Poppin' Bottles & Racin' Around France
09.23.2011 - 09.25.2011 72 °F
Champagne. That one beautiful, majestic word has the ability to conjure up anticipation & delight. I absolutely LOVE champagne. It’s my favorite alcoholic drink. For me, mimosas are appropriate at all hours of the day. It’s a crime to regulate it to brunch with milk, tea and coffee. Seriously. I know I sound like an alcoholic but listen…I can stop drinking it anytime I want. I just choose not to. It would be unfair to the makers of this beautiful, sexy beverage.
I was blessed to visit the bubbly cities of Reims & Epernay. I only had 1 day (Saturday) since Sunday would be spent running the Paris-Versailles 16K road race.
My travel buddy, sister & overall fabulous superstar friend, Renee, joined me! We dragged Tony along too. Our day started early as we needed to take the train from Versailles (where we were staying) so Tony & I could pick up our race packets at the Paris Sports Complex. We then took the TGV high-speed train from Gare Paris-Est to Reims.
Beautiful, beautiful Reims (pronounced “rance”, rhymes with France…I know, you don’t see the letter “n” either. I can’t even begin to sound this stuff out. You know I was saying “reems” forever. I can’t tell you how many times I asked the sexy train ticket agent to pronounce that for me. Ha!). It’s the administrative capital of the Champagne region and is pretty modern. Reims is approximately 45 minutes from Paris if you take the TGV train. This city is where 26 French kings & queens were crowned, where champagne first bubbled (mmm, mmm…I think I need to get a flute of the bubbly to type this post up…hold on…………………………………………………………………………………[looking for champagne]……………………………………………………………………………………………………..maybe I should drink a glass before writing? Then have another glass while I continue to write? You know it will go flat if I leave it out so I better just finish off the bottle. Ooh, I have mimosa sorbet that I made last night. I should get a bowl of that too.) Sorry, I had to think thru this dilemma. Where was I? Oh yes, Reims. This is also the city where the Germans officially surrendered in 1945 bringing WWII to an end.
The great thing about visiting Reims is that most of the sights are within a 15-minute walk from the Reims-Centre train station. Otherwise, you can take the bus or tram (which are really easy to use) to your destination. Now, my focus was to tour the champagne caves and do tastings ALL DAY LONG! I am so serious about this. Did I mention that I love champagne? It’s like the Bert to my Ernie, y’all.
Despite the fact that we started our day at 8am, we were only able to catch the 11:30am train to Reims. So, we arrive during lunch. All the Champagne Houses close down from 12-2pm. So, we take this time to walk down the main boulevard
and get some lunch.
This was a steak and cheese sandwich with fries loaded on top. Awesome! And, I’m pretty sure it’s only 8 points on Weight Watchers but I need to verify it…once I finish my cool drink.
Fun fact…did you know that a glass of champagne every day increases the quality of your life? You didn’t? Well, now you do. Don’t bother trying to fact check me. It’s something I know in my soul. I don’t need the FDA or Dr. Oz telling me lies trying to keep me away from my precious.
After we finish lunch, we start walking towards our first Champagne House…Taittinger. On the way, we pass a line for people to get in this round contraption so they can spin around like a ball for 2 minutes.
During our walk, I realize I need to use the bathroom. We come across a McDonalds so I say that I’m going to go in there. Now, McD’s has never let me down. Tony comes with me. We enter and realize it’s 2 stories with the bathroom being upstairs. But, as we get to the stairs, I notice there is a man blocking access and he’s wearing some sort of gold shield. Apparently, they have security. He asked if we purchased food because the bathrooms were only for patrons. Um, why wasn’t he looking for the Hamburglar who, last I heard, was busy stealing kids Happy Meals? Or did they crack that 45-year old case? Seriously? I meant to check if Ronald McDonald was on the gold shield but I was so thrown that I didn’t think quick enough.
So, being denied relief at McDonald’s (that sounds dramatic doesn’t it? I wanted to throw that in just in case Tyler Perry wants to turn this into a movie.), we head to the Reims Cathedral.
It’s absolutely breathtaking! This cathedral was built in 1211 and is a great example of Gothic architecture. The details are similar to the cathedral I saw in Strasbourg last year. It’s known as one of Europe’s greatest churches. The first king of the Franks, Clovis, was baptized in this church in 496 AD. This really helped to establish Christianity in France. Since C-money’s baptism, Reims became the place for the coronation of French kings & queens (as mentioned above, there were 26 in total). For this reason, it played a more important role than Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral. Joan of Arc led Charles VII here to be crowned in 1429. The French rallied around young Charlie 7 (or probably as he was known to his friends…Sev’s) to push the English out of France and end the Hundred Years’ War (which was a series of wars waged from 1337 to 1453 by the House of Valois and the House of Plantagenet, also known as the House of Anjou, for the French throne, which had become vacant upon the extinction of the senior Capetian line of French kings.). As you may remember from my London blog, the House of Plantagenet loved to fight. They were involved in the War of the Roses (fighting cousins) and this is the same house in which crazy King Henry 8 or as I like to call him, Crazy 8s) descended (the one killing all his wives).
I cover the origins of the French Revolution in my 2010 Versailles blog post but during the actual revolution, the French decided to convert all the cathedrals and places of worship into “temples of reason”. They didn’t want religion to be forced on them. After the monarchy was restored, Charles X was crowned King in 1825…this was the last coronation in France. I guess old Double Nickels couldn’t keep it going. The cathedral was almost destroyed by bombs during WWI and was completely rebuilt by John D. Rockefeller. Who, interestingly, also rebuilt historical places in Athens and of course, Colonial Williamsburg.
After getting our church on, we power walk to Taittinger (pronounced “tay-tan-zhay”) because we are thirsty and that sweet nectar is calling. Taittinger is one of the biggest & most renowned of Reims’ caves. We took a tour of the cellars (which are freezing). Now, when we arrive, we ask to sign up for an English tour and the French receptionist was like, “weez ‘r full at de momeent. You’ll have to take ze Fraaanch tour unless you wait 2 more ooww-weres.” So, I told him we’d take 3 tickets for the French tour, then we just filed in with the rest of the folks when the English tour started. Where there is a will, there is a way.
The tour starts with a 10 minute promo video about the beauty of Taittinger, then we followed our guide down 80 steps
to the underworld city of champagne!
The deepest of the caves were dug by ancient Romans. They were everywhere y’all. There are approximately 3 miles of caves and 9 million bottles of champagne located here. During the tour, our guide explained the process of making champagne.
The history of Champagne dates to about 1700 AD and a monk cellarmaster at the Abbey of Hautvillers near the city of Reims. As the story goes, a monk named Dom Pérignon was making wine for his colleagues when, unbeknownst to him, he failed to complete the fermentation before bottling and corking the wine. During the cold winter months the fermentation remained dormant, but when spring arrived the contents of the sealed bottles began to warm and fermentation resumed producing carbon dioxide that was trapped in the bottle. Later that spring Dom noticed that bottles of wine in the cellar were exploding, so he opened one that was intact and drank, declaring "Come quickly! I'm drinking stars!" Thus, Champagne was born and named after the region where it was discovered. Today Möet & Chandon make a Champagne named in honor of Dom Pérignon, the serendipitous inventor of Champagne. A bronze statue of the famous monk stands outside Möet & Chandon in Epernay, France.
Today, the production of Champagne is quite different from Dom Pérignon's accidental discovery.
The key reaction of winemaking is alcoholic fermentation, the conversion of sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide by yeast. The maximum amount of alcohol attained through alcoholic fermentation is about 15% because the yeast cells are killed by high alcohol concentration. The maximum alcohol content can be determined by multiplying 0.55 times the percent sugar initially present in the grape juice before fermentation. For example, if 24% sugar is initially present, about 13% (0.55 x 24) alcohol will be realized. Most still wines (i.e., table wines) contain 12 to 14% alcohol.
The key process in producing Champagne is a SECOND fermentation that occurs in a sealed bottle. The entire process is described below.
SELECTING THE CUVÉE (La Cuvée)
The cuvée is the base wine selected to make the Champagne. The most expensive Champagnes are made from cuvées from selected vineyards in the Champagne region. Cuvées can be from a pure grape variety, such as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, or can be a mixture of several grape varieties. Chardonnay is a white grape variety with white juice, Pinot Noir a red grape variety with WHITE juice. Pinot Meunier, a relative of Pinot Noir, also is used extensively. The slight rust color imparted to some Champagne results from using Pinot Noir cuvées that acquire some red color from contact with the skins. The longer the juice remains in contact with the skins, the darker red it becomes. If a Champagne is made exclusively from Chardonnay, it is called "blanc de blanc," white wine from white grapes. Most Champagne is made from mixed cuvees. The alcohol content of the cuvee is usually around 10%.
After the cuvée is selected, sugar, yeast, and yeast nutrients are added and the entire concoction, called the tirage, is put in a thick walled glass bottle and sealed with a bottle cap. Approximately four grams of sugar per liter of wine will produces one atmosphere of carbon dioxide. Since Champagne contains approximately six atmospheres of gas, 24 g of sugar are added per liter of base wine. After fermentation, and subsequent manipulations, the final product ends up with about four atmospheres of carbon dioxide. The tirage is placed in a cool cellar (55-60 °F), and allowed to slowly ferment, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Since the bottle is sealed, the carbon dioxide cannot escape, and,thereby producing the sparkle of Champagne.
AGING ON DEAD YEAST
As the fermentation proceeds, yeast cells die and after several months, the fermentation is complete. However, the Champagne continues to age in the cool cellar for several more years resulting in a toasty, yeasty characteristic. During this aging period, the yeast cells split open and literally spill their guts into the solution imparting complex, yeasty flavors to the Champagne. The best and most expensive Champagne is aged for five or more years.
RIDDLING (Le Remuage)
After the aging process is complete, the dead yeast cells are removed through a process known as riddling. The Champagne bottle is placed upside down in a holder at a 75° angle. Each day the riddler comes through the cellar and turns the bottle 1/8th of a turn while keeping it upside down. This procedure forces the dead yeast cells into the neck of the bottle where they are subsequently removed. A riddler typically handles 20,000 to 30,000 bottles per day.
The Champagne bottle is kept upside down while the neck is frozen in an ice-salt bath. This procedure results in the formation of a plug of frozen wine containing the dead yeast cells. The bottle cap is then removed and the pressure of the carbon dioxide gas in the bottle forces the plug of frozen wine out leaving behind clear Champagne. At this point the DOSAGE, a mixture of white wine, brandy, and sugar, is added to adjust the sweetness level of the wine and to top up the bottle. The bottle is then corked and the cork wired down to secure the high internal pressure of the carbon dioxide. The sweetness levels of Champagne range very dry (ultra brut) to very sweet (doux), with brut being the most common. Personally, I love demi-sec.
Many Champagne houses produce "luxury cuvées," their best and most expensive wines. Dom Pérignon is the luxury cuvée of Möet & Chandon; Cristal is pride of Roederer. Bollinger produces R.D. or "recently disgorged" wines. For example, you can purchase a 1982 Bollinger R.D. that was disgorged in April 1991, nine years after being placed in the bottle. (source “Making Champagne” by Alexander J. Pandell, Ph.D.).
We had a group of senior citizens on our tour…if you read my Las Vegas blog post, you know how they keep it real. At the very start of the tour, Archie starts in.
Archie: Excuse me. That was an excellent overview of the champagne making process. Really, it was very, very good. You have great oratory skills. I just have a question…are you a member of the Taittinger family?
Francy the Guide: Um, thank you. No, I am not a member of ze Taittinger famileee. I work for the family giving tours of the cellars and explaining how champagne is made.
Archie: You aren’t a member of the family? Well, do you want to do this forever? What’s your 5 year plan look like? You can do better than giving tours.
Me: Seriously? Again? Why, God?
You know the Oldies but Goodies Group had to worry that guide with 1000 questions and block everything. We just gave up trying to participate and meekly just followed them at a distance. I couldn’t do it. In fact, I was just looking for the exit so I could start the champagne tasting.
It was magnificent to see millions of bottles fermenting. I want a cellar in my next home. The House of Nichole. That’s going on my Vision Board right now.
The expensive bottles were behind locked gates.
We then get to my favorite portion of the tour…drinking! I love Taittinger. It really is very smooth. I’m partial to sweeter champagnes (demi-sec) than dry (brut). But, I will drink it all
We then head over to the next champagne house…Martel. This offers a homey contrast to Taittinger’s more “business” ambiance. At this point, I was done with touring cellars figuring that once you’ve seen 1, you pretty much know what to expect. I just wanted to go drinking. Unfortunately, Martel didn’t offer tastings without the tours. Renee and I did end up buying a couple of bottles of champagne since I love Martel too.
After we leave Martel, we head another champagne house which allowed tastings without a tour (yay!) and met some people from the U.S. who happened to be at every house we were visiting. The husband & wife now reside in Brussels due to a job transfer with Fedex and their friend was over for vacation. I believe he bought an entire case of champagne (so of course, I realized immediately that he was cool). At this point, Renee & I are feeling no pain. Look how happy we are!
Tony had abandoned us after we wanted to go to another champagne house claiming he just wanted a beer. But, he was back 15 minutes later at the champagne house. Champagne is the new black. Live it, love it. Can’t stop, won’t stop.
After leaving our last champagne house in Reims, we catch a train to Epernay because I have always wanted to visit Moet & Chandon! However, we arrive just as they are closing so no tastings.
I do get a pick with Mr. Perignon though!
We walk up Avenue de Champagne
Past Hotel Ville (City Hall)
And see a couple more champagne houses.
Renee was able to buy a couple more bottles of champagne and then we had dinner before heading to the train station to catch the last train back to Paris.
While we were waiting for our train back to Paris, we met a girl named Toni. She's 25 and her story is so fascinating. Toni sold her stuff and moved overseas with her passport and a backpack. She ended up getting a job on a yacht as part of the crew and has 3 months off each year where she just travels around Europe and does some sort of work exchange...so, she basically works for a room to sleep in. I was like, "um, how can I do that?" Some of the jobs she has is bartending, waitressing, working in a kitchen, etc. You work out the particulars before you actually arrive in the city.
PARIS-VERSAILLES 16K RACE
I had running an international race on my bucket list this year so I jumped at the chance of running the Paris-Versailles 16K (which is 10 miles)! I was required to have my doctor sign a medical waiver (clue #1). Since I love Paris and Versailles, I thought this would be a great idea and it would give me a chance to see some beautiful scenery. I had read the info on the race website and a question was asked about the terrain. The question was "I've never ran the Paris-Versailles, is the race difficult?" The reply, "The race, in spite of the reputation of the "Côte des gardes", is still easier than a half marathon. Be careful on the last climb to Viroflay (before the feeding station of km 13) who is redoubtable, as well as the slight incline of the Avenue de Paris in Versailles, which can seem endless." That's it. Keep that response in mind for later, k?
Tony & I get up, head to Starbucks for yogurt and then take the train to the Eiffel Tower where the race is to start. Um, why were there several funky folks on the train? Dude, you haven't even ran the race yet? You want to be smelling like booty funk when you wake up? Hose yourself off and get some deoderant. The thought going thru my mind was, "what the hell is it going to smell like after the race?"
So, we arrive at the Eiffel Tower and it is packed. The race had sold out about a month prior.
View of people walking over the Seine towards the starting line.
Tony & I meet up with a couple of other French colleagues in the starting area (which is packed).
We are all smiles before the race...
Then, as we are lining up, my French colleague says, "Hey, be careful out there because people have died running this race." Wait, WHAT? People have died? Why wasn't that in the literature??? He tells me that people always overdo it because they aren't prepared for the huge hill and they don't pace themselves appropriately. Then, he says that he saw 2 people die a couple of years ago. WHAT THE HELL? WHY AM I JUST NOW HEARING ABOUT THIS MESS? I AM NOT READY TO DIE. I HAVEN'T SAID GOOD-BYE! So, I did the best I could...sent a message on Facebook telling everybody that it's been a good life. Ha!
So, the race has a rolling start but unlike half & full marathons, you aren't grouped by pace. They just let a certain amount of people start running every 2 minutes.
Our group is released to start the race and we start running. A couple of things I notice from the start. First, there is no concept of personal space. People just run all up on you so you are constantly covered in other people's sweat. It's gross. And you cannot avoid it. Second, Port-O-Potties are a suggestion. While they have some located at the hydration stations, most people just stopped running and peed on the side of the road. Men AND WOMEN. I don't need to see Jean-Claude pull out his junk and I certainly don't need to see Chanel pull her pants down and squat. Really? On the side of the road??? I can't take it.
So, once I'm over that, I'm able to continue focusing on my run. Then, I see some guys running in chicken costumes. In the heat...for 10 miles. I'm sure that seemed like a neat concept in theory.
By the 3km marker, the chicken head had come off and was tossed to the side...by the 6km marker, the entire suit was tossed.
I'm just running along and then I come to the 6km marker and see what I'm gonna call the "Hill to Jesus". It was straight up. I was like, "what the hell?" and I just started looking around for a train stop because I just knew that I the hill would kill me and I would have to ask Jesus to help me out. As I start my Jesus quest, I'm thinking that I have 20 Euro and could either find a taxi or bribe a kid to let me hop on his scooter. The 2 km Jesus run seemed like it was 26 miles. I honestly didn't think I would make it. I think I cursed myself out the entire time I was running. But, I made it, gave thanks to Jesus and prayed that it was all downhill after that. It wasn't. But, 11-13km was pretty good. While I survived the hill, not everybody did. I saw 3 people being rushed to the hospital via ambulance. It's weird passing ambulances that are stationed at every kilometer. I also ran past several people at the medics tent getting oxygen and other medical care. You know I was like, "uh...maybe I should just take a quick break and have them check my pressure?" But, I kept it going.
But then there was another hill. WTF?!?!?!? Then, I saw the scooter and thought, "I'm saved!"
I hit a hydration station that has sugar cubes (that's new for me), oranges, water and Powerade...and they are playing Michael Jackson's "Thriller"...aw yeah! That gets me hyped and I get a little burst of energy...
And, finally crossed the finish line 2 hours later. One more goal achieved!!
While I was running for my life, Renee was walking the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. As mentioned (and linked above), I covered Versailles pretty extensively in my 2010 blog. But, I am including her pictures because it was sunny during her visit (while mine were taken on a cloudy day).
"To all the glories of France"
Pics from the grounds around the Palace of Versailles.