Let’s Toast to Summer

by Brendon Robbeloth
Contributing writer

Let’s raise our glass to another European summer, to another season of beauty and gladness that seems oh-so-brief in this part of the world. Let’s raise our glass of sparkling Champagne and toast one another to the best two months of the year that are now upon us. What other drink could we possibly toast, except that beautiful fizzy wine that is surely the toast of all joyous occasions? It is Champagne, of course, and simply nothing else will do. So let’s raise our glass as we consider how best to spend our few and precious summer days.

As our flutes of Champagne clink, we deliberate for just a moment on the effervescent liquid inside the glass, that rare beautiful drink of the gods, that sparkling white wine brewed only in the region of Champagne in Northern France (a two and a half hour drive from Kaiserslautern), and it dawns on us: this is a brilliant place to spend a weekend or even a single day, straight to the heart of our toast. Of course! Where else but Champagne, France, would we go to toast the joyfulness of summer? Let’s suspend the toast (but go ahead and drink it) as we head to one of the most exquisite wine growing regions in the world, a region renowned not only for its unique sparkling wine, but also for its beautiful wealth of lush forests, ancient castles and fortresses, and sweeping hillsides of verdant vineyards .

It is Champagne, France. Everyone knows the name, but very few know what exactly it has to offer. Here is one of the most pristine and proud wine-growing regions on the planet, and there is truly something for everyone. All wine lovers, whether connoisseurs or casual dilettantes, will be amazed at the love and devotion the local Champagne houses, or maisons, and smaller vignerons give to the sparkling white wines to which the region lends its name. And the beautiful land around the towns and cities is full of a deep — if somewhat bloody — history. Old battlegrounds from World War 1, castles and fortresses from the Charlemagne dynasties, as well as the town in which Napoleon III surrendered to the Prussians and brought to an end France’s Second Empire. The Champagne region is known for more than just Champagne. It is an embodiment of ancient European history.

The story of Champagne
The sparkling white wine known as Champagne has a cultural legacy as rich and proud as the very region after which it is named, for it itself has been embedded in the very history of the region, the country, the continent.

The story of Champagne (the drink) is one that is so deeply emblazoned into the very definition of France that the centuries have blurred its accuracies into the realm of folklore. It is so blurred, in fact, that one is hard-pressed to separate truth from legend, and upon visiting the region, the residents of Champagne will proudly state that the story in which Dom Perignon, a monk in the famous Abbey of Hautvillers near Reims, accidentally discovering the sparkling wine when his bottles began exploding, is historically accurate. Though upon further research, one will discover that most scholars on the subject disagree, and there are records to indicate that Champagne has been around since nearly a century before Dom Perignon’s time.

But exactitudes matter very little, and you will probably not press the issue, not when the proud growers are offering so many different samples of their products, encouraging you to taste their latest brew.

Regardless of how, exactly, the sparkling wine was first discovered, it has ever since firmly ingrained itself in France’s rich cultural heritage. Known as “the wine of kings and the king of wines,” Champagne was a cornerstone at the coronations of French kings throughout the centuries. It became synonymous with wealth, elegance and celebration, and as such, the technique of double-fermentation, by which the unique, bubbly drink is created, was destined not to remain secret for long. As the drink’s popularity spread, the French governing bodies quickly marked the term “Champagne” with strict appellations (laws specifying exact types of grapes — Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier — alcohol levels, and geographical conditions that must be met before the term “Champagne” can be applied).

To this day, these appellations restrict the labeling of any sparkling wine “Champagne” unless it comes from the Champagne region of France, and although only European Union countries are forced to abide by such laws, very few wineries in the world use the term incorrectly. Just be sure not to mention to the tour guide how different their wines taste from California “champagne.” The look in their eyes will haunt you for the rest of the trip.

Visit the unofficial capitol of Champagne
The town of Epernay is the unofficial capitol of the Champagne wine growing region and, if possible, should definitely be a prominent stopping point on your journey — if not the focal point. It is the main tourist hub of the region and is located in the heart of Champagne’s vast vineyards. For wine tasting and tours of the Champagne houses, Epernay is definitely the place to see. Spend a gorgeous summer day taking a leisurely stroll through the vineyards on the popular Champagne tour, or head into the heart of the town and walk along the
world famous Avenue de Champagne, where 19th century log-timbered Champagne houses line the streets. The very ground beneath the avenue has been burrowed out for miles. This is where the local wineries store their aging product. Nearly all of the houses offer tours at some point during the year, though a few will request for reservations ahead of time.

Reims, France
The metropolis of Reims is also located in the Champagne region of France and sees hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. The feel is a bit different than Epernay, though, and it is less tourist-centric, which can be good if you prefer to make your own way on vacation and not be surrounded by other tourists. There are not as many of the smaller Champagne houses that offer tours in Reims as there are in Epernay, but there are more larger, commercial ones, which, although they may lack the old-world feel of Epernay’s famous avenue, they certainly are more capable of accommodating larger groups or those who arrive on short notice. Outside of the Champagne houses, Reims offers visitors a wider variety of tourist activities, including the famous Notre Dame Cathedral de Reims, where more than 25 French kings were crowned, the Palais du Tau, the Basillica of Epine and the Fine Arts Museum.

Something for everyone
Between Reims and Epernay, or other smaller towns and cities such as Troyes, which also proudly displays its sparkling heritage, the Champagne region of France is assured to offer any visitor something perfectly suited for their taste, whether that particular taste has a preference for a day trip with the family or a weekend getaway with another couple. Load up the car and set off for the beautiful Champagne region of France, and let those flutes clank.

To summer. To family. To friends … cheers!

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