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Column: Champagne and churches in Reims

The Institute of the International Education of Students took its Paris students there last weekend. Madeline Burg, a junior at Northwestern University, was glad to escape the hectic energy of the city.

“It was actually really nice,” Burg said. “I would love to go back to Reims. It was just empty, which was kind of lovely.”

She said this despite the freezing cold weather.

Wrapped tightly in her tan coat, she shivered as wind circled around us. Pounded with waves of rain and wind, the massive church overlooked us. It was the tallest structure in the area.

We could see Reims’ connection to the champagne industry — there was a series of stained-glass windows dedicated to its creation. Seeping royal blue infused light was an intricate maze of a window, all with miniscule barrels scattered about.

Champagne, or champ-AH-gne in French pronunciation, is a sparkling wine that takes its name from the region in which it originates — Champagne, France. Saving us from the cold weather, IES took us from the cathedral to the Pommery, a champagne production house.

“This place looked like Disney world,” Burg said. “The main part of it was walking through its caves. It was like a maze.”

Passing through the Pommery doors, we were guided through the mismatched lobby featuring ancient wooden barrels and installations of neon lights. A few more steps and we were fed through a single set of double doors leading us down into the Pommery caves. This is where the champagne sits, for years, and decades even, while the wine ages and develops its carbonation.

Footsteps echoed through the cave-like cellars as we moved from branch to branch. Piles of dusty, web-covered glass bottles rested along the walls. Our guide described the process of champagne-making, as well as the differences between it and normal, flat wine.

What makes champagne different from wine is natural carbonation. But to create the carbonation, the wine is fermented a second time.

To simplify the process, there are three steps. Make the wine, add a carbonation solution, then remove the byproduct of said solution.

Once the wine is created, the guide said it is poured into the champagne bottle and a solution of levure, or yeast and sugar, is added. The bottle is then corked and left to ferment while the yeast consumes the sugar and creates the carbon dioxide needed for carbonation. Once the wine has fermented, the bottles are inverted into the “A” shaped racks so the now dead yeast can settle into the neck of the bottle.

When the bottle is finished, the settlement is removed and the cork is put back into the bottle. This is all done quickly to keep as much carbon dioxide in the bottle as possible.

At the end of the day we climbed up the steps back into the lobby and found rows of filled flutes of champagne awaiting us.

“It was kind of nice knowing that it was down there being tended to,” Burg said. “The cellar part was actually cooler than the champagne tasting.”

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