Part Trois: Widows on Champagne

During a toasty breakfast of croissants and crusty bread in the sun room of Le Jardin d’Hiver, I opened Google Maps to see what time Ruinart opened and – it was closed. Of all the Champagne houses in Reims, that was the one I most wanted to visit. A year ago, Mel had visited Ruinart and returned with stories of cool artwork in the cellars and a delicious bottle of Champagne, adorably jacketed in some kind of white foam sleeve secure with a plastic button and a colorful label depicting leafy filigree.

And now, my dreams were dashed. Still, we drove on to Reims (pronounced rehn, but pinch your nose when you say it and really activate your nasal n’s) and parked on the outskirts by a long white wall with the word Taittinger printed alongside it. Thinking we’d begin our tour there, we were again prevented, this time by the fact that apparently Taittinger has closed its doors (permanently?) and relocated somewhere in town.

To my slouchy disappointment, Dan was undeterred. He located a different Champagne house just a few blocks away called GH Martel. Compared to Tattinger’s mighty estate, this place looked like a rustic country house that had been transplanted into a city. We climbed the steps and entered a small lobby that smelled a little like my grandparents’ house, with decor to match. A man greeted us and explained that they weren’t doing tastings just now, but we could join a tour if we wanted.

“The tour is full, technically, 18 people,” he told us, “but we can really accommodate 20.” My heart was still with Ruinart, but I agreed with Dan that a little tour wouldn’t be a bad way to start the day. We still had 30 minutes before the tour began, so we returned to our car to grab our coats (the cellars are chilly!). On our way out the door, an old couple wearing bicycle helmets entered to ask about a tour, and our friend’s voice floated across the room: “I’m sorry, it’s completely full.”

I felt pretty bad about this; here we were, shooting in the dark, and there was this couple who arrived on bicycles – perhaps they’d biked to Reims with their eyes on GH Martel, and who were we to steal their spots?

I felt even worse when, forty minutes later, we were seated in a carpeted room in a circle of 20 chairs, several which remained unfilled. Of the 20 signed up for the tour, it looked as if only 14 had showed up.

The tour itself was remarkably good, and it lifted my ruined spirits like so many giddy Champagne bubbles. Our guide, Louis, was also a historian, and so his cellar tour wove history with winemaking in ways some of our others hadn’t. The Martel cellars were notably smaller than the labyrinthine ones at Mercier, but there was something special, quaint, even, about the Martel cellars.

I had been struggling to understand the disgorgement phase of the Champagne making after hearing about it at Mercier, and Martel surprised me by having several glass bottles mounted on the wall, each in a slightly different stage of the fermentation process. Louis walked over to them and shined a little pen light inside so you could actually see the Lees that had formed and the slow process of them moving from a little formless blob along the bottom to a cube in the neck. Very cool.

After the tasting, we all gathered back upstairs in the sitting room and were treated to 3 different glasses of Champagne. As we sipped, Louis told us about the Notre Dame cathedral in town and how it gained fame from being the place where French kings were crowned.

“Clovis was the first king,” he explained after a few other historical details. “And he decided he wanted to be Christian, and so he was baptised at Notre Dame in Reims. From then on, every French king up until Charles X was crowned in Reims. Yes, everyone thinks the French Revolution did away with kings, but that isn’t true.”

The room was rapt. The room also included 12 women who were on a 10-day trip to France and had hired a bus to drive them out to Reims today from Paris. All 12 of the women were originally from New Jersey, with 5 of them having attended the colleges I attended and one woman coming from my hometown. What can I say? New Jerseyans have refined tastes.

We exited the sitting room into the small sun-dappled courtyard, where several of the women from New Jersey were posing in the sunlight against the walls of the house while their friends snapped stunning photos on their iPhones. I suddenly felt very old.

Champagne House: GH Martel Founded: 1869 Cost/Tour: 28 euros per person, including a tasting of 3 glasses Chill/Posh: Old, rustic, more on the chill side Parking on Premises: No What makes it cool: Louis brought his historian background to the tour. The place itself is pretty small, giving it a more intimate feel

With two bottles purchased, Dan and I returned to the car and drove over to Veuve Clicquot, the opposite of GH Martel in its expansive parking lot, iron gates, and outdoor cafe pulsing to the groove of European house music. We entered into the building itself. Unassuming and stately on the outside, the interior was all polished and posh and silent, with two women behind the counter wearing identical tailored black suits with crisp white blouses underneath.

“Do you have a reservation?” they asked us. Of course not.

“You could sign up for a space,” they suggested. “Or just have a glass of Champagne in our cafe.”

We opted for the latter, though at only 35 euro a person, the tour wasn’t as expensive as I might have guessed based on everything else.

The Veuve cafe consisted of several small tables and chairs strewn out along a deck in a way that reminded me of a pool club with a small bar that would not have surprised me by handing out beach towels. On the chair backs were soft blankets, and sun umbrellas sprung up here and there to provide shade. All of these shone bright gold-orange to match the classic Veuve label.

We ordered two glasses of the classic Veuve Brut at 13 euro a piece, and we split a burger. I didn’t feel quite at home here, but I appreciated a Champagne house that also provides food; the tour group of New Jerseyans had abandoned plans and headed into town to try to find lunch, a difficult task to manage at 12:30 when most lunch places close at 1 and reopen again at 4 or 5.

But my appreciation for Veuve extends beyond the lunch options, now that I know a little more. Described by Rick Steves as a Champagne house overrun by Americans (because Veuve exports there, mostly), Veuve’s French history is its redeeming quality. In 1798, Clicquot was being run by the son of its founder, a man named François Clicquot. That year, he married Barbe; the marriage lasted 7 years, until his death in 1805. From there, Barbe took over the company, which was highly unusual because women knew nothing about business or companies, being a lesser sex. Women couldn’t even open a bank account back then, let alone run an entire Champagne house.

But the brand has Barbe to thank for things like the riddling tables – she developed the technique for turning the Champagne bottles nearly upside down to lure the Lees into the neck for disgorgement – the classic gold-orange label, and the “spirit of conquest”, as Veuve’s website calls it: she wanted Clicquot to be the number one brand of Champagne all across the world. So while I frowned at Rick Steves’ account of Veuve as swarmed by American tourists, perhaps Madame Clicquot might be elated to hear how her dreams have been realized.

Also, veuve is French for “widow”, and Barbe Clicquot is not the only one in the Champagne world. Knowing that the Champagne we sipped was in some way a product of her ideas and work made it all the more enjoyable.

Champagne House: Veuve Clicquot Founded: 1772 Cost: 13 euro for a glass of Champagne at the cafe Tour: 35 euro per person, including 1 glass of Champagne Chill/Posh: Posh-ish Parking on Premises: Yes What makes it cool: The history, and the impact of Barbe Clicquot on the Champagne world

From Veuve, located like many of the Champagne houses on the outskirts of Reims, we headed into the town center to see what other gems Reims might hold for us. To enter the town by car, you must navigate what can only be labeled a mega-roundabout, with several lanes leading in several different directions, and it’s up to you to be absolutely certain which exit you want long before you even glimpse the roundabout. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself circling it again and again, caught in a helpless spiral like a hair clump in a shower drain.

Dan took on the burden of getting us through the roundabout, which he did superbly, and parked us on a side street just a little outside of Reims. From there, we headed into town to explore the Notre Dame cathedral – absolutely enormous, with scars from World War 1 and stained glass windows from Marc Chagall. Inside, it was as so many other cathedrals: drafty and beautiful. Craning to look up at the ceiling, one can easily imagine they are standing there in 1275, the year the cathedral opened, or watching Joan of Arc saunter through the doors or Charles the X have a crown set on his head, or hear the shells and firing echo all around from World War 1. It’s the one thing that always gets me when I’m traveling outside of the US: everything else in the world seems so incredibly old, or maybe the US just feels young in comparison, a rebellious teenager breaking curfew and bingeing Chick-Fil-A and blowing things up just because, while the older generation of the world looks down across the generational chasm without comprehension.

I am not Catholic, but I paid a euro for one of the little candles you can light and send a prayer to someone. Just like Sedona, Arizona is famous for its energy vortexes that magnify whatever you’re doing there (like yoga, which is so greatly magnified that you have to pay like $100 for it), I imagine old cathedrals magnify whatever thought or ask you’re putting out into the universe, and you only have to pay a euro for it. Plus, in a small way, my one euro contribution is helping to keep the cathedral alive.

We walked outside into the sunshine and down a side street shaded by buildings in search of the new location of Taittinger. Without Google maps, we may not have found it; in fact, it looked rather like a jewelry store and we would not have gone in if it hadn’t had a little sign – was it a Champagne bag, even? – hanging on the doorknob.

Inside, it also looked rather like a jewelry store. Dimly lit and hushed, the place had an air of fragility, as if a whisper might shatter every precious bottle of Champagne stored – where? Looking around, it seemed impossible this place offered tastings. There were bottles placed here and there, all for sale, and all very expensive-looking.

“We do not do tastings,” said the man at the desk, also in a smart suit with smart cufflinks. “But you could do a tour. It happens upstairs. It is called ‘At the Table of Thibaud IV.'”

For 60 euros, we could journey upstairs for a tour described online as a “25-minute sound show” followed by a 20-minute discussion with Champagne experts and a tasting of two glasses of Champagne. It did sound kind of cool, with this Thibaud fellow being described as a Count of Champagne; it gave me Medieval Times vibes, which was different from every other tour we’d been offered. But after some deliberation, we decided against it, and went instead to a nearby and much smaller location: Pol Couronne.

Champagne House: Taittinger Founded: 1734 Cost/Tour: 60 euros, with 2 glasses of Champagne Chill/Posh: Posh Parking on Premises: No What makes it cool: The imaginative sound experience and buffet sounded pretty neat.

Unlike the royal feel of Taittinger and Veuve, Pol Couronne’s small establishment welcomed you inside as if you were stopping by a favorite aunt’s house to drink Champagne in the living room. Tastefully painted deep blue, with high-top table seating options, a sidewalk set-up, and even some cozy armchairs, Pol Couronne gave off a much more relaxed feel.

For 27,50, we sampled a tasting set of 3 different Champagnes, and the pours were lovely and generous. At the table, a photo book took us through the world of Champagne – this is where I discovered the Champagne widows – including the author’s own experience tasting a bottle corked in 1944. What on earth must that taste like? When the cork pops off, for a fleeting moment, might one inhale a pocket of perfectly preserved 1944 air? What kind of air would that be, and could it affect your respiratory system?

Pol Couronne also offers sabrage, for 49 euros. Having sipped 6+ glasses of Champagne each since 11 in the morning, Dan and I were not feeling the urge to drink an entire bottle (which is what you get with the sabrage), but luckily for us, another couple had opted for this option. Halfway through our second glass of Champagne, the man led the couple outside onto the sidewalk and beckoned us to follow.

I guess they lucked out with two bottles, which meant each of them got to take a turn. First, they tied on aprons. Then, they were instructed to put on a cloth glove. From there, we watched as he showed them how to brush the saber alongside the bottle to kick the cork off. What we realized is, it’s less about the sharp end of the saber cutting the cork and more about the blunt force of the saber actually swiping off a chunk of the glass where the cork meets the bottle. Corks flew, Champagne fizzed, and we applauded the couple for letting us watch and for not losing any fingers.

Champagne House: Pol Couronne Founded: 1887 Cost: 28 euros per person for a tasting of 3 glasses Chill/Posh: Chill Parking on Premises: No What makes it cool: Small establishment, intimate feel. Sabering a bottle of Champagne would be pretty sweet, with the Notre Dame cathedral in the background of your picture.

By now, the sun was setting. We had dinner reservations back in Châlons and the Herculean challenge of that giant roundabout standing between us and full stomachs. And so, we parted with Reims and drove back to Châlons over golden hills of gnarled Champagne vines, all spoiled with afternoon French sunshine.

Categories: France

Tagged as: , , ,

1 reply »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s