Champagne has toasted billions of parties and special occasions over the past few hundred years. It’s a drink synonymous with celebration and luxury. Despite it’s distinguished reputation around the world, many are unaware there’s a lot more to champagne beneath the surface… literally.
Our 2-day champagne-filled adventure began in Reims (pronunciation tip: Reims rhymes with France). A small city steeped in history, Reims’ Notre-Dame Cathedral was once the capital of France and the site where Kings were crowned. Reims was also where Roman crayères (underground chalk caves) were discovered. Winemakers in the 1600s began leveraging the crayères as part of the champagne production process. The consistent cool temperature, absence of light, vibration and humidity, made them ideally suited for aging & storing champagne wines.
Les crayères also witnessed a number of dark moments in history. During WW1 & WW2, they often served as shelter from the german bombs. Given it’s close proximity to Germany, Reims saw a high level of conflict and 80% of the city was destroyed during the war. Armistice was eventually signed at Eisenhower’s supreme headquarters in Reims in on May 1945, officially ending WW2.
It’s for these reasons that Reims looks more like a small, modern city, although it’s cathedral still stands after a number of restaurations (once of which was taking place while we visited). A number of the larger champagne houses (notably Ruinart, Taittinger & Veuve Clicquot) are located on the outskirts of the city; the remaining large houses hold court on Avenue de Champagne in nearby Épernay, “la capitale de Champagne”. It is here that you can (literally) walk from champagne house to champagne house, tasting the wines. In fact Épernay has 110 km of subterranean cellars housing more than 200 million bottles of Champagne!
It’s for these reasons that we chose to quickly see Reims and then drive over to Épernay, which would be our home base in the Champagne region. Our first stop in Épernay was a visite de caves de Moët & Chandon (pronunciation tip: mo-ette). One of the most popular champagnes in the world, Moët & Chandon holds a royal warrant as champagne supplier to Queen Elizabeth II. The tour was a great starting point to the region, as we went underground into Moët’s caves, exploring the labyrinth of passages while understanding the champagne production process and the history of the Moët family.
Given champagne’s association with royalty, it’s not surprising that the process is governed by the strictest of rules to ensure quality and consistency. There are very specific plots of land in the region allocated to growing champagne grapes. The vine latticed fields are dotted with 3 types of grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Typically champagne is une cuvée (a blend) of these 3 grapes, although there are also blanc de blancs (chardonnay grapes only) & blanc de noirs (champagne made exclusively from dark-skinned grapes). Sometimes the champagne house owns their own vines; however oftentimes they purchase grapes from vignerons (independent growers) in the neighbouring villages.
It’s not only the grapes that make the champagne; it’s also the unique production process. Champagne has a long & complex transformation that involves a second fermentation in the bottle, induced by adding several grams of yeast & sugar to the bottle. It’s the dose of sugar that makes the bubbles; the smaller the bead, the better the champagne.
Épernay truly has no shortage of great champagnes. In addition to being home to a number of the world’s most renowned brands, there are a number of smaller Champagne Houses worth exploring (I recommend Paul-Étienne Saint-Germain & A. Bergere, the latter is also a B&B). We spent our second day in Épernay wandering from Champagne House to Champagne House – a perfect afternoon in France 🙂