Yesterday we visited Reims and the beautiful Champagne valley with a guide from O’Chateau, a wine bar in the heart of Paris. Dick and I had attended a wine tasting there several years ago while on a tour with David Lebovitz (davidlebovitz.com). David, former pastry chef for Alice Waters in Berkeley California and author of The Sweet Life in Paris and My Paris Kitchen, has lived in Paris for several decades.
We began our Champagne tour with a stop at Taittinger, the renowned champagne producer and owner of one of the most historic and beautiful limestone caves in Reims. A spiral staircase of 83 steps led us to the subterranean area where we saw the ruins of the 13th century basilica—Saint Nicaise Abbey, destroyed during the French Revolution.
Going deeper down an even steeper staircase, we arrived at the site of a Roman chalk quarry that dates back to the 4th century. The monks had expanded this old Roman quarry to cellar their own wines. In what undoubtedly is an amazing engineering feat even to an untrained eye, the Romans used inverted pyramids to reduce the area of hard ground. This allowed them to maximize the amount of soft chalk that could be extracted and use the columns of solid earth that to this day support the crayères.
Only Taitt’s highest cuvée, the Comtes de Champagne, aged up to 10 years, rest horizontally here in the chalk caves. Each bottle is hand-turned, quarter-by-quarter turn, and inverted to allow the sediment to sift towards the neck of the bottle, where eventually it will be frozen and expulsed.
Except for a few empty spots in an otherwise perfect structure, Champaign bottles were stacked 20 meters deep to hold over 72,000 bottles. To help avoid breakage, each magnum and jeroboam (3 liters) is wrapped in plastic before being stacked. Bottles that are larger than Jeroboams are created to order, and filled from magnum bottles.
Reims (rhymes with France) has a crucial link to the Western Front in that twice German forces invaded it. The underground champagne cellars served as lifesaving shelter for both the civilian population and Allied soldiers. Along the tour on both levels, we saw numerous etchings on the soft chalk walls—graffiti from Roman slaves and Medieval monks, as well as injured WWI Allied soldiers. Historic indeed.