Champagne Dreams: Reminiscing About Reims

By Glen Frederiksen

One of my wine epiphanies occurred in the fall of 1974. I was a GI stationed in Germany. Working as a drug and alcohol counselor, I “walked the walk” and was a teetotaler at the time.

An opportunity came up to take a weekend trip to Paris. The City of Lights! The whole trip — transportation, hotel and a side trip to Champagne — was only $50.

How could I refuse a deal like that?

The time in Paris was fantastic. I must have walked 10 miles a day, soaking up the sights and sounds of the city. And the food! A simple breakfast of coffee and a baguette of French bread with butter and marmalade was unlike anything I had tasted growing up in California. The lunches and dinners at the bistros were similarly mind-blowing. The museums, the street art, the shops… I began to appreciate the concepts of culture and heritage. But I digress…

The wine epiphany took place on the side trip to Champagne. I would not have normally sought out to go to this cold, damp region to the northeast of Paris but, hey, it was free, so there I went.

Included was a tour of the wine caves at Moet et Chandon, one of the largest sparkling wine producers in Champagne and the winery that produces Dom Perignon, James Bond’s preferred beverage (at least according to Ian Fleming).

Into the caves I went… and went… and went some more. These underground chalk caves honeycomb the underbelly of the city of Epernay (the center of the Champagne region) for miles on end. I learned the history of sparkling wine, originated in the Champagne region some 500 years earlier.

It was a dangerous business, purposefully inoculating a still table wine with yeast and sugar to cause a secondary fermentation in the bottle, trapping carbon dioxide in solution to create those wonderful bubbles. Those bubbles are in solution because of the pressure inside the bottles, effectively making a bottle of Champagne a lethal hand grenade.

The winery employees charged with the task of turning the bottles to help the dead yeast cell sediment settle in the neck of the bottle (they were stored with the neck down) were called riddlers. The job of a riddler was one of the most dangerous in the wine industry, as many of the bottles would explode from the pressure, maiming or killing those present at the time.

While soaking up the knowledge of how to make Champagne, we were (naturally) encouraged to try a little of the bubbly. For the first time, I sipped a true Champagne, not Cold Duck. Wow! I can still vividly recall the way the liquid dissipated into lemon-kissed bubbles in my mouth. There was a lightness, a refinement, to the glass of wine.

I was hooked. I splurged on a bottle to take with me, and carried it all the way back to California to share with my friends early the next year.

These memories were kick-started in my mind a few days ago when I was drinking a bottle of NV Lanson Brut Champagne. The Lanson story goes back two-and-a-half centuries, to 1760. Over the years, this fourth-largest Champagne house has become renowned throughout the United Kingdom and the world. In fact, it is the preferred French sparkling wine at Wimbledon, and is still a purveyor to the British royal family. Rarely seen in the U.S. marketplace, it is in the process of “reintroduction” into the American wine scene.

Those who like the more masculine versions of Champagne (think: Krug) will be impressed with the quality of Lanson. At half the price, it delivers the same quality in the nose and mouth. My tasting notes are here.

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