A New Regard for International Libations

While the publishers of Fine Lifestyles Magazine encourage readers to drink locally, as well as responsibly, we know many Clevelanders are happily quaffing international brews and grape-based beverages. So we went on an assignment to discover the origins of two of Europe’s finest thirst quenchers. Someone had to do it.


Veuve Clicquot, or “old widow” in French, is synonymous with champagne. The distinctive yellow label has earned an international following, but many are unaware of the house’s unique history. Madame Clicquot was only 27 years old in 1805 when she took over the business of her deceased husband, the son of the founder. She was not only one of the first modern businesswomen, she made champagne history by creating the first recorded vintage, or single harvest, champagne in the region. Madame Clicquot was innovative and daring, overcoming the continental embargo to ship 10,500 bottles of her champagne to Russia, earning praise from Pushkin, Chekhov and Gogol. By 1816 Madame Clicquot had invented the first riddling table, which guarantees a crystal-clear wine, a process which continues to be used today. Madame Clicquot quickly conquered the sexism inherent in the era and industry to become known to her peers as “La Grande Dame” of Champagne.


We made reservations for the private tour months before our vacation, I mean, our reporting assignment, was scheduled. The Veuve Clicquot cellars in Reims, France, are designated  a UNESCO World Heritage site, located an hour and a half northeast of Paris. There are several tour options available and, according to their website, tours can now be booked online.


Our tour began in a small vineyard on the Veuve Clicquot property with an informative introduction to grapes and the regions in France where they’re grown. The grapes used in Veuve Clicquot are actually grown in vineyards throughout the region, rather than in one centralized Veuve Clicquot vineyard. The yellow label champagne uses 400 different wines in the blend to ensure consistency of flavor and quality.


We were next led into a small walled-in garden where we practiced using our senses on various  herbs and plants. It was obvious that some had much better senses of smell and taste than others on the tour. These skills were further put to the test in a small tasting room adjacent to the garden. After failing to identify any of the vaguely familiar aromas, except for mint, I had a new appreciation for the challenges inherent in becoming a sommelier.


The actual cellars are located below the city of Reims in a maze of chalk mines which are at 55 degrees, the perfect temperature to store champagne. We were treated to a cheese and champagne tasting in the cellars after a short tour. We tasted four vintages, two white and two rosés, from 2008 and 1998. The tasting tour was edifying and entertaining. We now recognize the history and enormous care which goes into the processing of each bottle, rendering it even more delicious than before our tour.


The following day we headed to Leuven, Belgium, to visit the Stella Artois brewery, a slightly different drinking experience. On arrival, we donned reflective safety vests and headed out to the brewery. The original location of the brewery, called the Brewery Den Hoorn, was just a short way down the river Vaart from the present location. It began brewing beer in 1366. Because Leuven was a college town, beer production became an indispensable part of the city’s history. Apparently beer and college students have been inseparable for centuries.


The Stella part of the Stella Artois name was added in 1928 when they brewed a seasonal Christmas beer named Stella which proved so popular that they began making it year round. The horn symbol is still found in the Stella Artois symbol, maintaining a link to its 800 year old origins. We learned these historical details in a small theater which was much warmer than it should have been. The fermentation process was taking place nearby and we were the recipients of its residual heat.


The next stop on the tour was a hands-on educational lecture in a room overlooking the giant  kettles of the brewery. While we learned about how barley and maize are processed in the malting and mashing stages before mort, the sugary leftover liquid, is boiled and hops is added, the kettles worked their brewing magic below us.


The next stop had a view of the bottling plant from above. We learned that the brewery not only produced and bottled Stella Artois, but also Leffe and Hoëgaarden beers. The entire brewery was sparkling clean and the equipment very shiny. Once we arrived at the Stella Artois bar at the end of the tour, we understood that cleanliness is important through the entire process. We were given a lesson on cleaning those chalices so as to preserve the best flavor of the beer. Any string of bubbles rising from the bottom of the glass is evidence of an imperfectly clean chalice. The taste testing was conducted with fastidiously poured Stella Artois which was more delicious than any Stella we’ve tasted before.


The tours are given only on the weekends and we made reservations well in advance of our reporting assignment. We had read that the brewery entrance is difficult to locate, but we didn’t have any trouble. We had a little trouble with the resulting beer buzz following the tour so we found a cafe on the square in downtown Leuven where we could indulge in french fries dipped in mayonnaise. This Belgian specialty was especially effective in soaking up the alcohol so we could safely continue our reporting from the continent.


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