My family and I had just spent three days in the Verdun region of North Eastern France, and we were now on our way to Reims to pick up the fourth member of our party, my husband, Jeff. If you’re a loyal reader, you’ve heard him mentioned a time or two. [To read more about the treks through the WWI forts of Verdun, click here.]
From Juvigny-sur-Loison, where we stayed for the first part of our trip, we drove roughly two hours to Reims to grab Jeff from the central train station, which is extremely easy to find and navigate to in the center of the city for those without a car. For train travelers, getting to Reims from Paris is a quick 45 minute trek from the Gare du Nord south of the Sacre Coeur.
About 30 minutes south of Reims (don’t worry, I’m going to come back to our adventures in the small city in my next post), is a small village called Hautvillers meaning “top” or “high” village. It’s a city with no more than 800 residents on the top of a hill overlooking acres and acres of Champagne vineyards. Much like our trip to Tuscany, it was picturesque and took us by surprise with its quaintness and solitude.
We stayed in a lovely AirBnB above a Champagne bar called Marion-Bosser in the heart of the town and around the corner from the Abbey of St. Peter. This completely understated abbey was something of an after-thought for us. We had unpacked and decided to roam the city on our first evening there, and happened to walk in to take in the surroundings. At first, we looked around and just thought it was another abbey in the middle of a small town in the middle of nowhere, but as we walked toward the alter, we saw the famous Dom Perignon was buried in this church. We did a double-take to make sure we knew what we were looking at, and then it all became clear. This small village is where the famous monk is from and created the world-famous bubbly wine.
The Abbey of St. Peter was founded in 650 by a Benedictine monk named Saint Nivard. Legend says a dove told Nivard where to build the abbey, and thus the spot was chosen. Today, the abbey is owned by Champagne house Moet-Chandon. For a little history, I highly recommend stopping in this small church and pay respects to the late, great Dom Perignon who was born in 1638 and the man responsible for creating Champagne wine as we know it. While Perignon was alive, winemakers were having difficultly with the in-bottle fermentation that gives Champagne its trademark sparkle.
When the weather would turn cooler, the refermentation would halt sugars from converting into alcohol. If the wine is bottled with sugar still present, the wine becomes a “time bomb” susceptible to spontaneous combustion in the spring when the warmer weather would “wake” the yeast. This was Perignon’s mission. In 1718, the Canon Godinot published a list of wine-making rules with Dom Perignon. One of the rules was that all Champagnes need to be made from Pinot noir grapes. Apparently, Perignon detested white grapes because of their re-fermentation traits. Another rule Perignon was adamant about was to “aggressively” prune the wines so they grow no higher than three feet tall.
We definitely noticed the short vines that crawl all over the landscape, and I had assumed the shortness was due to the early time in the season, but now I know it is a mandate laid from centuries ago of wine-making.
Throughout the town, as you meander through the narrow streets in the Beauty and the Beast-esque village, you must look up. Above many of the doors are wrought-iron signs depicting professions or symbols of those who live in the respective home. Back in medieval times, most people were illiterate, so these signs were created to show who lived where. While today, they are mostly decoration, they were brought back as means for tradition.
Since we were walking through vineyards of precious Champagne grapes, we had to find a cave for a tasting. We got to the area so late in the day that most of the tasting rooms were already closed. But we found Champagne G. Tribaut open for another half hour and ducked in for a quick sampling. We had our choice of nine different wines for €2 a glass. We knew nothing about the brand, so we pretty much threw a dart at the list to start.
Jeff tried the Demi-Sec, Vintage 2010, and the Ratafia. The Demi-Sec was a much sweeter drink than we had expected and is supposed to be served with dessert. The Vintage 2010 was extraordinary and a “premier cru,” which we learned the second-highest classification behind “grand cru.” The Ratafia wine was also quite strange. While the Demi-Sec was still a sparkling wine, this was a regular wine with heavy fruit flavors and served as an aperitif.
I went a little more traditional with my tasting. I started with the Rose de Reserve, which was a glorious pink with a subtle and refreshing taste. Then, I enjoyed the Vintage 2006 Blanc de Blancs, and it stole my heart. We found ourselves walking out with a bottle of this vintage and it was just as lovely with a couple of French macarons and eclairs back at our flat. The last I tried was the Grande Cuvee Speciale, which also holds a Premier Cru label, but the taste was not as light as the Blanc de Blancs. Because we bought a bottle, we got the tasting for free, and our host was absolutely lovely in assisting us pick to our tastes. I am so sorry I cannot remember his name, but he was a great help.
Now, I mentioned the French macarons and eclairs, but these were no “normal” pastries. Cold bottle of bubbly in hand, we walked past Banette by Helene et Dan. The macarons were the size of cup saucers, so I grabbed a perfect vanilla and chocolate to share, and Jeff picked up a couple of the most stunning eclairs with a gold leaf design. I couldn’t have imagined a better pairing with our vintage.
A quick note about champagne: if you think you aren’t a fan of the bubbly wine, which we both thought ourselves, treat yourself to a really nice bottle, and it will completely change your mind. I was convinced I was only a Prosecco girl, but after having proper champagne from the region its grown, I have had a change of heart.
Stay tuned later this week for some Michelin star eating in Reims.