“A glass lifts the spirits and sharpens the wits…”
Winston Churchill –
His favourite Champagne was Pol Roger!
When people think of France, they also think of French Champagne – the special ‘bubbly’ sparkling wine of that is sold all over the world under Champagne names like Vueve Cliquot, Dom Pérignon, Mumm, Pomerey, Pol Roger, Bolinger, Pol Roger, Taittinger, Piper-Heidsieck, Joseph Perrier, Perrier- Jouët, Krug, Laurent Perrier and others. These ‘Champagne Houses’ have become synonymous with prestige occasions, luxury, parties and celebration. There are also a number of local Champagne brands too that you will only find in the Champagne region.
It might be a wedding, the birth of a baby, marriage, launch of a ship, winning a horse race or election, finishing a degree, a work celebration, a victory – there are many and varied reasons why Champagne has been used to celebrate an occasion. Maybe any excuse will do!
Reims and the Champagne region is about 140 km (90 miles) east of Paris towards Germany. By TGV fast train – it takes around 45 minutes to travel from Paris to Reims, so not a long way.
If you are coming to France and like Champagne – then historic Reims, Épernay and the Champagne region should be high on your list of places to see.
While there are many sparkling wines in the world that have in the past used the term “Champagne” and “Méthode Champenoise” - only those wines that are produced in the Marne River valley and surrounding valleys near the city of Reims on the Vesle River and the town of Épernay can truly claim to be ‘Champagne’. There are four rivers in this region – the Marne, La Suippe, Vesle that runs through Reims and the L’Aisne and you will see the hillsides covered in vineyards.
There are now accepted laws that control the use of the word “Champagne” and also the words “Méthode Champenoise” protecting the makers of these Champagnes from copies and imitators and also the region and its growers too. There are also strict laws in France defining the exact regional growing regions and production methods used in making wines too – and you will see the letters AOC meaning Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or just Appellation Contrôlée on wine labels. The AOC marking can also be seen on French Cheeses too, that also relate to the specific area where the cheese has been produced.
It is thought that the Romans first brought grape vines to grow in the valley of the Marne River during the time when the Roman Empire under Julius Caesar made its conquest of Gaul around 58-51BC. The Italian word for ‘countryside’, ‘Campagna’ (Latin – Campania) no doubt gave birth to the word “Champagne”, though the sparkling wine today that we know as ‘Champagne’ was not developed for many centuries after the Roman Empire was no longer.
In Reims – there is still a Roman Triumphal Archway – the La Porte de Mars located in a small park area at Place de la Republique. The Arch dates back to the 3rd Century and is the biggest Roman Arch still in existence.
The quality and type of wine depends on many variables – from the age and variety of grapes that are grown, to the soil type, season, aspect, pruning, drainage, sunlight, coolness, time of picking and then also in the manner and way the grapes are handled, sorted, and pressed into juice, along with the time, temperatures, acidity of the grapes, fermentation and then also in the way in which the wine is stored, bottled and aged. As you can see there are a great number of variables involved.
As the Romans built and expanded their Empire they also brought with them Christianity, and central to the Christian faith is the story of Jesus and the Last Supper, the Eucharist and Holy Sacrament, with the symbolic ceremony involving the breaking of bread and drinking of wine from a chalice. It was only natural then that chapels, churches and Abbeys would be built and become centres of learning and that the church and its Monks, Abbots, Priests and Bishops would in turn grow food including grapes for eating and also the making of wine.
The Church – what was called the 2nd Estate was also supported by Tithes (Taille or Dîme Tax) a 10% tax paid in kind or in value paid by the peasant workers. The Tithe payment to the Church and also to the Royals and nobility landowners (1st Estate) was only abolished in 1789 during the French Revolution.
While much early historical documents have been lost, there is evidence that Saint Remigius (St. Remi) (c. 437AD- 552AD) had established a vineyard in the 5th Century here in the Champagne region. As Bishop of Reims, St. Remi converted the King of the Franks, Clovis to Christianity in 496AD in a baptising ceremony, and this would be the first of many Kings being baptised, anointed or crowned in the Reims Cathedral.
While the Gauls in the Champagne region were subject to different invading forces including the Franks over the centuries, the first King of France, also a Frank, King Huques Capet (996AD-996AD) was crowned in Reims Cathedral in 987AD. He would become the first in a long line of Kings in the Capetian Dynasty that ruled over France from the time of his coronation to 1328.
Reims became the “Spiritual Capital of France” and local wines gained much acclaim, given their use and status in the Coronation Banquets and as chosen wines being supplied to the Royal Court and nobility. At this time the wines produced were all still wines.
The Abbey of Saint-Pierre de Hautvillers was founded in 650AD and it was here in 1668 that Dom Pierre Pérignon was appointed by the Abbey as its cellar-master, his job being to oversee the production of wines and the vineyard. Over coming years he studied, developed and refined the skills and techniques needed to create a sparkling white wine using red Pinot Noir grapes and bottling the wine in glass bottles in place of the commonly used oak barrels. The tomb housing the body of Dom Pérignon is located in the Church of St. Sindulphe next to the Abbey which is now owned by the Moët &Chandon House of Champagne.
People grew to like the sparkling bubbles, but it took until the 1700’s for the development of stronger glass, specially shaped bottles, corks and the ties to hold corks in position and connect to the bottle. Early ‘sparkling wines’ often exploded with the fermentation pressure, often destroying not only the bottle involved but also those near it and this was particularly hazardous when the wine was transported. You may well have experienced this if you bottled your own Ginger Beer and if you like Ginger, look for Gingerbread biscuits in Reims. This is a local specialty.
In England, glass making by the 1700’s had also developed and they similarly faced the issue of exploding bottles when they made Ciders. The problem was largely solved when they began making glass bottles using a higher temperature using coal fired kilns rather than using wood to fire the kiln. The English glass bottles became known as “Verre Anglais” (English Glass) and the French started to use these stronger bottles to bottle their sparkling wine.
Another issue was also solved in the early 1800’s – this time the issue of sediment in the wine happening at the same time as fermentation. A lady by the name of Barbe Nicole Clicquot (nee Ponsardin) (1777-1886) took over running the family business 1804 when at age 27 her husband, Francois Clicquot died.
Madame Clicquot developed a secret technique to control the amount of sediment left in the bottles, using a technique that became known as “Riddling”, whereby bottles were placed in racks, their neck facing downwards, so that any sediment ended up in the neck of the bottles. Then by regularly turning the base of the bottles each day and then at a certain point of time allowing the pressure in the bottles to push out the sediment and then recorking the bottles, they ended up with almost no sediment at all. This ‘riddling’ technique is still used today.
The Champagne Industry grew enormously during the 1700’s, 1800’s and 1900’s and still today while its connection with Royalty and Nobility may well have destroyed the industry during the 1789 French Revolution when all things ‘Royal’ were under threat, it continued to prosper under Napoleon and subsequent leaders.
Champagne has over the centuries ridden a wave of popularity, experiencing both good times and bad. Being close to the German Border, the area and particularly Reims suffered bombing during both World War I and World War II. The era of Prohibition in the USA in the 1920’s saw its sales to the USA disappear overnight, just as it had during the Russian Revolution in 1917.
Champagne storage is mostly underground so that there is an even temperature to control the fermentation process, and during the first and second World Wars, these tunnels were also used as Bomb Shelters.
As a wine of Celebration, the most significant celebration in the modern world also happened in Reims – when on May 7th, 1945 German General Alfred Jodl signed an unconditional surrender with the US General Dwight D. Eisenhower – ending World War II. The following day Celebrations took place and in Reims the surrender was celebrated with Champagne from the House of Pommery.
In Reims there are a number of significant memorials that relate to World Wars and their impact on Reims including the place where the signing took place. (See below)
Reims is the biggest city in the Champagne region and there are a number of sites to see in the old part of the City Centre, most within walking distance of each other.
The most prominent site is the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral of Reims located on Place du Cardinal Luҫon. The Cathedral dates back to the 13th Century and there are over 2500 statues to be seen along with stunning stained glass windows. The Cathedral is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site along with the Palace of Tau – a museum located almost next to the Cathedral. The Palace was the home of the Bishops over the centuries and inside you will see many statues, tapestries and unique historical material including robes worn by French Kings from the time of their coronation in the Cathedral, some dating right back to the 13th Century. The Coronation Banquets were all held here as well as the Talisman of Charlemagne from the 9th century and the Sainte Ampoule (a small flask/phial ) used to anoint Kings in the coronation ceremonies.
Also close by is the Place Royale with its statue of Louis XV at its centre. This is a large plaza/square built in 1757 in honour of the King. It is surrounded on four sides by elegant French architecture. Another square with a large fountain is the Place d’Erlon where the Subé Fountain is located. The fountain was built in 1906.
The UNESCO World Heritage listed St Remi Basilica is located on Rue St. Julien and its history dates back to the baptism of Clovis by St Remi in 498AD. The Basilica itself was consecrated by Pope Leo IX in 1049. St Remi’s tomb is here along with historic tapestries and art all within this Romanesque Gothic Basilica with its two high towers on each side of the main entrance that leads into the Nave of the Basilica with its towering archways and other features.
Close by here too is the Musée des Beaux-Arts – at 8 Rue Chanzy. This museum was first established in 1794 and it is located in a former St. Denis Abbey building that dates back to the 9th Century. Inside you will see paintings, etching, sculptures and other artistic works dating back to the 16th Century.
For history of Reims and the region, look for the St Remi History Museum located at 53 Rue Simon in what was the St Remi Royal Abbey Building. Here you will find 17 rooms devoted to the Art and heritage of Reims. This is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
If you are looking to see art and beautiful buildings look for the Villa Demoiselle located at 56 Boulevard Henri Vasnier. This grand villa was built between 1904 and 1908 and houses a vast collection of furnishings, paintings and other works. The Villa is located in a 5800 square metre garden and next door is the Pommery Champagne Rooms too.
Another grand home Museum is the Le Vergeur Museum Hotel at 30 Place du Forum. This is not a hotel where you can stay, but more a grand home with its gabled roof top, stone and Tudor style woodwork and vast interior spaces.
For Modern and contemporary art, head to the FRAC Gallery at 1 Place Museux located in the Acien College des Jésuites Building. There are over 700 paintings and other artworks on display.
For those looking to see cars or Aeroplanes – head to the Reims Automobile Museum at 84 Ave. Georges Clemenceau – where you will be able to see a collection of about 5000 toy cars and around 200 classic cars on display. For French Aviation enthusiasts, look for the Musée de la Base Aérienne located at Place de la Mairie in the small town of Bethény.
Reims has been the scene of many battles and there are a number of places that reflect on the wars that have taken place here.
One of these is the Fort de la Pompelle – located at RN 44 Route de Châlons. The Fort dates back to 1883 and it saw action in the first World War.
Also look for the Navarin Farm Ossuary Memorial at RD 977 between Souain and Sommepy Tahure, not far from Reims. This former farm was where a number of battles were fought in World War I and here you will find a pyramid shaped memorial building with 3 statues of patrolmen on top. Inside there are over 100 Commemorative plaques, a lot of war relics, photos and other material related to the battles fought here, while the Crypt is said to contain the bodies of over 10,000 soldiers who died here.
While many French soldiers died here in World War One, there were also many Russians too and there is Cemetery called the Saint-Hilaire le Grand Russe War Cemetery located on RD 21 just outside of Reims. Here there is small Russian Church building with 4000 white crosses marking the graves of those Russians who died here.
The Musée de la Reddition ( the Museum of the Surrender) located at 12 Rue du Franklin Roosevelt in Reims is where you can see the exact room where the German Army surrendered to General Dwight Eisenhower on the 7th May 1945. This building is now a museum and there is a lot of war memorabilia to be seen here too.
For markets – look for the Marché du Boulingrin a covered market that has been operating here in Reims since 1927. The Market is located at 50 Rue de Mars and open on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday – though you need to check the hours that it will be open.
REIMS is the biggest city in the Champagne district, so has all the facilities of a vibrant city and you can buy a 1, 2 or 3 day Museum Pass that gives you entry to the main museums listed above and also free transport too. You will also find many tour operators in Reims who will take you on a tour of the wineries that are open and to one or more of the Champagne Houses too.
You could also stay in Épernay, a smaller town that is right in the epicentre of the Champagne Region or even in one of the small villages that are located here too.
Épernay is considered to be right in the heart of the Champagne district and the main street is called the Avenue de Champagne and it is lined with the famous names of the Champagne Houses. Most of the Champagne Houses date back to the 1700’s and 1800’s – Moët & Chandon – 1743; Veuve Cliquot – 1772; Mumm – 1827; Bollinger – 1829; Krug- 1843; Pol Roger – 1849; Pommery – 1858 and there are many other names too that you will see.
Just 30 kilometres south of Reims, Épernay is easy to get to and definitely worth visiting. While it is a pretty town surrounded by vineyards with the river running through it, there is another side that you must see too and these are the underground tunnels. There are said to be 110 kilometres of tunnels running underground here, so a massive array of ‘Cellars’ in which the Champagnes are stored. The Moët Chandon and Dom Pèrignon tunnels alone are over 20 kilometres long.
A number of the Champagne Houses run tours to tell you about their history, the story of Champagne, to see their cellars and sample one or more of their champagnes and hopefully sell you some of their gifts or bottles of Champagne. If you are planning to do a tour, it is best to book early to secure a place. You will find Moët & Chandon at #20 Avenue de Champagne and the Tourist Information Office is at #7 Avenue de Champagne.
Once you have booked a tour, you can then plan the rest of your day.
In Épernay there is also the 63 metre high Castellane Tower that was built in 1903-1905 and also the Church and of course the Avenue de Champagne has lots of shops and places to sit and have a coffee, croissant and local cuisine.
Ideally if you have a car, it is worth exploring the region to see some of the countryside and villages that are near Reims and Épernay. You could also take a tour too – organised from either Reims or Épernay.
Some of the villages to look for are Hautvillers (with the Abbey – that houses the tomb of Dom Pérignon), Cremant Village; Revilly-Sauvigny; Épine – with a UNESCO listed Basilica dating back to 1527; Châlons- en-Champagne and le Mesnil-sur-Oger. All of these villages, and there are others are within a radius of 30 to 50 Kilometres of so of Reims and Épernay – so can be easily seen in a day trip.
There are many places to stay and in the summer months and also around Christmas, it is worth booking early to secure a place to stay.
I hope you have a great time seeing Reims, Épernay and the region.