don’t believe me, Pope John Paul II visited for the 1500th anniversary of the event.  I can pretty much guarantee that no world leader will mark the 1500th anniversary of anything I have done or anywhere I have been.  Monkey see, monkey do.  All the cool kings wanted to do it like Clovis did and it became the site for coronations of French kings (until the revolution).   Joan of Arc famously knelt in front of Charles VII when he was crowned King of France there.  Today, they have a Gallery of Kings, statues of the famous kings who were crowned there.

Here Saint Remy Baptized Clovis King of France

In 1211, when the existing church burned down, the built a bigger better one on the site of an earlier church (just like Geneva’s Cathedral St. Pierre).  Part of what makes Reims Cathedral such an amazing building is the amount of light inside (particularly in comparison with others constructed around the same time).  The architects designed the windows so that they would let in as much light as possible.

Notre-Dame de Reims did not escape the French Revolution unscathed. Fleur-de-lys and clovers were removed because they had been symbols of the monarchy.   They were replaced during the restoration.  Thanks Mr. Rockefeller.

Large circular windows at the ends of the cathedrals are known as the “Rose Window.”  It took me a few cathedrals to figure that one out.  Luckily, we’ve seen a few this year (Toledo, Milan). The church is known throughout France for its impressive stained glass windows.  During the restoration, some more contemporary have been used.  I like the one depicting Champagne making from the 1950’s.  Who would have thought church windows would depict hooch? The windows designed by Marc Chagall from the 1970’s (above) were my favorites because they were ethereal and dreamy.  You wouldn’t expect something so massive to look so light.   They plan on continuing with the different windows, making it interesting to for visitors compare and contrast the different styles.

By the way, if you go there, hunt out the “Smiling Angel” (also known as  “Smile of Reims”  and “L’Ange au Sourire”).  Decapitated by a burning beam in 1914,, during the fire of September 19, 1914 it the destruction and then with the restoration of the city. 

 
Advertisements

How They Put The Bubbles In Champagne, The Champagne Method

In the 1662 the English scientist and physician Christopher Merret described how adding sugar to a finished wine created a second fermentation in a paper presented Royal Society.  Not surprisingly, when I visited Champagne, they didn’t mention English contributions to the local brew.  Here’s how they told it…

Once upon a time, the French Benedictine monk named Dom Pérignon discovered the secret of putting bubbles into wine, inventing Champagne.   Although he didn’t, the French Benedictine monk made important contributions to Champagne’s production.  In Champagne, the art of mixing the produce of different vineyards to achieve the perfect blend is of the utmost importance.  Ol’ Dom was the first to do this.

In the 19th century, Champagne was sweeter; they added sugar helped disguise flaws and/or poor quality.  In 1846, Perrier-Jouët decided not to sweeten his Champagne and it was a hit.  Modern Champagne had arrived.  Just how do they get the bubbles inside?  The “champagne method.”  Many other sparkling wines, including Prosecco, use other methods of putting the bubbles in.  There is just something special about champagne and it might have something to do with this process.

Like regular wine, champagne starts out with crushed, fermented grapes.  In Champagne, they use grapes from different vineyards to produce a neutral, acidic wine.  Strong flavor would interfere with the development and final flavor.  The acidity is needed for the second fermentation and extended aging.  Who knew chemistry could be so tasty?

After the initial fermentation, they add a wine and sugar mixture known as “liqueur de triage” to base wine (which is known as the cuvée) before a second fermentation.  They cap it up for the secondary fermentation; this extra fermentation naturally produces the bubbles.   Carbon dioxide (aka bubbles) is a byproduct.

Bottles are stored on riding racks, which turn them almost upside down so residue settles in the bottles neck.  Even though it’s not in the neck, you can see what the residue (known as lees) looks likes in the picture above.

Bottles are marked with lines so that they can be turned regularly.  They are turned incrementally to avoid disrupting the champagne in the bottle.  I saw Magnums wrapped in plastic to prevent their breaking and shattering surrounding bottles.  Apparently, an exploding bottle of champagne has a dangerous amount of force.  You wouldn’t want the entire stockpile below to be damaged, would you?

After 15 months, the bottle necks are quick-frozen, freezing the residue in the neck. When they remove the cap, the frozen sediment shoots out.  This process is known as disgorgement.

While I’ve mentioned adding mixtures at a couple of points, I haven’t fully detailed its importance.  Champagne is known for blending and it is part of what sets this region apart (Bordeaux is also known for blending).  There, master benders are revered.  It takes tons of knowledge and balls of steel to hold back stock, mix multiple vintages and blend it in with newer vintages.   Cheers!

I Got A Kick From Champagne

“Burgundy makes you think off silly things, Bordeaux makes you talk of them and Champagne makes you do them. Think of silly things, Bordeaux makes you talk of them and Champagne makes you do them.”

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, French gastronome, (1755-1826)

After visits to BurgundyAlsaceCôtes du Rhône, and Bordeaux, how could we not visit this wine French wine region?  Champagne is located in in north-eastern France. Although it is doable as a (long) day trip from Paris (the region starts 120 kilometers/75 miles from the city) , I did it as part of a visit to the World War I battlefield of Verdun.   There were people on some of my tours that were out from Paris for the day.  Trust me when I tell you that with a driver taking them from one producer of Champagne to another, they were having a very, um, fun educational experience.

Champagne has 4 main cities: Reims, Troyes, Chalons en Champagne and Epernay.  Most of the guidebooks recommend either Reims or the smaller Epernay.  I wanted to visit the famous (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) cathedral at Reims, so I chose to go there.  If I’d had more time, I would have done the Champagne Tourist Route.  It covers more than 500 km between Reims, Epernay and the Côte des Bar, and has around 80 welcome centers.  Growers offer tours in personalized settings, but you need to be better organized than I was and arrange them in advance.  Squeezing it in at the last minute meant that I could only tour producers like Tattinger and Pomeroy.

Let me explain.  Like Burgundy, Champagne’s vineyards are classified as Grand Cru, Premier Cru or Deuxième Cru.  However, in Champagne this does not give an indication of the vineyard’s quality or potential.  It functions more as a means to establish the price a grower gets for his harvest.   The producer or skill of the wine-maker in Champagne means that it is possible to have an outstanding performer in a second classed village and a moderate grower in a higher classed Grand Cru (just like Bordeaux, but different from Burgundy).  Confused yet?


Beer In Belgium

Belgium has a long and rich brewing tradition. It is a country the size of Maryland, but brews 700-800 different labels! It is a part of their culture and there are many things that make Belgian beers unique:
Almost all beers are served in their own, specially designed glasses to optimize their taste.
 
They are incredibly diverse and have a lot of different ways of producing beers (spontaneously fermented, second fermentation, etc.).
Towns throughout the country have their famous beer pubs, with storied histories and a huge variety of offerings.
There are lots of specialty beer shops and festivals. Belgian beers are commonly found in wired and corked like champagne bottles (making them good presents).
By the way, Belgium is the home of the largest brewery in the world, InBev. You may have heard of them a couple of years ago when they bought a little company called Anheuser-Busch that makes Budweiser.