The Champagne Houses of Reims
When in Champagne, drink the Golden Nectar. When raining in Champagne, drink copious amounts below the earth, and come up bubbly.
Most of you probably know that Champagne is indigenous to the city of Reims and surrounding region and that, technically, you are not allowed to call anything made outside of this region Champagne. (What we have been drinking all these years is merely "sparkling wine".) What you may not know is that deep in the earth, underground the city, stretches 150 miles of Champagne caves, housing over 200 million bottles. These caves date back to Roman times, 2000 years ago in the 3rd and 4th centuries. When Galo Romans were looking for building materials, they found a soft, chalk-like stone in the earth of Reims that they could carve out by hand, transport, crush, and mix with water to form a type of cement. They took what they needed and left deep holes everywhere in the city afterward. The tops of these holes are now tiny windows from the city below to the city above.
The chalk walls and the depth of the caves keep them at 8 -12 degrees celsius, depending on the depth of the level, which is perfect for aging Champagne. The caves have not only been used for centuries to make and house Champagne, but were ways for the monks to transport wine underground to different religious buildings, a bomb shelter for soldiers during the war, and an underground refuge for the people of Reims to live, shop, and eat during the Germain invasion (at which time, the making of Champagne had been put on pause.)
I stopped in Reims for percisely that reason - the Champagne. How many times in your life can you say you have drank actual "Champagne" from Champagne, France in Champagne, France. However, I clearly did not plan well seeing that it is, yet again, another Holiday weekend in France. That means that most of the more commonly known Champagne Houses - Krug, Ruinart, Pierre Moncuit, Veuve Clicquot - were all booked and have been for the past month. There were still some great ones that had openings.
I was able to book two tours in English at Champagne Pommery and Taittinger, and attempted to sneak into Ruinart (they have guards everywhere - literally). It was raining and cold and I looked like the ultimate American tourist dressed like a soccer mom of 9, with skinny jeans, tennis shoes, a north face, AND a backpack (I can't even...). I had not anticipated such weather and frankly did not care much for what I looked like right now.
My map said that Champagne Pommery, among others, was only an 8 minute drive from my place. Once away from the Cathedral and cobble stone area, the road looked much like any other road that you could find anywhere in the world. But at the end of it stood Champagne Pommery, overly gigantic and colorful, right on the edge of a major road. The slate blues and burnt pink hues of the castle struck me as odd and distasteful at first. As if, I were coming for Disney Land and not one of the oldest Champagne Houses in the world.
Something felt very off about the whole thing. Like a Christmas store at a beach resort, or the remnants of the Enchanted Forest among a shopping center on Route 40. Come get your discounts at K-Mart but don't mind the giant king and sea creature lurking above the rooftops, reminding you of your childhood and a better time. (Sorry, that one was for the Marylanders).
To it's left was Ruinart, which at least was modeled in the color sphere that I had expected them all to be. And to it's right, a dollhouse looking mansion stood, as if built out of gingerbread. Shapeless stone apartment complexes lay directly across from these expansive displays of luxury. The whole thing, from the outside, was just strange.
Inside, with ticket booths and gates, I was still skeptical. But upon the first member of staff that I talked to, until the last, I became increasingly and pleasantly surprised. Despite the expansive touristic pull, this staff was genuinely a delight. I was 45 minutes early (I know, shocking), so I ordered a glass of Pomm's Summertime Brut *- a Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay). The bartender graciously attempted English and did quite well explaining all the varieties that they offered. He also gave me a free glass of the Rose Appenage*, because he had accidentally poured one too many. He even went so far as to bring me over an English version of the history and tasting notes when he noticed me writing afterwards at a corner table.
The quote on the inside flap from Madame Pommery made me forgo my initial impression, despite all of the exterior perceptions. Yes, sometimes, it is that easy.
" I wanted this estate to be like an open book, facing the world and time. Leave your imprint on it, as I have left mine, for posterity. And let it be worthy of respect, I have wanted these walls to express each day for this Champagne, a wine that has now become a shared part of our souls and carries the memory of our art forever."
I knew then that would I would find underground would be something of unique beauty. If not only, for the reason that such love and devotion had gone into it.
I know they said it was an English tour but the French woman who gave it sounded like she was still speaking French. I admired her effort but strained to catch maybe, every 5 words. She was dressed like a 1950's flight attendant with scarf and tilted hat and walked up and down the 116 steps of the cave with ease in heels. It was practically a private tour, aside from a group of four Belgians who scoffed heartily when hearing I was from the States and asked the tour be given in French. They were pleasant and welcome company during and after the tour. I hadn't realized how little genuine human interaction I had had in the last 3 days, if any.
The caves were vast and dark; the air cold and damp. Millions of bottles lay down here covered in years of dust and debri, just waiting to be ready, waiting to be popped. I had no idea that Champagne aged for so long. The vintage Champagnes, only made during exceptional years, aged for 5 -8 years before the yeast was removed and the bottles were corked. The non-vintage for 3-4. The Grand Cru of Champagnes aged for even longer and could be cellared up to 15 years after purchased and before opening.
Some extremely old vintages lay covered in caves waiting to be ordered and go for hundres of thousands of dollars. The only two bottles that Pommery would never sell were the last 1878 and 1874 bottle that remained.
TAITTINGER CHAMPAGNE HOUSE
Taittinger, while a name not so old as the original families, has universally exploded and become the 3rd largest Champagne House to be known around the world. Due in a major part to it's exceptional market strategy and artistic expression, Taittinger has made his brand a household name. This original Champagne house before Taittinger owned it, however, is the third oldest in Reims.
This tour was much larger than the previous one and given by a very lanky, very ginger, scottish boy (and I say boy for a lack of better term to describe his youth) in a suit, who walked exceptionally slow and stood absurdly straight, with his hands clasped behind his back at all times. He was very matter-of-fact and seemed quite uneasy with the large crowd, only relaxing momentarily with a small dry joke (that was actually quite funny) before immediately recovering his face.
I was fascinated to discover that here, they turned all of their bottles by hand. While in a slanted, upside down position, there was a perfect clockwise/ counter-clockwise equation to turning the bottles in order to coax the yeast down into the neck of the bottle. Two of their most experienced turners, could finish over 8,000 bottles in an hour.
Here I learned about the various uses of the caves over the centuries and how the tunnels that once connected all of them were now closed up. Now all separate and (somewhat) competing Champagne Houses, they wouldn't want the other team sneaking into each other's caves unnoticed. Made sence. Still, how incredible it would have been to be able to walk the underground tunnels of the city the way that the cloister monks did so many centuries ago.
It's safe to say if this is my last post .... you know where to come look for me.
(bear in mind the head cold!)
*Pommery's Summertime Brut ~ Non-vintage. Blanc de Blanc. Made from a dozen selected Champagne vineyards. Light, crisp and refreshing with a tinge of bitterness in the mid palate.
*Pommery's Rose Apanage ~ Non-vintage. Not made in the Saignee method, but by adding Pinot Noir wine. Salmon appearance, aromas of delicate pink rose petals. Light, crisp, fruity with a hint of sweetness.
*Taittinger's Brut Reserve ~ 40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier. Crystal, gold hue. Muted nose. Crisp and fresh taste with granny smith apples on the front and almost a brief nutty finish. *Favorite*