Global Cuisines and Cultures: France Trip 6 – Champagne
After a long, four-hour bus ride to Champagne, France, we arrived at the tasting room above the best wine shop in all of France (it actually has this designation). There we met Dr. Nathalie Spielmann of the NEOMA business school in Reims, who delivered our first lecture about champagne. Dr. Spielmann thinks that champagne is the best wine because of its terroir, which makes it very marketable. “Champagne is the perfect business model, and the best territorial brand,” she said. She explained that champagne has been and will continue to be marketed for special events and that she wants to increase awareness of the variety in Champagne.
We tasted four different champagnes; each showed its own distinct taste. Dr. Spielmann paired our champagnes with foods that you don’t normally associate with the beverage: aged cheeses and cured meats! We also tasted wines that aren’t exported to the United States, so when I bought my favorite bottle, it was that much more special.
After our first tasting, we did a short walking tour of Reims, where we saw the Reims cathedral. Following the tour, we boarded our bus for a 40-minute ride to Chateau Thierry. We arrived at Lycée Saint Joseph, a school that has had a partnership with the CIA for seven years. There we met our host families, which turned out to be one of my favorite experiences in France—something no other Global Cuisines and Cultures trip gets to do. We ate a beautiful meal at the school that first-year students had prepared with us. It started with foie gras and spice bread; progressed to a poached scallop dish, roasted duck, and a cheese plate; and culminated in a duo of desserts, cheesecake, and chocolate cake. We ended our meal traditionally with an espresso, and after a long day of travel, it was a relief to finally return to our host families’ homes and get a good night’s rest.
A New Day
The next morning, we woke up early and each ate breakfast with our family. This was particularly refreshing because we got to see what a real French breakfast was like. In our hotels, we’d been eating cheese and meat and pastries as our breakfasts, but our family explained to us that their breakfast is typically a bit of bread and a nub of butter with coffee or tea. After we finished eating, our host dad was nice enough to take us to a market that he visits on Fridays. The two most striking things that we saw were how fresh and beautiful all of the produce was, and that, in France, small animals are sold with their head and feet on. After the market, my host dad dropped us back off at our bus at the school, and we went back to Reims for three more champagne tastings.
Before our tastings began, we had a lecture from Phillipe Wibrotte, a member of the Comité Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), and his main focus was the legal structure behind champagne. It is his job to ensure that champagne is only used to describe one thing: Sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France. Next, we joined Cyril Brun, the cellar master of Charles Heidsieck, for a tasting of four different champagnes—their baseline Brut Reserve, a 2006 Vintage Brut Rose, another Brut Reserve, and a 1995 Blanc de Millenaires, their Cuvee de Prestige! And let me tell you, this last was a very special bottle of champagne. It certainly tasted like it had some age on it, revealing aromas of butter, celery, and white pepper, but was still fresh and silky as if it wasn’t older than me!
After that incredible tasting, we had a quick lunch of pâté and beef bourguignon and then headed off to Veuve Clicquot, the infamous Champagne House that boasts a yellow label. We listened to the house historian tell us all about the history of the company. He told us that, instead of a tour of their caves, we would be visiting L’Hotel Du Marc, a lavish guest house normally reserved for very wealthy and important guests to Veuve Cliquot. In fact, you can’t even a reservation there—you must be invited! At the entrance to the home is a sleek, 15-seat bar, where the only drink on the menu is—you guessed it!—Veuve Clicquot. In the glass display behind the bartender were seemingly endless magnums of Yellow Label and La Grande Dame. When we arrived, there were already glasses of Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label ready for us, and our prerogatives for the next hour were to sip our champagne, tour the home at our leisure, and embrace our new lifestyle.
Following Veuve Clicquot, we visited Taittinger, a brand that is historically loved in Britain. We were able to tour their caves, and finally get an understanding of the massive chalk quarries that everybody had been telling us about. We also got to see exactly how the most famous part of making champagne happens. Riddling is the process of turning bottles slowly, gradually making them go from horizontal to vertical, and having the yeast left over from the second fermentation move into the neck where it can be frozen and disgorged. The rows and rows of A-frames used for this process in the chalk cellars were incredibly impressive. After the tour of the cellars, we relaxed in the Taittinger reception area with a glass of their Brut Champagne, then headed on our way back to Chateau Thierry to spend another night with our host families.
When my host dad picked me up from the school and took us back to the house, it was time for dinner, and it was a simple, rustic French dish, entirely different from anything else that I had had so far on the trip. He had prepared tomates farcies or stuffed tomatoes with rice. It was clean, simple, and delicious. Next, he and his daughters pulled out a huge selection of cheeses for us: aged goat cheese, Camembert, Comté, and Munster. It’s important to note that Munster in France is nothing like the rubbery, tasteless Munster that we have here in the United States. Munster in France is made with raw milk, oozes when you cut it and is very very funky—and delicious! Next, two of his daughters made dessert and played the piano for us. Their hospitality is something that I will always remember and cherish.
The next morning, we got up and toured another champagne house, Pannier. Located in Chateau Thierry, Pannier produces beautiful wines. Their tours are quite commercial, but nonetheless, I bought a bottle of Brut Rosé for my friends back home. After we left, we stopped for a quick lunch and continued on to our final destination: Strasbourg.
by Sean Morrill
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