The city of Reims and the Montagne de Reims
By Tom Stevenson and Michael Edwards
This Guide was last updated on 25 June 2010
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Built in 1820, the only windmill in Champagne, the Moulin de Verzenay offers an excellent viewpoint over the vineyards and beyond. © Mick Rock/Cephas
When Paris was little more than a big village, Reims at the time of the Roman conquest (c.50 AD) was a thriving city, the capital of Belgian Gaul with a population of 100,000 inhabitants. Today the most dramatic entry into this historic city is from the Avenue de Laon, at night, past the illuminated impressionist fountain of Champagne bubbles to the Roman Porte Mars, traversing almost 2,000 years in less than 20 seconds. Reims and Epernay are the twin capitals of Champagne, each accounting for almost half the production of Champagne, but the world’s greatest sparkling wine represents less than 10% of this city’s economic output in contrast to 90% for Epernay. Reims is home to the majority of the most famous Champagne houses (Veuve Clicquot, Taittinger, Roederer, Ruinart, Charles and Piper Heidsieck et al), but they are so spread out that you will need a taxi or car to get about.
Only in Reims will you find the deep, dark cellars called crayères (literally chalk-pits), vast Gallo-Roman caverns that were hewn out of the solid limestone subsoil to provide building materials for the construction of the city. As serendipity would have it, their constant low temperature (10-11°C) and relatively high humidity (80-100%) proved ideal for storing Champagne some 15 centuries later, so the Champenois connected the crayères by a labyrinth of tunnels to form cellars.
Champagne is the most northerly AC wine region in France and the climate is greatly influenced by the Atlantic, which has a cooling effect in the summer and makes the seasons very variable. Frost is a serious problem in spring and autumn, and the growing season is dependent on the vagaries of the weather. The three principal zones are Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne and Côte des Blancs. Just to the south is the much smaller Côte de Sézanne and then further south, to the east of Troyes is the Aube or Côte des Bar. The subsoil over the whole region is chalk which drains well, though retaining enough water for the vines to survive in a drought. There is a thin layer of topsoil which can consist of sand, marl, loam, clay, lignite and chalk itself.
The Montagne de Reims is a large, fairly flat plateau, thickly carpeted with vineyards that slope gently towards the valleys of the Vesle and the Ardre in the north and towards the Marne in the south. The vineyards on the north-facing slopes are able to ripen grapes thanks to the warm air rising up the slope in the daytime after the cold night air has slipped down.
Reims is situated 150km northeast of Paris. By road it takes about 1½ hours using the A4 motorway, exit 23. There is a TGV train service running eight times per day from Paris and taking just 45 minutes. The closest international airport is Charles de Gaulle in Paris with a direct TGV rail link from the airport to Reims-Ardennes station, taking 30 minutes. From the main English Channel port Calais, the journey takes 2½ hours by A26 motorway, exit 16.
Reims Tourist Office,
12 Boulevard Général Leclerc, 51100 Reims
Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne,
5 Rue Henri Martin, 51200 Epernay
Union des Maisons de Champagne (the Champagne Houses)
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