When my wife and I visited France back in 2009, we stuck close to Paris with the exception of a very memorable, and emotional, day trip to Normandy to see Juno Beach. On this return trip to one of our favourite countries we decided that our day tripping should be all about wine. Having already had an exceptional day touring Burgundy, our second wine-related day took us to the city of Reims in the heart of the Champagne region.
After an early morning high speed train ride from Paris, a quick bus ride and walk took us right to the front gates of our first Champagne house tour at Pommery.
One of the unexpected features of Pommery that made this a great stop was the art both inside and outside their facilities. From an oversized fruit tree on their dramatic front lawn, to a Daniel Firman work depicting an elephant balancing on its trunk inside the chateau, we were engaged and entertained even before our tour began.
And what a tour it was. It got started with a more than 100 step descent into the cellars.
While in the cellars we learned about Pommery’s history and approach to Champagne making and how they distinguish their bubbly from others. We also gained an appreciation for Mme. Pommery’s love of art. There were even more pieces decorating the cellars. I was thrilled to be getting both a cellar tour and an art tour at the same time.
Pommery was the first Champagne house to make and sell a brut Champagne in 1874 and there is an original bottle on display in their cellars with bottles from a number of other important vintages through their history. Sadly, I wasn’t left alone here with a glass and a tub full of ice.
Once we got above ground, there was a glass of the good stuff to cap off the tour. When I was in Burgundy I thought I could live on pinot noir alone. In Reims, I was changing my mind toward Champagne.
We had some time to explore Reims, and in particular, the cathedral in the centre of town. There has been a church on this site since the early 5th century. However, after a fire in 1210, the cathedral was rebuilt slowly and completed in 1275. After being shelled by the Germans in World War I, it was restored over the period of 1919 to 1938. I’ve seen a few churches in my travels in Europe and this one is one of my favourites.
Visiting in the third week in March, we had it mostly to ourselves, something that doesn’t happen at the peak of tourist season for a church that sees about a million visitors a year.
Although I’m not a religious person, it is hard not to feel something in a building this beautiful. The pillars, the stain glass windows at the back of the church and the muted daylight streaming in the windows lent a sense of calm and serenity. The ability to enjoy Reims Cathedral in silence, and mostly to myself, is one of the highlights of being in France this year for me.
After lunch in the centre of town, we did a bit of exploring on our way to our other Champagne house tour in the afternoon. I really enjoyed Reims. It’s beautiful, quaint, and at this point in early spring, was starting to come into bloom. It didn’t hurt that after a chilly morning we were gifted a day of blue skies and unseasonably warm weather.
For our second Champagne house tour, we chose G. H. Mumm, one of the largest Champagne producers in the world. Their tour was more “corporate” than the one earlier in the day at Pommery. Even still, there were some interesting highlights from walking through their cellars. Like this – a visual demonstration with the names of all of the sizes of Champagne bottles. I wouldn’t mind having a salmanazar or two laying around my apartment in Saskatoon.
Like Pommery, they also keep a collection of their best vintages, including bottles from their original production.
The best part of any tour is the tasting, and I resisted the urge to sneak an extra glass.
I behaved, but did wonder if I could sneak the bottle I posed beside out of the tasting room and onto the train back to Paris.
A final word, not on Reims and the day trip, but on Champagne. We made a point of drinking well on this trip. Clearly, we had a few glasses of the good stuff on our day in Reims, and back in Paris, we picked up a collection of half bottles for mid afternoon or pre-dinner drinks. Vacation never tasted so good.