For most of the world, champagne is simply a delight in a glass. Many never hold or pop a bottle. Fewer still walk the countryside and the caves that are the very foundation of those minute bubbles of pleasure. Circling above Reims and Epernay 145 km east of Paris, you’d think you’d seen much more spectacular country elsewhere in the world. True. It appears very modest for such an important swathe of real estate. It is very flat, except for some small mountains, well, hills, around the Valley of the Marne. Basically neat, soft and green. The treasure is buried below.
The whole area stands on chalk. Calcium carbonate. Limestone. Belimnita quadrata chalk. It is excellent for growing vines and it is excellent for digging cellars … two vital requirements for magnificent sparkling wine. Thousands of years ago the Remi tribes (yes, Reims) would have done some digging here, but it was the Romans who perfected the extraction of this stone. With a top entrance only a metre or so square they dug down 10, 20 metres expanding outwards as they went leaving huge caverns like square-shaped hollow pyramids. These chalk pits, called crayeres, now interconnected with more modern tunnels, are much prized by the Champagne houses.
In 1734, M. Jacques Fourneaux became one of the first merchants of champagne. In 1932 his company, the third oldest champagne house, was purchased by Pierre Taittinger. During the ’30’s Pierre also acquired many vineyards and the lovely Chateau de la Marquetterie which today has its own label wine made from surrounding vineyards. The Taittinger headquarters are on the edge of Reims on the site of the 13th century Abbey of Saint Nicaise which was destroyed during the Revolution.
Taittinger now keeps its best wine ageing for up to 10 years in what was the crypt and cellar. Today in the smooth, quiet and perfectly cool caves you can see staircases cut into the chalk that led up to the Abbey.
In town is the 13th century House of the Counts of Champagne, owned and magnificently restored by the family. It was the home of Thibaud IV who it is said brought the ancestor of the chardonnay vine back from Cyprus during the Crusades.
The most prestigeous Taittinger wine, the Comptes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs made from 100% chardonnay, is named in his honour. Apart from the priceless chalk caves, the other great asset of Taittinger is, among its holdings of 712 acres in the appellation’s best 34 villages, some of the finest chardonnay vines. This grape is the key to the house style of great elegance, lightness and finesse. Other marques may have greater ‘power’ but Taittinger always charms with a freshness, a delicacy and a gentle creaminess.
True, Champagne now looks like a gentle countryside, but some of man’s worst battles have raged across its surface, from Attila the Hun vs Romans, through the Hundred Years War with the English, the French Revolution and two World Wars. Through it all we must thank the monks for staying with their task amongst the bloodshed, first developing the still wines of the district and later when they were ‘drinking the stars’ in their wonderful creations, the sparklers. Champagne today is the preferred drink of civilised people for grand celebrations or for no special reason other than love and enjoyment of a great taste painstakingly developed. Taittinger stands proudly amongst others at the highest level of Champagne, and you can see more of their superb story here: http://www.taittinger.com