We arrived on Friday and went to the tourist info to grab some brochures. Our Lonely Planet (LP) actually talked about Epernay and Reims so we also got some good suggestions from it. We wandered around Epernay on a self-guided walking tour and then down the Avenue de Champagne which had been cleaned up nicely for the Tour de France which went through earlier in July.
Lining the avenue were huge "Maisons de Champagne" in amazing buildings. You could tour many of them, but it was too late in the day and they were all closed. We went back to camp for a quick dinner and then headed up to a tiny town that had a self-guided walking tour through the vineyards. There were info panels along the way although we had to blast through the end of it as we had stopped to take too many photos and could picture ourselves lost in the vineyard after dark!
On Saturday we headed to a small town which had a "top choice" beside it in the LP for their museum about wine and the vine. We had a guided tour at 10:30 and were shown all sorts of equipment that they used to use to produce champagne. As the tour leader said, Mr. Launois liked to collect things, and not all of them related to vineyards - for example, a pulpit, wax fruit and a fancy old turner for a spit. He had an amazing collection of items relating to champagne making as well. We saw the presses for crushing the grapes. Some were enormous, weighing 18 tonnes! In fact, that one was so big, that while his in-laws were on holiday, he decided to dig up the garden to build a room to hold the press. Unfortunately, the project lasted longer than the vacation and they returned home to find an enormous pit in their yard. Since he had already started, they said he might as well finish which he took to mean he could build a second room as well!
We also saw the machines that would fill the bottles once the grapes were pressed and how they would have stacked them while they aged. Once they are aged, they would put them in these special racks which start off almost horizontal. They would turn them a ¼ turn every so often until they were almost vertical which usually took about 2 months. Then, they would take the stopper out to release the sediment that had built up and then cover it up as quickly as possible. They would then top up the bottle with extra liquid, then cork it and put the metal twist cap on. As you can imagine, this led to a lot of waste! We saw machines that would cork the bottles and one that would put 6 twists in the metal part with one turn of the handle. They had a whole room that was dedicated to how corks are made.
After 30 years, they can harvest the bark from the cork tree, and then they can harvest every 9 years after that. She said that some places are harvesting every 7 years now because of the fires in Portugal which destroyed a lot of the cork trees. For the same reason, they are also now using a round of cork for the part that touches the champagne and compressed bits of cork on top of that. It was all very interesting and we feel much better informed about the champagne making process! Afterwards, there was a tasting which included 3 types of champagne. We thought it would maybe be 3 small glasses, but no, in true French style, we had 3 entire flutes of each. I had a sip of each as I was driving, while Anoop drank each of his, plus one of mine. After 4 glasses, he thought he'd better call it quits or he might not be able to navigate us into Reims!
We headed into Reims after that and having been inspired by Christine’s "fake" wedding gift of champagne, decided to head to Taittinger to tour the caves. This one in particular is in an old chalk quarry that the monks later discovered and decided to turn into champagne caves. Taittinger has two caves, the one that we visited containing 3 million bottles of champagne, and another containing several million more! The other facility is all modern so you are not able to visit it. We thought this one was much more interesting as we got a history of the chalk quarry, the monastery and later Taittinger caves! As this one was not a modernized centre, all the bottles are hand turned. They use the same wooden racks that we had seen in the morning.
After the bottles have been aged 10 years, they put them in at almost horizontal. The 3 people who are in charge of turning them can each turn 8000 bottles in one hour! To remove the sediment, they turn them ¼ turn to the left and then 1/8 turn to the right for 2 months. At the end of the two months, the bottles are almost vertical. They then freeze the tip of the neck at -25 degrees which makes a small ice cube. They open the bottle, out pops the cube and then they top it up with whatever mixture makes it demi-sec etc – much less waste than before! It was incredible seeing all the recesses in the cave with thousands of bottles stacked in them – I wouldn’t want to be the person in charge of stacking them all up!
We came to one area that had a locked gate; when we asked what was behind it, the tour leader explained that it was the private reserve of the owner. At the end of the tour, we were given a glass each of champagne which Anoop enjoyed – 6 total for the day!
We then headed off to the Basilique St. Rémi, one of the UNESCO sights in Reims.
There was a wedding in progress so we didn’t snoop around the centre too much, but enjoyed the walk around the edges. There was a really neat chandelier in the middle which held 96 candles for how long St. Rémi lived. We then headed off towards the centre of town to see the Cathédral Notre Dame. On route we stopped off at the library which was recommended for its mosaics.
It had an interesting exhibit on gardening in one of the rooms with lots of neat old books on garden planning and so on. Then we headed off for some magnificent views of the cathedral. It was really quite impressive and we walked the entire way around taking pictures from different angles.
Inside there were lots of beautiful stained glass windows, one large rose window with another amazing blue one beneath it. At the far end we saw some windows that Chagall had designed with his characteristic blue. They are always so amazing and pictures never seem to be able to capture them properly! We then walked around town through the pedestrian zone, stopped off for an ice cream to tide us over and headed down towards the Champ de Mars where they had an old Roman arch. Then it was back to camp since we were feeling rather exhausted!
Having planned on visiting Reims to see the Cathedral and Basilica, both UNESCO sights, we were on the hunt for a good spot to camp nearby. We realized that we were right in the middle of champagne country and spotted Epernay, only 25 km south. We decided to camp there for two nights and do some exploring in the area.