My latest trip, to Reims in the Champagne region of France, was not intended to be a photography trip, the focus was very definitely on sampling the world's favourite sparkling wine in it's natural environment. It was a last minute decision to even take a camera with me, and I am happy that I eventually decided to do so.
Over the past 10 years I have become much more interested in champagne and the Grand Champagne event held every year in Helsinki has given a comparatively easy opportunity to taste many different champagnes without having to buy them by the bottle.
So it came to be that a small group of friends decided to make their first visit to the champagne region.
Reims is a beautiful small city and is reachable in less than an hour by TGV from Paris CDG airport (providing the trains are running). It is one of the two main commercial centres in the Champagne region (the other being Épernay) and many of the biggest champagne producers are based in one of these two cities.
The spectacular Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims, pictured above, forms the centrepiece for the old town and is notable as the venue for the coronation of French monarchs in the days before "la révolution" while there are a number of nice squares with statues and fountains in the nearby area.
On our first full day we took a half day tour with Sparkling Tour, which turned out to be an excellent decision. We visited two of the smaller champagne houses and learned about the different stages of champagne making, from vine to glass. Our reward at the end of this learning experience was to taste three different champagnes from each of the two champagne houses.
Our guide and driver for the day was Léa who picked us up conveniently right outside out hotel. We were joined by another small group and there were eight of us in total as we headed for our first stop at Champagne Michel Fagot. This champagne house has 15 hectares of Premier Cru vineyards in the Montagne de Reims area and splits it's business between producing it's own champagnes and selling a portion of it's harvest to larger champagne houses.
Léa took us through the different stages of the champagne making process as we went through the area where the magic happens and down into the cool dark cellars where the champagne peacefully ages over a period of years until it is ready to be enjoyed.
The best part came next as we were able to taste glasses of their Brut Tradition, Blanc de Blancs and Millésime 2006 before we continued our journey.
The next stop on the tour was a visit to the church in Hautvillers where the gravestone of Dom Pierre Pérignon sits in honour at the front of the chapel. Dom Pérignon was an important figure in improving the champagne making process and continues to find fame to this day in the prestige champagne brand which bears his name.
Our final stop on the trip was at Champagne Devavry where we were able to once again tour their cellar and learn something about the champagne house before heading for the tasting room to try glasses of their Collection Prestige, Millesime 2012 and an excellent new Blanc de Noirs champagne that is not yet described on their website or in their printed materials.
It was most interesting to visit these places and I have to say that the tour was very well organised. Everything was take care of efficiently without any fuss and the things that were taught during the tour were explained in an easy to understand way. Léa was also extremely patient and helpful when faced with a variety of odd questions from the participants as they made their way through the six glasses of champagne.
I would definitely recommend a tour with Sparkling Tour to anyone who was visiting the Champagne region.
Back in Reims there was time to explore the city a bit before dinner.
There is plenty to see in Reims and it is a most pleasant place to be even if you are not drinking champagne. There is a nice mixture of historic and modern buildings and many parks and open spaces to enjoy the summer weather.
The Canal de l’Aisne à la Marne runs through Reims, to the west of the town centre and the towpath can be a pleasant place for a walk. Near to the canal, south-west of the centre you can find the Stade Auguste-Delaune, home of the local football team (Stade Reims) and venue for 6 matches in the recent Womens Football World Cup.
The central areas around the cathedral are very pedestrian friendly and there are many places where you can eat and drink on outside tables while watching the world go by as the ever present pigeons fly overhead.
On our second full day it was time to visit a slightly larger champagne house, we walked through the city to take a tour of Pommery-Vranken.
We made our way through the imposing gates and into the castle-like buildings before making the descent into a vast system of underground caves, the resting place for tens of millions of bottles of champagne.
The Pommery caves are just one of many interesting places (e.g. the Budapest Parliament, the Vienna State Opera House) where your best (or only) chance of gaining photographic access is to take a guided tour. This presents some great opportunities and different challenges as a photographer. Often in such situations it is not permitted to take a tripod and it is not allowed to use a flash, so you need to get your work done as best as possible hand-held with whatever light might be available. The other obvious issue is all the other people on the tour who are highly likely to be standing in your picture, standing in your preferred shooting position, or both. I have found it beneficial to try and be the last to leave each location in any tour in order to get a clean opportunity to shoot... but at the same time trying not to be left behind completely.
The caves are truly enormous and they provide a perfect environment year round for their purpose, with the low-ish temperature, high humidity and darkness that works best for the champagne process. The caves are also home to a number of different art installations which can be viewed on different tours. I am not sure if the lighting that was in place in different parts fot eh tunnels was purely functional or if it was part of an art installation, but either way it looked cool and it was designed in such a way than none of the light ever shone directly into an area containing precious bottles.
When the cellars were first taken into use by Pommery the storage spaces were organised according to the place to which the finished wines would be shipped. This naming is still visible to this day. The biggest gallery "Buenos Aires" was so huge that you could not see to the far wall.
The tour we were on was more focused on champagne than art but we still passed many different exhibits (as well as the slightly surprising sight of a bouncy castle in one gallery).
I spent most of the tour looking out for photography opportunities and avoiding the 60 or so other tour participants rather than listening to what the guide was saying.. so it was at times a little difficult to know if the things I was seeing served some technical purpose or were intended to be fascinating art installations.
All in all this was a very nice trip, and quite a success (23 different champagnes in 3 days), it was interesting to have a chance to photograph some different subjects for a change, that is always refreshing even though that was not the main focus of the trip. Thanks a lot to my friends for a great trip!
I have spent most of the last month going through photos from a trip to England so I expect there are some more blog posts coming soon on my more usual topics related to landscape photography.
Thanks to everyone who has read this post! Please remember to follow Andy Fowlie Photography on facebook if you want to see my latest pictures and blog posts.
Enjoy the summer!
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