The Reluctant Writer: Something Else to do When I Should Be Writing

June 14, 2009

Reims, French showers, Chagall, Taittinger, Clicquot and Pommery, Oh my!

Filed under: France,travel,wine,writing — cynthiaboiter @ 00:44
Tags: , ,

We rose early the morning after our anniversary and left our hotel in the Rue Cler area of Paris — La Motte Picquet  in the 7th arrondisement near the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides — via taxi.  La Motte Picquet is a small, two star establishment with accommodating staff and just the right amount of Parisian charm.  Located around the corner from Rue Cler,  a short street that serves as a sort of microcosm of French culture with its boulangeries, patisseries, fromageries, etc., all gathered on a few short blocks.  We’ve never stayed in this area before, usually opting for the 6th and sometimes even the Marais, and we probably won’t again — too many Americans!   (We  didn’t travel that far to hang out with a bunch of Yanks!)  We also had one little complaint with the hotel — the shower.

At the risk of sounding ethnocentric here, what is it about Europe and showers? 

Now, I am perfectly aware of the beauty and the texture that multi-culturalism provides — I am the resident preacher against judging the content of another culture based on the content of ones own.  But really, what is the benefit of a shower that drenches an entire room and all its contents?  And, I know that many of the French are certainly smaller (fitter) than many Americans, but seriously, Kate Moss couldn’t fit in the tiny shower in our otherwise lovely hotel in Paris.  A little off topic here.  Sorry.

Anyway, …

A train awaited us at the Gare L’Est station which would take us just 45 minutes out of the city to a town called Reims, pronounced “Rahnce” in France.  Reims is the home of France’s Champagne region in large part due to its excessively chalky soil — perfect for growing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, the main ingredients in classic Champagne.  The chalk provides good drainage for the soil, absorbing the sun’s heat during the day and gradually releasing it onto the grapes through the night.  It also served as a fine source of construction for the vast underground caves — many of which are hundreds of years old — in which the wine bottles are stored and matured.

The train deposited us a short walk from out hotel, the Hotel Grand Continental,, set on a pedestrian street lined with restaurants, wine bars and shops.  Early for check-in, we stored our luggage and stretched our legs with a short walk to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Reims — home for hundreds of years to the coronations of France’s kings,  and home now to Marc Chagall’s gorgeous Apse Chapel stained glass windows.

Having given our respects to my one of the 20th century’s finest artist, it was time for some fruit of the vine. 

There are far more champagne houses in the Reims and neighboring Epernay area than anyone has time to visit, so we had carefully selected our choices, limiting it to the houses at which we had previously made reservations:  three for our day of arrival and two for the following day before continuing on our journey.  I noticed that Mo from the Hotel La Motte Picquet in Paris who had helped me make reservations seemed somewhat impressed that we were taking in as many as five houses.  I’d assured him that we were old pros at visiting and tasting, having researched a book on beer that required us to visit and taste for over a year’s time.  Mo had just smiled … or was that a smirk?

Our first stop was one of the venerable old houses of champagne, Taittinger, (pronounced Tat-tone-zhay).  As at many wineries, our visit began with a film educating us on the processes of viticulture and methode champenoise.  We had visited a few sparkling wine houses during our time in Napa and Sonoma earlier this Spring so the film served as something of a review for us and gave us a chance to catch our breath after racing in to make our reservation.  Soon though we filed our way down a long and winding flight of stairs that deposited us deep in the cold bowels of Taittinger’s chalky caves and under the ruins of the Saint Nicaise Abbey.  Beautiful, massive mountains of bottles were stored on their sides in the shadows of the caves which went on and on, further than we could see.  (During World War I, many of the residents of Reims took refuge in the champagne caves under the city, living there as most of the city walls collapsed above them.)  After wandering about a bit we were escorted back up the long flight of stairs which proved to be just as long, if not longer, on the way up as they were on the way down.  A quick glance at my watch told me we had only moments to scoff down the Brut we were offered and hurry on to our next destination — 

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin — I am just a messy sentimentalist when it comes to this champagne and the story behind it.  Madame Clicquot, widowed at the age of 27 and in a time (1805) when even French women were thought incapable of  purposeful thought and action, changed the world of wine and put Reims on the map.  First she discovered a way to rid champagne of its previously cloudy appearance, (the process is called riddling and is still practiced either by hand or machine in virtually every champagne house today).  Secondly, she opened up shipping arrangements with Russia, creating the first real demand for the wine — a demand that also continues today.

The Clicquot tour began quite elegantly and we were pleased to mostly wander about as our tour guide used perfect English to draw attention to various items in the Clicquot collection — the Madame’s desk, photographs, etc.  But before we knew it, again we were descending another long dark staircase into the caves under the city of Reims.  And again, we were expected to climb back up them.  I’m not being a wimp here — I’m talking hundreds of stairs.  Again. 

Luckily there was a flute of Yellow Label at the top and a bit of another 2002 Vintage to boot. 

As we ran to our next appointment at the House of Pommery (hauling a heavy wooden box containing a Cuvee Saint Petersbourg and two Clicquot flutes) I remembered Mo’s smile from the day before.  He clearly wasn’t concerned about the amount of champagne involved in multiple tastings — he was concerned about the amount of steps.  And he was right.  Descending into the caves of Pommery — which interestingly enough looked very much like the caves of Clicquot and the caves of Taittinger and, I feel certain the caves of the other two houses we had planned on visiting but ditched, I vowed to be more proactive in discerning the difference in a smirk and a smile in the future. 

Happily, the House of Pommery was more forthcoming with their tastings, allowing us to sample their Blanc de Blanc, Blanc de Noir, 2000 vintage Brut, and their Dry champagne, which is actually more sec or sweet than I would have thought.  Another bonus from the Pommery visit was the site specific art installed throughout the caves — innovative and exciting, it took the edge off the cold and made the Pommery tour much more unique.


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