Grapes, Vineyards & Champagne (Reims/Champagne--France)

Champagne, the name of a French province has been universally accepted as the name of its sparkling wine and it is insisted that true champagne comes from only this province.

Located along the canals connected to the river Marne, the province of Champagne in Epernay (pronounced as epakhnay) was the heart of the grape districts of France, producing almost as much champagne as Reims, the capital city. Almost 50,000 acres of land of Epernay are used for cultivating grapes for making Champagne and quite naturally we did not want to miss out on a fabulous champagne tour while visiting France.

Leaving Paris in the morning, we drove along the road that ultimately leads to Germany to reach Epernay. Located along the eastern side of France, Epernay gave us what we expected of a typical French countryside; vast and lush green vineyards, the never-ending skyline, huts and cathedrals down the slopes, all bringing out a magnificent and serene look to the entire landscape.

We had the opportunity of visiting two cellars; the Piper Heidsieck and the Moet & Chandon. The first one provided a tour inside the cellars on small electric-powered cars that went around the tunnels and stopped at relevant spots with a recorded commentary explaining the steps. But the latter one was a more interactive one.

Initially, we were escorted inside a huge building to meet the people whose patience and skill had brought the finest of nature’s offerings to the peak of perfection and the statue of Dom Pérignon, a Benedictine monk, frequently credited with the invention of champagne. Dom Pérignon, now is a famous and expensive champagne produced by Moet and Chandon, the other world famous variety and the first choice of Napoléon being Brut Imperial.

We had a brief orientation on the process of how grapes were picked and pressed gently to ensure that only the best juice and aromas were extracted. After a short film show on how the taste of champagne was ascertained, we went down to the cellar, down below almost three storeys in the basement. As advised, we put on our jackets and sweaters because inside the cellar it was cold. Hollowed out of chalk, the network of cellars covering a total length of nearly 17.5 miles on several levels, forming a mysterious, dark maze with its dim lights and pin drop silence, fascinated us.

The smell of chalk, the cool, damp walls, the aromas of wine and the tinkling of bottles being moved gently, reflected the work of time. We were explained very clearly and nicely, each and every step that was followed for getting the fascinating sparkling drink. We learnt how Cellar ageing played an important role in giving the Champagnes their particular characteristics and subtleness, enhancing the blending.

We followed each and every step where the second round of fermentation took place and the formed carbon dioxide was absorbed in the wine giving it the exclusive sparkle. The activities are all very delicate and can be done fast only by experts. However, in modern days, a machine does the turnings of the bottles.

Our next stop was the ‘tasting’ room where we got to sip the different varieties, artistically served in crystal goblets. The room led directly to the store where different varieties of Champagne along with other accessories were put up for sale. We did our bit of shopping.

On our way back, we visited Reims, The region's capital that houses the High Gothic masterpiece, Reims Cathedral, which is also a historically a prominent site as it was the coronation site of 24 kings of France, including Charles VII in 1429 in the presence of Joan of Arc. Being constructed around 1211, the Cathedral was a unique piece of architecture, showcasing high Gothic architecture and art. The facade is comprised of three grand entrances, a stained glass rose window crafted in the 13th century and numerous intricate sculptures.

Reims even boasts of two beautiful museums; Musee des Beaux Arts Reims, a provincial art gallery featuring portraits of German Princes and other pieces dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. The museum is housed within an 18th century building that belongs to the Abbey Saint-Denis. Palais du Tau, the other museum constructed in 1690, was once the residence of an archbishop, as well as a prince. Its collection ranges from statues, tapestries, holy relics and other objects from the cathedral.

It was time for us to return to Paris. On the way back our guide gave her natural speech of ‘thank you for being with us’ etc. She also said ‘please don’t forget to take your belongings from the bus’ and then looked at me and with a mischievous smile, said ‘don’t bother if you forget your Champagne bottles, we know exactly what to do with them.’…& we all laughed.