The day finally came round; a trip conceptualized a year ago. Helen (Founders Camp manager) and I departed for France. A trip with a mission, an itinerary set, and appointments with the top Chateau booked well in advance – a trip to tantalize and one to learn from. Over the next few weeks, I shall share our wine journey through France with you all. Our first stop – Champagne – where I hoped to answer a nagging question; how many bottles of Champagne are in the tunnels below Champagne?
We headed to Reims where we visited Champagne Taittinger. My first Champagne tunnel experience commenced as we descended 18m down into the crayères at Taittinger. The crayères were initially built by the Romans who would dig a top entrance of a meter square and then dig down 10 to 20 meters, expanding outwards to extract the stone consisting of chalk, calcium carbonate and limestone. The stone was then utilized to construct buildings in and around Reims. During World War I the crayères provided a safe haven for the citizens of Reims and during World War II, the French resistance used them to hide Allied soldiers. Today these chalk crayères are now interconnected with modern tunnels and prized by Champagne houses. Taittinger has two sets of tunnels, one stretching for 4km and housing approximately 2 million bottles, and another stretching 10km and housing approximately 20 million bottles.
Veuve Clicquot was our second stop for the day. It is impressive how much Veuve Clicquot focusses on the marketing of the brand, and this is evident in every aspect. We arrived to a picturesque image of a Veuve Clicquot caravan on the lawn surrounded by yellow umbrellas with yellow tables and chairs – maybe in my next life I’ll drive a Champagne Caravan around the local neighbourhood selling glasses of Champagne by the glass.
We descended into the tunnels of Veuve Clicquot, to hear the wonderful story of how Veuve Clicquot came to be the widely recognized brand we all know and love today. What we found interesting is how pioneering Madam Clicquot was for a lady of her time. She took over the running of Champagne house in 1805, a rather brave task to take on for a 27-year-old widow, ultimately becoming one of the first businesswomen of modern times. This wasn’t the end of her “firsts”, Madame Clicquot was a formidable pioneer in the Champagne industry, willing to take risks, and innovate when it came to improving the quality of Champagne. She created the first “vintage” Champagne in 1810. In 1814 amid strife between France and Russia with the Napoleonic wars, she defiantly shipped 10,550 bottles of Champagne to Russia, which I’m sure were thoroughly enjoyed. In 1816 she invented the riddling table or “table de remuage”, a method used to clarify Champagne. In 1818 she created the first blend of rosé Champagne. A remarkable woman revered by her peers and often referred to as the “Grande Dame of Champagne”.
In line with Veuve Clicquot’s branding excellence, the logo has a story behind it; the hexagon shape references to a comet which passed over Champagne in 1811, the vintage was referred to as the Comet Vintage and the comet was attributed with the vintage being of remarkable quality. The anchor is a Christian symbol for hope and rigor, and was chosen in 1798 by Philippe Clicquot as the cork brand. Madame Clicquot continued to use the same cork brand when she took over in 1805. And then, rather obviously, the VCP refers to Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin.
We spent the rest of the afternoon taking in the beautiful ancient sites of Reims with a 9km walk viewing the Cathedrale Notre-Dame, Bibliotheque, Hotel-De-Ville and Cryptoportique. We ended up in a quaint little brasserie called Les 3 Brasseurs, this is where I learnt that South African medium-rare is a very different concept from French medium-rare and I’m convinced I heard the bavette steak I ordered say “Moo”.
The following morning we drove from Reims to Epernay via the Montagne de Reims Natural Regional Park. Once in Epernay, we were collected and driven in style to Möet et Chandon where we were hosted by Marie-Filomène. We started off with a private VIP tour of the tunnels.
Möet et Chandon has the largest underground tunnels and they stretch for 28km. As we descended we immediately noticed how they were completely different from the tunnels in Reims. In Reims the crayèrs had been dug with the purpose of excavating stone for the Romans to construct buildings with and were then later used for Champagne storage, whereas in Epernay the tunnels had been specifically dug for the storage of Champagne.
As we toured the tunnels we noticed that many bottles were undergoing secondary fermentation under actual cork, often referred to as agrafe, where a cork is held in the bottle by a large metal clip or staple (which is called an agrafe). In South Africa there are a few producers dabbling with this but the norm is to utilize a crown cap for the second fermentation. Marie-Filomène explained that with Möet et Chandon any Champagne intended to be drunk under 10 years, they utilize a crown cap and anything intended for drinking older than 10 years they utilize the agrafe method.
After our tour through the tunnels, we were invited to the Résidence de Trianon for an exclusive lunch paired with Möet et Chandon. This private residence was built for Jean-Rémy Moët between 1805 and 1817. Jean Chandon-Moët and his family were the last residents and since 1967 the property has been exclusively utilized to receive guests of Möet et Chandon.
From the Trianon we departed to the Abbey of Saint Peter of Hautvilliers, a former Benedictine abbey, established in 665 and where one of its monks, Dom Pérignon, is said to have contributed to the development on sparkling wine in the Champagne region. Here we were hosted by Thierry, a sommelier for Dom Pérignon and we had the opportunity to taste the Dom Pérignon Brut 2009 as well as the spectacular Dom Pérignon P2 2000.
After two days of touring the famous Champagne houses we veered off the beaten track and went to visit some of the actual Champagne growers. We drove to Bouzy, a commune in the Montagne de Reims sub-region of Champagne, a region which is classified as 100% grand cru vineyards and one of the few villages that produce a red wine from Pinot Noir in addition to Champagne.
In Bouzy we visited Champagne Jean Vesselle and we were hosted by Delphine & David Lemaire-Vesselle. Champagne Jean Vesselle has been in Delphine’s family for over three centuries and the method of making Champagne has been passed down since the start from father to son, and eventually daughter, Delphine. They are a récolant-manipulant which essentially means that they are a grower who makes and markets Champagne under their own label, exclusively from grapes sourced from their own vineyards and processed on their own premises.
They have a strong ethos towards sustainability and in 2007 installed solar panels and a rainwater harvesting system. They also limit chemical treatments on the vines through an insistence on natural processes.
We enjoyed a tasting with Delphine which included the Jean Veselle Le Petit Clos 2004. Le Petit Clos (a small enclosed vineyard), refers to the 100% Pinot Noir vineyard located directly in front of the tasting room and with these grapes they make 3 barrels of this fine Champagne each year. They age this Champagne in one new barrel, one second fill and one third fill and the Champagne really does capture the essence of the Jean Vesselle and the vineyard.
After a wonderful lunch with Delphine and David at their home, David led the way for us to Chouilly (just so that we wouldn’t get lost). Here we met with Jean-Pierre Vazart at Champagne Vazart Coquart & Fils. Chouilly is located in the Côte des Blancs of Champagne, a region which is classified as 100% grand cru vineyards and where Chardonnay is predominantly grown and contributes to 1/3 of all Champagne production with 530 hectares of vineyards.
Champagne Vazart Coquart was established in 1954 by Louis and Marie Vazart-Coquart, it was passed down to their sons René and Jacques, and then to Jean-Pierre who is the son of Jacques. The Vazart Coquart labels have 3 little geese in the corner – one for each generation of Vazart-Coquart from 1954. Jean-Pierre owns 11 hectares of vineyards which consist of 32 different parcels. He was the first in the Chouilly region to start farming organically and he produces 16 different labels of wine.
Jean-Pierre is part of a group consisting of 28 artisan wine makers called the Club Trésors, an association founded in 1971 which strives to preserve the essence of terroir and promote exceptional wines of outstanding quality. When producing a Champagne under the guise of the Club Trésors, the producer has to adhere to a strict set of guidelines, including that the Champagne being subject to two blind tastings by a panel of oenologists and winemakers – once at the still wine stage before bottling, if the Champagne makes it through the first tasting, then the producer can order and purchase a specific Champagne bottle with the Club Trésors logo embossed on it, and then a second time after 3 years of ageing in the bottle. The Champagne is then only allowed to be sold if it passes the second blind tasting. Jean-Pierres currently release of this outstanding Champagne is the Vazart Coquart Special Club Brut 2009.
So after three amazing days in Champagne, it was really interesting to compare the great Champagne houses to the smaller growers. We went from the glitz and glamour of Champagne to getting into the actual cellars and experiencing how Champagne is made from start to finish. We experienced the essence of how and where one of the world’s greatest beverages are produced and established a real feeling for the people, vineyards, place and wine of a very special region.
Unfortunately my question remains unanswered, despite asking it numerous times. How many bottles of Champagne lie in the tunnels below Champagne? No one will tell you, no one will even venture a guess, or give a hint as to the answer. A great secret shrouded in mystery. Can you venture a guess?