All about Reims, France: The Unofficial Capital of the Champagne Region

Reims is a name we most often associate with the back of a Champagne bottle… and if that was all the city was famous for, it would be quite enough! After all, Champagne is a drink with which we celebrate all our joyous moments in life and pass each year with. Luckily for visitors to Reims and its inhabitants, known as Remois, the place has much more to offer.

reims cathedral

Reims & the Romans

The city of Reims was founded by the Romans and took its name from the local Gaulish Tribe, the Remi. It was almost certainly the Romans who first saw that the region had the potential for viticulture – scientific grape cultivation. Underneath the fertile topsoil of the area sits a huge bed of chalk, ideal for drainage. This is essential to preventing waterlogged vines.

Chalk is also excellent for tunnelling, and at some point during 200-300AD, the Romans installed a tunnel system, named a cryptoportique, providing ideal cold storage for wine in the days before refrigeration. The semi-subterranean tunnels are a network of corridors and passageways beneath Reims that are lit from above by slits in the brickwork, allowing rays of light from the surface to penetrate through. The tunnels are now a major attraction in the city and are the perfect place to store Champagne.

Vinyards in the Champagne region, Reims.

Reims Cathedral

Later in their history, the Cryptoportique of Reims became a much-needed shelter for the city’s citizens as the region bore much of the brunt of the German onslaught during World War One. The city was heavily damaged by shelling and its magnificent Cathedral, Notre Dame de Reims was partly destroyed. It was lovingly restored after the war, thanks in no small part to generous donations by wealthy American benefactor, John D Rockefeller, who also donated towards restoring the French palaces of Versailles and Fontainebleau.

The gothic masterpiece of Notre Dame de Reims is now widely perceived as the jewel in the crown of Reims. Dating from the 13th century, the cathedral we see today represents the height of Medieval gothic architecture and is considered to be one of the finest examples of its type in France. The significance of the cathedral can be highlighted by the fact that no less than 33 French kings were crowned there! Even today, Reims is still regarded as France’s City of Coronation. As impressive as the exterior is, it is worth spending some time inside, where you can gaze on at the light gently diffusing through the stained-glass windows and illuminating the faces depicted in them.  Don’t miss the east window which was designed by famous modernist artist, Marc Chagall.

Reims Cathedral interior

The city of Reims suffered so badly at the start of World War 1, that it also played a part in the ending of World War 2. It was in Reims that General Eisenhower started negotiations with German high command, something that eventually led to Germany surrendering. The rather plain-looking school where this monumental event took place has now been transformed into a museum, which is open to visitors.

Reims & Champagne

Then of course, there is the Champagne. Legend has it that it was invented by the Benedictine Monk, Dom Perignon, who upon first tasting the creation, cried out to his fellow Monks: “I have just tasted the stars”! While this is almost certainly a fictional story, the long road from the first planting of vines by the Romans, to the production of today’s top-quality Champagne wasn’t easy.

First, there was the problem of the exploding bottles. Early thin glass bottles often couldn’t stand up to the pressure building up inside, resulting in exploding bottles. Sometimes, one bottle exploding could start a chain reaction whereby whole cellars of Champagne could be lost. This was a costly problem for the producers and a deadly one at times for the wine bottle turners who regularly visited the cellars. The dilemma was eventually solved by the Industrial Revolution in England, which resulted in the production of thicker, lead dioxide glass bottles.

Dom Perignon - History of Champagne

Then there were the Champagne riots… In 1910 and 1911, a pest infestation led to terrible grape harvests in the region and severe grape shortages. The producers’ answer was to surreptitiously import grapes from the Loire Valley, in the South of France. When the local growers found out, riots broke out and truckloads of grapes were unceremoniously dumped into the river Marne. The French government stepped in and began a process of defining the exact location that grapes were to be grown if the wine was to be called ‘Champagne’. This process finally set the course for Champagne to be the tightly quality controlled wine that we all know and love today.

reims champagne

Cruise the Champagne Region

If you’re interested in spending some time in the magnificent French city of Reims, then why not book a cruise aboard hotel barge Panache? Speak to a member of our Sales Team via our Contact Form for more information or order your free copy of our brochure.

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