Wednesday, March 14, 2012



I chose to visit Reims for two simple reasons. History and Champagne.

Reims, the last stop on my first trip, is the Champagne capital of France, and the world! It is in the middle of the only official region that produces real Champagne. Not just any sparkling wine can be called Champagne! The French government has very precise standards, specifications, and qualifications for its most recognized products (most notably cheese and wine) that have to be met by producers in order to merit certain labels. These appellations d'origine contrôlée (AOC), or "controlled designation of origin" are very strictly governed to ensure authenticity and quality.

I had made it one of my biggest priorities of the whole trip to take a tour of a Champagne producer. Right away when I got to Reims I found a Champagne house that was offering tours that evening. Charles de Cazanove is a Champagne producer that was started in 1811! Though it is not one of the big names of the Champagne world, I was still impressed by its volume of production. The presentation of Champagne, the explanation of producing it, the tour of the caves, and the tasting were all very interesting and I learned quite a bit about this bubbling beverage!

All Champagne starts as grapes that can be used for any wine. Pinot noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot meunier are the most common grapes used for Champagne. Once the grapes have been harvested, they are squished to release the juices, to which yeast is added and left to ferment the sugars in the juice. This first fermentation process produces regular, still wine. It can be done in wooden barrels (how wine has been produced for centuries and centuries), or in huge metal vats. These two different production methods produce slightly different results and flavors, and Charles de Cazanove implements both.

huge oak barrels for the first fermentation

giant vats for the first fermentation

Once the Champagne has undergone its first fermentation, it is then bottled with more yeast and some sugar for a second fermentation. This process has to take at least a year and a half to meet AOC standards, and it is what produces the bubbles that characterize Champagne.

hundreds of thousands of bottles of champagne in second fermenation

When the second fermentation is finished, the dead yeast remaining in the bottles has to be collected. This process is called remuage. There are two methods of remuage. The traditional method is by hand--the wine-maker slowly turns bottles of Champagne by hand, one quarter of a turn every hour or so for days, until the dead yeast has settled into the neck of the bottle. The more modern method is mechanical. Huge cases of Champagne are attached to mechanical wheels that spin them automatically, settling the yeast.

bottles of champagne during mechanical remuage

The final stages of production are the most interesting in my opinion. Once the dead yeast has all settled to the neck of the bottle, it is frozen to form a barrier and a little cube of dead yeast. Very quickly and with the bottle upside down, a machine removes the cap of the bottle, allowing the ice to shoot out of the bottle due to the interior pressure. Instantly, another shot of sugar is added to the bottle and it is finally corked. This whole process happens almost simultaneously to ensure that minimal carbon dioxide is lost.

the finished product. cheers!

When all is said and done, the finished product is a sweet, bubbly, delicious drink that has characterized celebration and joy for centuries! Vive la Champagne :)

pax christi.

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