With New Year's Eve approaching, you'll most likely be breaking open some champagne, but instead of pouring a simple glass of the bubbly, why not have a Kir Royale, a festive drink made with champagne and crème de cassis, a sweet, dark liqueur made from black currants. I never drank a Kir Royale until my trip to Paris this fall, when I made up for all those decades of neglect. I even went one step further, taking a side trip to Reims, the heart of the Champagne region. It's only a one-hour train ride east from Paris.
It's also the site of one of the great cathedrals of the world, where French kings were once crowned.
Construction of the cathedral began in the 1200s and continued for nearly three centuries. It remains one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Europe. It was heavily damaged during World War I, and work continues to this day on the cathedral.
The artist Marc Chagall designed these stained glass windows, installed in 1974.
While the cathedral is a big draw for tourists, so too, are the many champagne houses located in the region. I couldn't pass up the chance to tour the cellars of one such producer -- G.H. Mumm.
The "caves" or cellars are exactly that, 75 kilometers of tunnels and passageways dug by hand out of the chalky soil, a process that took 70 years to complete.
The cellars contain 25 million bottles (yes, million, that's right), some of which are behind lock and key.
Those are the historic vintages, some of which date back to the 19th century. They may be worth a lot of money, but that doesn't mean they taste very good. The length of time for optimum aging is anywhere from a year and a half to five years.
Just as in the past, champagne for today's market goes through a "riddling" process - where each bottle is held on a tilt on a wooden rack and rotated by hand in order to consolidate any sediment prior to removal. After the sediment collects in the neck of the bottle, it's frozen to make disgorging easier.
Mumm also has a museum in its cellars, containing many old implements and machines of the trade.
Of course, tasting the champagne is the best part of the visit. In the interest of research, I had to taste three of Mumm's champagnes, including one of its best - the Grand Cru blanc de blancs, made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes.
A bottle of this will set you back a pretty penny, so you may want to choose a less expensive bubbly, like an Italian prosecco or Spanish cava, to make your Kir Royale. You probably already know that while sparkling wines are produced all around the world, only those made in this geographic region of France have the legal right to be called champagne.
By the way, you can make yourself a plain Kir, rather than a Kir Royale, by substituting dry white wine for the sparkling wine.
Here's a little bit of trivia for all you nerdy types out there. Bottle sizes still bear the names given them by champagne houses at the start of the 20th century. With the smallest first :
• Quarter or demi bottle = 18.7 or 20cl, depending on the country
• Bottle = 75cl
• Magnum = 1.5 litres
• Jeroboam = 3 litres (named after the founder and first king of Israel)
• Methuselah = 6 litres (named after Noah’s grandfather)
• Salmanazar = 9 litres (named after the king of Assyria)
• Balthazar = 12 litres (named after the regent of Babylon)
• Nebuchadnezzar = 15 litres (named after the king of Babylon)
1/2 ounce crème de cassis
6 oz. champagne
Pour the crème de cassis in a champagne glass and slowly fill with champagne. Serve.