The Day We Each Drank a Bottle of Champagne

Trip Start Jul 17, 2010
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Trip End Aug 07, 2010


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Flag of France  , Champagne-Ardenne,
Saturday, July 31, 2010

From Cari: (Disclaimer: The following story is heavy on the sarcasm. I want to clarify a few things before you begin. Our driver for the day was a very nice lady and tried very hard to get us where we wanted. I did not hate her and I might have even really liked her if I could speak French because she had some fun taste in music. I don't think it needs to be said, however, that I did not care for the old man from my story, even if he had some funny lines.)

From Cari: We tried to eat breakfast and escape from the Chateau before the old man caught us. We would have got away with it, too, had it not been for our meddling driver. Ok, she wasn’t really meddling, but she also wasn’t on time. We parked ourselves in some lawn chairs to wait when we heard him shouting a number of questions to us from the window. When he decided that we weren’t in control of our lives, he decided to come out to the courtyard and help us.

"He is coming to get you! See, I am like the Christ: I come and they follow." It didn’t help his ego any when he came out of the house and the driver just happened to be pulling in. To add to the irritation of the situation, our “English-speaking driver” knew “hello,” “goodbye,” and approximately fifty other random English words.

From Cari: We started out our tour of Reims with a brief overview of the city. However, since it requires complex English to give a tour, we were told, “This is the Cathedral,” and ushered out of the car to wander around this church for 1.5 hours. It wasn’t nearly as amazing as the Cathedral in Cologne, and, needless to say, we were done in approximately ten minutes. We walked back to the car to see what else there was to do, and our choice was, “There is another church?” 

From Greg: The Cathedral did have one redeeming quality. A gift shop. Not that I was interested in the shopping opportunity, but I respected the entrepreneurial gusto required to place a widget selling business inside a place of worship. I think that there was even a professional pardoner selling Catholic Indulgences... 

From Cari: The other church turned out to be Basilique St.-Remi, and it was even less ornate than the cathedral. We wandered around the grounds for a while (we found a playground), but had a lot of time to kill still. We ventured inside and discovered my favorite statute of all time. It was of a Pope or a priest…and he was checking his iPhone. All of the other statutes had scrolls and little children, but this guy had an iPhone. Awesome.

From Greg: And in the last thirty minutes we hung out on the Basilica playground. So far, I was just happy to be away from the crazy Frenchman.  

From Cari: Our first champagne visit was scheduled at the Maisons of Pommery. It ended up being my favorite tour, even though there was some really ridiculous art in the caves. In the waiting area, there was a very large barrel that was used at the World Fair in Saint Louis. The caves were through two very large, vaulted doors that opened to a large staircase of 116 steps. As you went down the steps, you could hear a voice. The tour guide explained that every couple of years, Pommery hires an artist to commission some works for the cellars because Madame Pommery used to love art. The voice was coming from an artist named Formica. He had quite a God-complex and his art was God-awful. The tour guide had a short, memorized speech about his work, during which he wanted it known that the audio of his voice came out of nowhere “like God” and that “like God created us, he created his creatures.”  His art consisted of a bunch of mannequins covered in salt (which was actually melting off because of the humidity in the cellars). The worst part was that he had placed the “art” in caverns of the caves where there was actually was great art. Many caverns had murals carved directly into the chalk walls of the caves. They were commissioned by Madame Pommery when she inherited the business from her husband. The artist actually spent a year on each mural and ended up blind.

From Greg: We actually discussed the "works" with some of the other patrons and it was agreed that this art was garbage. It was more about the artist's desire to be immortalized than about creating anything beautiful. He had his car parked in the middle of one of the cellars. And in another he had covered the floor with salt where he was projecting a video of him making the little salt monsters. And as Cari already said, the god voice... 
 
From Cari: The information on the tour was good, too. It was interesting to me that the caves had cities painted on the walls, which were the destinations for the bottles in those coves. Also, it was interesting that the sediment in the bottle had to be expelled before the bottle could be sold. To minimize loss, the bottles are rotated from the horizontal position to about 70 degrees to make the sediment fall into the neck of the bottles. By hand, it takes several weeks for this process. Next, the bottle necks are plunged into an ice bath because the sediment will freeze in an ice cube. Finally, the cap is promptly removed and the sediment ice cube is pushed out with the pressure from the carbon dioxide.

From Greg: The most shocking thing about the chalk caves was the pure volume of champagne. We only saw the tour area, but there would be small sub-caves with literally hundreds of thousands of bottles aging. As Cari expressed, the bottles are rotated and angled in a process call riddling. A skilled riddler could rotate a seemingly infinite number of bottles a day. 

From Cari: A special tidbit about Pommery: Pommery was the first to make a brute champagne. Champagne was historically sweet to hide the taste of some of the things they put in it. Madame Pommery was not a fan of all of the sugar, so she made a better Champagne with 8 grams of sugar rather than the normal 50 grams or so

From Greg: The only place in world were you can get champagne is from the champagne region of France. If you are a Vintner (i.e. a winemaker) and you make a champagne-like beverages but are not from this region of France, then it is unlawful to label your product "Champagne." You must label it "sparkling wine "(Caveat: when this agreement was made, some wine producers in the United States were already making "Champagne." They were grandfathered in and are allowed to use the term still today). In America, we like our sparkling wine sweet. Andre Extra Dry, the best selling sparkling wine in this country, falls right into the middle of the dryness scale as defined by the French. (Dry is the opposite of sweet.)

From Cari: After the tour, we were able to try some of the champagne. For $17 you could try the cheapest, and for $21 you could try two of any of the six that they offer for tastings. We picked the latter, and each got two different ones to try. We tried (1) Chardonnay only Champagne, (2) a rare Champagne made from only Pinot grapes, (3) a Triage of all three grape varieties (Pinot Noir, Pinot Manier, and Chardonnay), and (4) the Vintage 2002. I preferred (in numbers) 1 and 2 tied, 3, and 4. The third one was good on its first taste, but the aftertaste was a little weird. The fourth one I compared to rubber cement.

From Greg: They were all pretty good in my opinion. However I would put them in the follow order, from most favorite to least favorite: Pinot (2), Chardonnay (1), Triage (3), Vintage (4) 
 
From Cari: After Pommery, we went to lunch at some fancy, shmancy restaurant. I wasn’t expecting that at all. We were initially told that we weren’t going to be able to go on two Cave tours and eat lunch because lunch takes several hours. I pushed the issue, and we got our tours in. Its good, too, because I would have been more than livid if this was the reason that we weren’t going to be able to do two tours. It only takes two hours if you want to eat a gastronomic lunch. It was good food for what it was, but we didn’t need that for lunch. Since we got our tours in, though, we decided to sit back and enjoy it.

From Greg: This lunch deal was annoying. Anyone that knows me well is aware that I love fine dining. That said, there is a time and a place for it. In the middle of the day, between two champagne tours, is not the time. In my defense, the travel agent set it up and I had no idea what we were walking into, but I digress... The food was great. And they started us off with "complementary" champagne, which was a nice touch. By the end I was more than stuffed and just a little buzzed on champagne, so I was happy.    

From Cari: After lunch, we had another tour at G.H.Mumm’s. We were almost late because a road was closed on our way to the Caves. Mumm’s wasn’t nearly as…neat. The tour was fine, and the champagne was good, but the caves were set up the same way without the extra fluff that made Pommery’s fun. The tour guide was cracking me up with his accent. “It is because of the harsh CLImate, and the chawky SUBsoil, that we can produce, champagne in our Region.”

From Greg: This guide did have the tendency to put an extreme emphasis on the first half of all his words. It made him sound as if he were singing to you. And that he was being roasted alive in the process.  
 
From Cari: Mumm’s did have some cool production equipment in the museum, and Greg and I had our picture taken with the huge bottles that they used for some huge event (the name is escaping me). The bottles were, unfortunately, empty. 

From Greg: I also don't know why the wine bottles were made but the giant bottle is called a "Balthazar," which is the equivalent to 16 standard wine bottles.  

From Cari: Again, after the tour we had a tasting. We tried (1) the Vintage, (2) the Brut, (3) the Grand Cru, and (4) the Rose. I liked the Rose, the Brut, the Grand Cru, and the Vintage (in that order).

From Greg: I put them in the same order. Though at this point I can't say that my taste buds were functioning at peak performance. 

From Cari: After our tours, it was nap time. After our naps, we went in Chalons for dinner at another restaurant (Brasserie Republic) where we got pizzas (and lots and lots of water). After dinner, it was time to be done with the day. We snuck back in to the bed and breakfast for sleep.

Total Champagne drank during the day: 2 glasses each at Pommery, 1 appertif a piece at lunch, 1 bottle between the two of us, and 2 glasses each at Mumm’s.. That equals 1 bottle.

From Greg: I don't like the French, but I will concede that they are great at appeasing the desires of the flesh... Good night.
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