Monday, April 2, 2012

That's A Lot of Bottles

Underneath the city of Reims, France, there are literally millions and millions of bottles of champagne. I know this because we went to Reims this weekend and saw/drank some of them.  This is proof that you can take a 14 month old champagne-tasting, and also that we might be a little bit crazy.
This isn't champagne. But we thought this looked cool.
Why did we go to Reims, you ask?  We can't tell you. Really.  Two nights before, when we almost canceled the trip because we couldn't remember why we booked it, we decided we must have had a good reason.  It might have been because we hadn't been anywhere in a few months - if you define "anywhere" as "anywhere in France outside of Paris."  Because of course we did go to Portugal, and to the US.  It might have been because I've developed a strangely compulsive need to constantly plan more trips before we've even gone on the ones we've currently planned (for example, Italy, Denmark, and Provence, all between May 12 and June 26).  It might have been because I like champagne - and Mr. Oil does too.

In any event, we went.  And while it wasn't our favorite place in France (we're still loving Normandy), and while it wasn't our best trip ever (early train meant no coffee, which resulted in cranky parents), Reims is certainly worth a visit.

First things first, however. Let's talk pronunciation.  Say it with me: "Rhaaaance."  Think Frenchy R + nasal sound + s.

Now you're ready to tour.  Reims is the major town in the Champagne region, and as such bills itself rightfully as the Champagne capital of the world.  Many of the major French champagne houses are based in Reims (Veuve Cliquot, Pommery, Taittinger, G.H. Mumm, etc) and so the major activity in the town is to tour the caves (please pronounce this the French way - cahve) and taste the champagne.

Our first stop was Taittinger.  Supposedly you don't have to make a reservation to go on the tour. This is both true and false - if you don't make a reservation, you won't know what time the tours are.  But we convinced them to let us join a tour already begun, and we were glad we did.  Underneath the Taittinger headquarters - which look very industrialized and boring - are several million bottles of champagne stores across several kilometers of underground space.  Particularly cool was that much of the Taittinger caves make use of a medieval abbey.
One tiny fraction of the Taittinger wine caves.

Baby Oil works on his walking technique in the Taittinger tasting room.
After a classically French lunch at the Brasserie du Boulingrin (please note this meant we actually completed an enjoyable meal with Baby Oil - we are totally on our way to being French parents!), we headed to G.H. Mumm.  We both preferred Mumm to Taittinger, which is probably because a) we didn't miss the informative video with English subtitles, b) Baby Oil slept through this tour, and c) our tour guide smiled more than almost any human I've ever seen outside a Miss USA pageant. And I haven't even ever seen a Miss USA pageant (but does watching Miss Congeniality several times count?).
At G.H. Mumm. Each doorway leads to thousands of bottles.
Special cellar. Only the cellar master has the keys so he can taste the old stuff and make sure he is maintaining the Mumm identity. Or just drink really old and probably awesome champagne.

Though our first day in Reims was cloudy, the sun happily broke through on Sunday morning which allowed us to appreciate the beautiful stained glass windows of the Reims Cathedral.  This cathedral, which was built in the 13th century, was where the kings of France were crowned.  In addition to the famous and absolutely gorgeous stained glass windows by Chagall, new windows were installed just last year in honor of the 800th anniversary of the cathedral.  The new windows were designed by German artist Imi Knoebel (it's okay, we don't know who that is either).

Our visit was complete with a visit to the Palace du Tau, which basically holds a lot of old and/or broken-off pieces of the cathedral.  I'm being unfair (but only a bit) because it wasn't completely uninteresting. It's more that 15th century tapestries just aren't my thing.

Reims itself is not a particularly adorable or beautiful place.  It was largely destroyed in World War I and subsequently rebuilt, so nothing is that old.  But the champagne flows, and the caves are worth at least one visit.  The cathedral is gothic and imposing, and when the light strikes right through the stained glass, impressively beautiful.  We don't know why we went, but we're happy we did!