Traveling through time and taste in the land of bubbly
By Renée Allen, CSS, CSW, FWS
When it comes to symbols of celebration, there is no image more iconic than that of a cork flying out of a bottle of champagne. We pop champagne for birthdays, for anniversaries, for successes, and throughout the holiday season.
Outside of these occasions, though, these effervescent elixirs often take a back shelf to wines and other libations considered by many to be more appropriate for everyday enjoyment. Champagne is more than just celebratory bubbly; it is a region with an extraordinary history, fascinating people, and incredible beauty. Most of all, it is an exquisite wine meant to be appreciated as often as one can afford.
Appreciation of champagne flows deeper than what’s in the glass. History buffs will find much to study about this war-torn region of France. Champagne’s central location and lack of topographical impediments—the broad expanses of flat plains are virtually devoid of trees—lent itself to being the perfect battleground for multiple wars over the centuries.
Champagne was ransacked and pillaged, its vineyards repeatedly bombed and burned to the ground, by both enemies and those sent to protect the land and its people. Throughout it all, the Champenois kept the bubbly flowing. Just 45 minutes east of Paris in the city of Reims stands the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Reims, not just an object of great beauty but a symbol of triumph and persistence. This stunning example of French gothic architecture, begun in the early 13th century and constructed over more than 250 years, served as the coronation site for 27 French kings. The damage it sustained during World War I is still being restored to this day. One of its more famous façade sculptures, Ange au Sourire (Smiling Angel), was pieced together over several years from its shattered fragments and remains a symbol of hope to the people of Champagne.
When in Reims
In Reims, several famous Champagne houses will open their doors for tours and tastings, including the very first Champagne house, Ruinart. While the aboveground structures are splendid, the underground architecture is literally chilling.
During the Roman Empire, the Romans quarried chalk, carving out miles of crayères (chalk pits) underneath the city of Reims. Serendipitously, these crayères provide perfect natural temperature control for cellaring champagne bottles.
At Ruinart, one can descend to three different levels, the deepest of which is situated 40 meters underground (more than 130 feet). Bring a warm sweater; temperatures are 10–12 degrees Celsius (about 50 degrees Fahrenheit) and humidity is at 95%.
During World War I, most of Reims was leveled by artillery fire. Residential houses dwindled from almost 14,000 in 1914 to a mere 17 in 1918. Inhabitants took to the crayères, living there for weeks at a time. Ruinart’s crayères have been designated a National Historic Monument, but you can visit several Champagne houses with equally impressive crayères, including Pommery, Taittinger, and Veuve Clicquot.
Don’t Pop Your Cork
So much survival and hope can lead to popping one’s champagne bottle.
A word of advice: Don’t do that.
Although the sound of a champagne cork popping can induce Pavlovian reactions, those in the know open their bottles with a whisper—or a kiss—not a bang. A loud pop indicates the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, gas that would much better serve you in your glass in the form of tiny bubbles. And then there’s the safety factor. While some parents tell cautionary tales of children getting hurt while running with scissors or poking eyes out while playing with sticks, my French-born mother warned me of the perils of popping a champagne cork too casually.
“Seven Frenchmen a year die in champagne cork-related accidents,” she cautioned. While I have never confirmed the veracity of that statistic, I do know that a bottle of champagne contains five to six atmospheres of pressure, which is between two and three times the amount of pressure in your car tire. If allowed to escape the bottle unbridled, the cork can travel 65 miles per hour, causing serious damage upon impact. That will poke someone’s eye out.
The Great (and Small) Houses of Champagne
When choosing which champagnes to expertly uncork, you might wonder just how much variation there could be among outwardly similar offerings. One has only to visit a small sampling of Champagne houses to understand the vast differences in both philosophies and styles of champagne.
On one end of the spectrum are the small grower-producers. These winemakers typically have modest vineyards, conduct much of the winegrowing and winemaking processes by hand, and produce wines meant to be true reflections of their terroir, with characteristics that vary with the vintage.
A few of these producers choose to make what are referred to as “natural” wines, foregoing the addition of such things as sulfur or sugar. Some cult-status smaller houses include Selosse, Léclapart, and Lahaye.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the large-scale operations with facilities that rival the likes of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Consistency of style from year to year is the name of the game here, and automation abounds. One can become completely mesmerized by the riderless, software-driven forklifts that stack cases of champagne around the clock at Moët et Chandon’s new facility in Montaigu.
In between these extremes are myriad variously sized wineries, as well as cooperatives—collectives of small-grower members who pool their grapes for sale to larger houses, or for production of co-op or member champagnes. These facilities can be quite large, with cutting edge technology.
Many houses and co-ops large and small can be found a short distance south of Reims. Begin on Avenue de Champagne in the region’s capitol, Épernay, where you can visit palatial houses such as Moët et Chandon, Perrier-Jouët, and Pol Roger.
From Épernay, plan several day trips to surrounding villages in Champagne’s principal subregions that will make you think you’ve stepped into a fairy tale as you pass huge expanses of vineyards dotted with delightfully quaint homes. With close to two dozen houses, including Billecart-Salmon and Bollinger, the village of Aÿ in Vallée de la Marne is a must-see. Be sure to stop by small grower-producer Tarlant in Oeuilly while in this subregion. Trips to other smaller houses, such as Pierre Paillard in Bouzy (Montagne de Reims) or JL Vergnon in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger (Côte des Blancs), are well worth the effort. If time allows, continue south to Côte des Bar, Champagne’s southernmost region, where Pinot Noir is king.
Whatever your preferred style, the wines of Champagne have earned the right to be more than just a prelude to the party; they deserve a place at the table. Palate-refreshing and food-friendly, these sparklers can accompany you throughout your meal, whether you are enjoying champagne for the holidays or for a holiday in Champagne.