Posted by: David Stewart | July 5, 2013

Mumm’s the Word in Reims

This is from some notes I took on our Spring 2013 trip

GH Mumm Champagne, Reims, France

Friday, May 17

GH Mumm Champagne, Reims, France

Cellars go on forever under the streets of Reims, France (GH Mumm)

In the morning, we walked about a half mile from the hotel to GH Mumm, pronounced “moom”. This is one of the largest champagne producers on the planet and has a very nice English tour through their extensive cellars. The cellars we toured seemed to grow larger as we traveled through France, and this one was indeed the biggest we had yet encountered. Carved out of chalk and stretching for as far as the eye can see in some places, Mumm sells about 8 million bottles per year. Their tour was terrific, showing off the old barrels (no longer used), the concrete fermenting tanks (no longer used), stacks of bottles and riddling racks, and a museum of other obsolete equipment. At the end there was a tasting flight of champagne, of course.

A word about the process: Let me pause for a moment to quickly review the steps of making champagne. (Skip ahead if this is already old hat to you). Grapes from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier are harvested and pressed with little skin contact and white wine is produced in an initial fermentation which produces alcohol. Then the wine is bottled with additional yeast and sugar for a secondary fermentation to produce bubbles. Like all fermentation, this produces some nasty cruft, dead yeast cells and the like, which sinks to the bottom of the bottle (called “lees”). The wine is left to age on the lees for 3 to 5 years for “vintage” champagne, although most champagne is blended from several years’ grapes.

Taitanger Champagne, Reims, France

Riddling racks, only used for large format bottles now, Taitanger

After aging, the lees must be removed, so the bottles are “riddled,” a technique to gradually slip the lees into the neck of the bottle. This used to be done by hand, with an expert giving each bottle a twist every day and gradually tipping the bottle on its head. (Nowadays, this is mostly done by machine). Riddling done, the lees are popped out by a process called “disgorgement” where the neck of the bottle is frozen and the cap is popped off, pushing out the lees with some of the champagne. The lost champagne is replaced with some sugar and a little grape liquor, called “dosage”. The amount of sugar inserted in the dosage is the level of resulting sweetness. This process is also done by machine these days, though in the past it was also done by hand. With all of this manipulation and aging, you can see why the cost of making champagne is higher than typical still wine.

Taitanger Champagne, Reims, France

Bottles aging in chalk cellars under Reims, France (at Taitanger)

Like the other tours we took in Champagne, Mumm’s tour didn’t seem like the “real” production operation. We saw fermentation equipment no longer in use but not the stainless steel tanks used today. We heard about the machines which perform riddling but didn’t see them. We heard about the automated disgorgement equipment but never laid eyes on it. This turned out to be true, more or less, in all of the champagne houses we visited.

After Mumm, we returned for our car and drove north of town to Taitenger, another old and very large producer. Here their chalk caves we originally excavated by the Romans for building materials. In fact, a number of the subterranean rooms have very tall ceilings where the workers dug straight down and hollowed out the chalk for building materials. Their site was originally an abby, which was demolished by the state after the Revolution. Also unique at Taitanger are the mysterious faces carved into the chalk walks and the doors from the abby, representing events in Jesus life.

After Taitanger’s tour, we started walking into town to get a bite to eat but found it difficult to select something in that part of town, so we dropped into another pizza place, this one run by an older Italian gentleman who had Italian television on and did a good job with the pies.

St Remi Cathedral, Reims, France

St Remi Cathedral, Reims, France

After lunch we walked through the nearby Basilique St-Remi. This church was part of an abby which was established because there were so many pilgrims coming to the site to celebrate St Remi. Evidently this saint baptized the Merovingian Prince Clovis, who became the first king of France. The saint is buried there in the church and there is a statue of the baptism of Clovis in the courtyard.

Charles de Cazanove Champagne, Reims, France

What real riddling machines look like, Charles de Cazanove

For the final tasting of the day, we returned to our hotel for a 4PM appointment at Charles de Cazanove, which was right next door. This was a relatively smaller operation (only 3 million bottles per year) and owned by a larger company, Martell. Their above-ground tour included their large concrete vats for the initial fermentation. Below street level they had more vats and the usual stacks of bottles. But instead of loose stacks of bottles as in all of the other tours we saw, theirs were packed in stainless steel wire crates. These were used by their riddling machines, so were quite practical for aging as well. This came the closest to seeming like an actual industrial production of champagne. Our tasting at the end of the tour included three full pours at a sit-down tasting with the other American couple on our tour. One of the nicest tastings by far that we experienced, and no spit bucket in sight, so I was glad I was within walking distance of our hotel.

Hotel Port Mars, Reims, France

Right: Hotel Port Mars where we stayed; Left: Charles de Cazaove champagne house

For dinner, we ate at a place recommended by our hotel, La Table des Halles, which had available seats and another memorable French meal. There was an aperitif of champagne and we had a glass of Crozes Hermitage, a Rhone Valley appellation.

After dinner, we walked to the Reims Notre Dame for a special light show they were running which painted the front of the building with very artistic and dynamic images, like silhouettes of people running around the levels of the building, or a massive image of the smiling angel, all set to lively music.

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