Champagne: Lessons behind the Bubbly

“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!”
Alleged quote by Dom Pérignon, instrumental wine maker of from Abbey St. Vanne, later found to be created by the ad industry

Did you even know Dom Pérignon was a 17th Century monk?   I sure didn’t know this before we visited the infamous wine region in France.  Below we have 12 other lessons learned on our tour:

Champagne Lesson #1 – Champagne can only come from Champagne, France.   All other must be called sparkling wine.   There are strict regulations around production and the wine cops come do checks to ensure the product is 100% Champagne AOC.    This, however, is not an indication of quality.

It wasn’t the grower, but the ‘Champagne police’ were the ones who put the wax on these bottles. It is part of their routine check ups to ensure the protection of the AOC.

Champagne Lesson #2 – The land in the Champagne region has a chalk base, much like England’s White Cliffs of Dover. The chalk not only retains heat but moisture.   We’ve seen similar theories of superior wine due to the unique ground:   Switzerland Lavaux has the terraced walls that use the sun off Lake Geneva to heat the soil, as well as Chateauneuf-du-Pape claims its rocky basin of the former Rhône river.

The exposure white cliff beside the house gives an indication what the soil is like under the vines : pure chalk

Champagne Lesson # 3 – Champagne is just as confusing with designations as many other French wines are:  Grand Cru, Premier Cru, and village level.  Again, this isn’t a guarantee of quality, just the designation of the land is supposed to be higher in Grand Cru.

Enjoying a taste at a Grand Cru Champagne house. Oooo la la.

Champagne Lesson #4 – Champagne likes to get sideways. While the region itself is huge, AOC Champagne grapes only take up a portion of it because only the vines grown on hills are used for wine.  The flat lands are used for other crops.   In terms of wine producing hectacres, our guide explained it in terms of American-isms….the wine-producing hectares occupy the size of 34,000 football fields or 280,000 tennis courts.

The hilly landscape in Champagne

Champagne Lesson #5 – Champagne likes to get around. Unlike Bordeaux, there are no chateaus surrounded by all their vineyards….just champagne houses that blend from various grapes/plots collected from all over the region. So many big houses are actually located in the city center of Reims, with the grapes coming from the countryside.

These grapes will likely be blended with other grapes from non-adjacent plots. Burgundy would have a fit!

Champagne Lesson #6 – Champagne is a family business. 90% of the land is family owned. It takes 2.5 hectacres, or 15 tennis courts,  for an individual to make a living. However, land isn’t easy to get: 1 hectacre goes for 1.5 million euros.  It generally requires two generations to see a return.   Most families sell a portion of their yield to the big houses.

This plot is likely owned by a family. It’s much better to think of the purchase of each bottle of Champagne as putting food into someone’s mouth 🙂

Champagne Lesson #7 – Champagne can be made from both red and white grapes!  The reds just dont keep continual contact with the skins.  There are actually 3 types of grapes in the Champagne AOC: Chardonnay, Red Pinor Noir and Black Pinot Meunier.

The juice inside every grape is clear – it is just the juice is fermented – with our without skins that determines the color

Champagne Lesson #8 –  No &*^ in the Champagne Room.   It rains 200 days out of the year in Champagne.  The rainy temps leave the mildew and catepillars.  The wind has to help with the mildew, but to avoid the use of pesticides to ward against the creatures, growers use a technique called confusion sexual.  Pods are filled with female butterfly pheromones to distract and confuse the male caterpillars so they can’t find an egg to fertilize. Each dual-pod costs 1 euro and they are placed every 2-3 meters on the vines.

A cruel joke to the male caterpillar. But if it means more Champagne for the world, I’m game!

Champagne Lesson #9 –  Champagne is under a lot of pressure!    The air inside a bottle of Champagne has pressure 3x that of a tire.   One in 10,000 explodes due to the pressure.  They use horizontal stackers to help reduce the impact to an entire wall.

A Champagne bottle that wanted to join the party a little too early.

Horizontal panes help minimize damage if there is an explosion – at least they all don’t fall vertically downwards.

Champagne Lesson #10 – Champagne is strong!  Since the glass is designed strong to support the special liquid, Champagne bottles are hard to break.  Our guide taught us how to deal with the situation if the event occurs:  leave it, cover it with a blanket a few hours. If you put it down on a counter immediately after, the impact creates a 2nd shock which can cause explosions.   Alternatively, don’t sit it down, open it and drink it.
Champagne Lesson # 11 – The official term for the process is not known as “Champagne-ing”.   I ‘created’ this term after a few glasses while asking a question to our guide.  I never heard the end of it and I can hear him telling future groups, “You’d never believe what this American I had said….”.    Even still, I managed to learn a bit about how a still wine is turned into bubbly:
1 – Fermentation happens like a normal still wine
2 – Blending happens
2- More yeast & sugar is added, a cap affixed, and a second fermentation is done in the bottle
3- Every day, bottles are turned a fraction every so often.
4 -The extra sediment must be removed in a technique called remuage.  This is either done manually, or with today’s technology by freezing the sediment so it pops out easily
5 – The bottle goes to rehab to adjust from the stressful procedure of remuage
6 – The bottle is corked
The process takes several years in order to mature and perfect the contents!

Our guide demonstrating the old school method of turning on a traditional Champagne board

Another method of turning – these barrels are slightly rotated and turned throughout the maturation

Even more current machinery automates this process

A glimpse at the sediment that must be removed before corking

Champagne Lesson #12 – France allows for blending the rules of rosé.  Okay that was a play on words that might be a little cheesy.   Rosé champagne is the only of France’s wines that permits the blending of red juice with white, because of the second fermentation process.  For traditional rosés, this process is scoffed at as cheater.     Even still, many opt for the higher grade technique of satinée, or bleeding, for their rosé champagnes.

Rosé Champagne

Gratitude Friday: Our Veterans

The timing of our trip to Champagne was quite good from a historical appreciation standpoint.  The sunday of our departure was Armistice Day.  This day commemorates the ending of WWI in 1918, specifically on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
It overlaps with the US Veterans Day and the British Commonwealth’s Remembrance Day.  For France, thinking about WWI and Armistice Day, this war had a catastrophic impact – 1.4 million, or 4.29% of their population died.   An incremental 10% of their population were soldiers wounded in military action.

Witnessing an Armistice Day ceremony in Reims as we drove by at 11:15, within the 11th hour.

Our Champagne guide was a historical fiction writer and wove a lot of the history into our tour. We passed dozens of cemetaries and trench lines between our cellar visits, to develop our appreciation for the historical and military significance of the region.  The Battle of the Marne occurred right in the heart of Champagne country.  Verdun, where approximately a million soldiers lost their lives, is 100km away.

French graveyard containing fallen soldiers of WWI

British graveyard, looking like an English garden

In France, the Germans graveyard is absent of the white symbolism of peace

One of our guide’s remarks really stuck with me. He commented that if you say the name Champagne anywhere in the world, the immediate feeling is joy and celebration.  However, there has been such a history of sadness and bloodshed in this famous region.

Each town, no matter how tiny, has a monument for their men lost in the Great War.

I have a profound appreciation for our United States veterans who currently serve and who have served to provide a safe and free country for the rest of us.  My father and grandfathers included.   And with extreme reverence, I am thankful to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for my country.  I have only had the honor of knowing one solider personally.  But, as do many, feel indebted the family and loved ones for those who I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing, but gave much for me.
And specifically for Armistice Day, I am grateful we were able to experience this.   Reflecting on the pain and sacrifice that another country has made in its history was a good lesson for me to expound on my own way of thinking.  The realize the hurt and pain that others around the world have felt.  Really, we have more similarities than differences.
Bon weekend, everyone!

Photo Assignment: Liquid

In my photography group, we are given monthly photo themes to challenge us.   This month: Liquids.

Our weekend in the Cinque Terre gave me plenty of vantage points to capture water.   Here are a few of my favorites:

Rocks on the beach at Monterrosso al Mare

Water streaming off of Vernazza’s docks in the stormy weather

Water hitting the rocky coastline in Vernazza

Swirls of sea foam on the cliffs below Manarola

Foamy photo fun in Manarola

Waves rushing into the Manarola rocks

 

 

 

 

 

Slumming it in the Italian Riviera: Portofino

Road trips can be fun but sometimes the way home can be a downer, knowing you are returning from doing something really fun.    So, one of our new pastimes when taking a road trip is to find unexpected gems.    So, on our way home from a weekend, if we have time, we pull out the maps and books and see what might be on the way.

Returning from the Cinque Terre, we saw that Portofino was nearby on the map.   I’ll be honest – the most I knew about Portofino prior to this trip was that there was an Italian restaurant named after it in Charlotte, NC, where we lived prior.

Portofino’s Charlotte.   Image courtesy of hellocharlotte.com.

On the way, I read aloud to Gabe some details about the Italian city of Portofino, not be confused with the aforementioned suburban restaurant.   Italian history dates the settlement of Portofino back to the 10th century, where it was coveted for its protected harbor.   It changed hands many times but the harbor was a major asset for the likes of military giants such as Napolean and Hitler.

Post WW2, expatriates began to flock to the town and it soon built a glamorous name due to its holiday clientele.    By the 1950’s era, it was a major vacation spot of the rich and famous.  Things got so rowdy that Rex Harrison dropped his Oscar in the harbor.   Truman Capote, Greta Garbo, and Ava Gardner also frequented the Italian port town.  Elizabeth Taylor took all of her husbands there.

As we started the drive in, we got the feeling we were in for something special.   Rounding the cliffs overrun with pristine mansions and elegant hotels, we felt like we were in Monaco, yet with a rustic Italian feel.

Driving through the Portofino Peninsula, the town of Santa Margherita Ligure

When we arrived in the pedestrian-only Portofino, we parked our car and traveled on the cobblestone path towards the port.   We passed storefronts such as Dior and Louis Vitton, mixed in with small family-owned Italian groceries and pizza shops.

And when we reached the harbor, I was instantly enamored.  Beautiful colored buildings hugged a pristine turqouise-blue bay.

The harbor of Portofino

Cafés were starting to set up outdoor dining, even with the threat of a rain storm.  We grabbed a prime spot at la Stella under a canopy and happily enjoyed a glass of the house white wine while deciding what pasta we’d order.

This sure beats having lunch at a rest stop

I ordered the pasta del giorgno: a shrimp & zucchini spaghetti.    Although we’d each had two servings of pesto pasta while in the Cinque Terre, Gabe had wanted to try the pesto lasagna.

Pesto lasagna – homemade Ligurian pesto smothering thin lasagne noodles

After lunch, we took a stroll on the Promenade di Portofino letting our legs stretch before the remaining four hour journey home.

Colors of Portofino

Panorama of Portofino

Elizabeth Taylor, I’ll never be, but I sure did like playing the part one afternoon in the Italian Riviera.

The Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre, Italy is one of my favorite places in the world.  I first discovered it with friend R in the summer of 2007 during our girls trip to Italy.   Cinque Terre means 5 Lands in Italian and the area is comprised by five small towns perched on cliffs above the Ligurian Sea.

The area is a UNESCO world heritage site because of the early civilizations’ ability to build, live, and thrive on landscape that has the odds of being inhabitable.

I wanted to share it with Gabe, so we had selected it for one of our Honeyfund trips for our wedding.  We planned to go after my feet had fully recovered, which ended up being this Fall.    While we had some stormy skies our entire trip, I found the lack of tourists and cooler weather to be an refreshing change.

MONTEROSSO AL MARE, #5 was the town we stayed in.  It is the biggest, and I picked it due to our late arrival as it had more hotels that accomodated late check-in as well as actual parking lots for our car.   We arrived around 9pm and found that we couldn’t drive through town to the side we were staying in.   Note to future travelers: the Old Town and New Town are not connected for the average driver, only with special permit can you open the chain / gates.   It is a 20 – 30 minute deviation to drive back up the mountain to come back the other side.  So make sure to note that in your driving plans!

We checked into Hotel Baia.  It was a basic Italian room, but in a suberb location on the water and near the Monterosso train station.

Beach town of Monterosso

Early the next morning, we  put on our rain gear and set out to hike the seven mile Trail 2 from our hotel to Riomaggiore.  We were greeted with a locked gate.  The trails were closed due to the mudslides last October and continuing bad weather.   Oops.  While I researched the affects of the mudslides on the towns, I had not specifically looked into the trails.

Luckily there is a fantastic transportation solution – a regional train connects the five towns with an hourly train.   While they aren’t quite always on time, it was a very nice back-up to get to see the area with the trail closings.

The next stop, VERNAZZA, #4,  was my favorite of the five towns during the 2007 trip.  It has a natural harbor and I adore the bell tower from the church and how it looks over the coast.   We saw a large poster detailing the devastation the mudslides caused in this particular town.   It showcased homeowners and shopkeepers standing in the mud which once was their home/shop.   The beach was still a little damaged, but otherwise, there were scarce signs of the horrors they experienced last October.  They’ve done a remarkable job cleaning up.

In the harbor of Vernazza

Still too early for lunch, we climbed to the highest point of the town – the castle.  We loved seeing the ominous skies surround the colorful buildings.

Above Vernazza at the castle

Birds-eye view of Vernazza’s port

We enjoyed a lovely lunch at Gambero Rosso, the same restaurant where R and I had enjoyed a meal five years prior.  We both ordered the fresh pasta with pesto, a Ligurian specialty with a glass of local white wine.   Deliciouso!

After lunch, we scurried to catch our train.   Due to some technical difficulties which I’ll chalk up to not reading the board properly Italian chaos and mis-direction, we missed the hourly train to the next town of Corniglia.   We opted to catch the next train which bypassed the other two towns in order not to lose another full hour.

RIOMAGGIORE, #1, is the first town on the trail and supposedly the least touristic.   We watch a fisherman for awhile and reflected on the colorful boats and buildings which trailed upwards.

A lone fisherman

The vertical town of Riomaggiore

We explored the height of the town, certainly the “most vertical” of the five, and sat for a quick glass of vino, another Cinque Terre white varietal.  After, we caught the train backwards to town #4.

MANAROLA, #4, was Gabe’s favorite of the Cinque Terre.    Back when we were single girls on our Italian vacation, R and I had headed straight for Manarola’s beach to catch all the summer action.  Now, it was a ghost-town, but it left us more time for exploration.  We wound around the vineyards surrounding the village, getting every vantage point.  I’d have to say that this trip, Manarola was  my favorite.

Foamy waters surrounding Manarola

Gabe, checking out the village

Ominous clouds covering Manarola

Because we liked it so much, we opted for a longer stay in Manarola versus hitting the fifth town of Corniglia.   My husband prefers to enjoy fewer activities for longer…..quality not quantity.  And for me, it’s a good lesson for me to remember as I never want to miss anything.    Gabe joked it would have to be Quattro Terre for him.

We were able to see Corniglia from a distance.

View of Corniglia #3, from Monterrosso #5.

View of Corniglia #3, from #4 Manarola. We saw the evidence of mudslides taking out the trails between these two on the hills to the right of the photo.

Good thing we opted to leave.  The skies let loose after we got to Manarola’s station.   In order to reach Corniglia, there are 400 steps.  So, I am thankful we weren’t caught in that exploring the last remaining town.

We returned to Monterosso for a wonderful dinner at Ciak and drinks at Enoteca da Eliseo.  We ended up seeing the couple who’d taken our photo in Vernazza.  They were photographers from Indianapolis who were celebrating their 5th wedding anniversary.  We had a few drinks with them comparing travel notes.

It was an awesome weekend.  A big thanks to our Honeyfund contributors from our wedding.  You really made our 18 month anniversary (Nov 7) very special.   We appreciate it!

Gratitude Friday: Fitness

This Friday, I just want to reflect on my gratitude for fitness.

Not everyone has the chance to exercise.  Physical ailments, injuries and accidents have taken this ability away from some people.   So, I feel lucky to be able to exercise the way that I do and to reap the health and emotional benefits that come from it.    Sometimes nothing feels better than completing a grueling workout.   It can clear you mind as well as the toxins out of your body.

In fact, during workouts, if I am having a hard time with motivation, I think of that fact : how fortunate I am to be able to get to this point of discomfort or physical exertion.  There are many who would gladly trade places with me.  So, it pushes me to keep going.

Secondly, eight months after my bi-lateral foot surgery, I am happy to report that my feet are about 95% fully back to normal.   This weekend, we hiked quite a bit in the Cinque Terre, a trip that we were saving until I had recovered more.

Very happy to be able to climb to greater heights these days

In addition to the spinning and weight lifting I had done while recovering, I can now run, hike and do fitness activities with more impact.

Resting our feet after a big day

That’s something to be grateful for, for sure!

Bon weekend, everyone!

Headlines from Geneva

I always glance at the headlines of  Le Matin and Tribune de Genève while walking down rue de Rhône each day to the gym.  I am used to translating the day’s feature from French to English in my head for practice.

However, today’s news caught me by surprise with a topic familiar to all of our US readers, mainly because it was a day late.  But it does make sense that as the election was confirmed in the USA, it was 5 or 6am here in Geneva, well past the print deadlines for that day.  So, today was the big day for European media to cover the US election.

Text reads: Obama re-elected. Their hopes. Their challenges. The photos.