I admit, I love wine and not only do I love wine, I love French wine and not only French wine but also Champagne. Lucky for me Jérémie is from the region so we go every other weekend, but for as often as we made the trek from the Île de France we just never made it to any of the champagne houses. Last month when we spent the night at his parents my one request was to sneak out Sunday morning and do a tour. Generally there’s a a big old closed sign hung up over the whole of France on Sundays but we were lucky and Taittinger was open and they had space enough to tour us around!
We drove from his parents village to Reims shortly after breakfast and from the outside I was sure it was going to be a huge disappointment. When you think of Champagne you think of chateaus and a little grandeur instead this felt like a big cement wall with a name on it. Being that this location was in the city (they also have a country chateau) I guess I should have known this wouldn’t be the place where we’d drive up some beautiful vineyard lined road up to the house of French dreams. When we finally started down the stairs 17 meters underground in the cellars of the former Saint Nicaise Abbey which was destroyed during the revolution, leaving only that which is underground intact, I knew I’d judged a bit too soon. These underground pits are called Crayères or in English, chalk mines, which date back to the 4th Century Gallo-Roman era and the Benedictine monks showed up just shy of a century later and used these underground pits connected by corridors to house their precious bottles of wine finding that they provided the perfect conditions for the aging process.
Taittinger owns 4 kilometers of the underground network and here they store the Comtes de Champagne (also known as a blanc des blancs – read: fancy), which are the bottles you’ll see below in the traditional bottle shape and all are hand turned to distribute the yeast during the fermentation process. Once primary fermentation is complete the bottles are stacked and in each recess there were over 100,000 bottles, which one would never know until the lights came on! It was a great exploration into the world of Champagne, the history of the monks and their underground trade and the tastings afterward were the perfect end to a perfect little detour. In case you haven’t heard of Taittinger, their Comtes de Champagne is highly regarded as one of the better bottles on the market and it’s no wonder – some of their grapes were planted by Brother Jean Oudart, who worked closely with Dom Pérignon, I’d say that’s a good thing!
But aside from all the nitty gritty, one thing I particularly enjoyed was a collection all the bottles side by side from smallest to largest. I never really thought about how many there would be or how hilarious the names are (my guess is the monks had the pleasure of naming them all!) Try and guess how many you think there are before you make it to the bottom…