The first time I traveled to France, I made it a point to visit the region of Champagne. The drink to which it gives its name is considered the “King of wines” and the “wine of Kings”, and it is a special one for celebrations and the epitome of refinement worldwide. It seemed like a natural destination to start exploring France outside of Paris. During the next few months I’ll intersperse blog posts about my personal discovery of this most gourmand region of France, both because of its wine and its delicate cuisine. Welcome to “The Champagne Diaries”.
The story of champagne as a drink begins in the late 17th century, when a Benedictine monk by the name of Dom Pérignon, who was in charge of the cellars at the Abbey of Hautevillers, managed to produce a wine with bubbles after a second fermentation of the grape juice in the bottle.
The must thing to do while in Champagne is to visit at least one of its famous houses, or even a small producer. What made me choose Ruinart is the fact that it is the oldest of the most famous champagne houses, dating back to 1729. Its founder, Thierry Ruinart, was a contemporary of Dom Pérignon and even exchanged ideas with him on how to best produce the sparkling wine of the region. Nowadays the house belongs to the big conglomerate LVMH, but the original family still visits on occasion.
Statue of Dom Thierry Ruinart on the grounds of Ruinart’s Champagne house
Ruinart is centrally located on the outskirts of Reims but it took me a few turns until I ended up on the correct street (streets in a medieval city are generally not straight and unexpected turns appear out of nowhere). In any case, I arrived just before 10:00AM, and our guide Marie, a lovely young woman born and raised in Reims, met us just outside the main atrium of the property – by the statue of Dom Ruinart.
The tour lasted 2 hours. We were 6 people, 2 couples from Umbria, a man from Australia and myself. After the introductory greetings, we were directed inside one of the main buildings, where we were explained the itinerary of the visit. Mainly, during the first hour one tours the underground caves and cellars, and the second hour is dedicated to the tasting.
The cellars are located in caves, 40 meters underground.
Starting the tour with our lovely Marie
Although it was quite a chilly day, I was surprised to notice that the caves were quite mild temperature-wise, albeit very humid. Marie explained this is due to the chalky limestone terroir, which makes it quite permeable. It is the reason vines do not rot in the otherwise very cold weather of this region. The ground is in fact so chalky, that it easily scratches away with a finger nail. This permeability gives champagne its dry, yet lively body.
Man-made, carved stairs inside a cave
Through the centuries, people have carved everything in these caves, from stairs to shafts, to even altars, and during WWI, when Reims was under serious siege; people lived in these caves for months on end. Although they did offer a relative refuge from the cold, I shuddered to think the horrible diseases that living long-term under such humidity would have caused.
One of the shafts, used in the olden days to access the caves
It never hurt to pray to St. Vincent for a good vintage...
Champagne is an expensive wine because the process of making it is long and tedious. From the extraction of the grape juice, to the first fermentation, maturation, then a second fermentation, then weeks of “remuage” (the removal of the sediment), to the bottling, it might be up to 10 years until a vintage hits the stores. It becomes very labor intensive, since the remuage must be done by hand over a period of several weeks.
Aisles and aisles of bottles during first and second fermentations
A wall of bottles undergoing fermentation. Another 2 walls exactly like this one are just behind
Bottles undergoing remuage show the collected sediment on their caps. This will later be expelled under pressure
Special crates for famous customers
A wall of Ruinart’s Blanc de Blancs. The cage prevents glass from blowing all over the place in case of a bottle explosion
After an hour of walking the caves, we went back to the room where we were initially instructed on the itinerary of our visit. It was time for the tasting. We tasted a brut and a millesimé. I chose the Blanc de Blancs, made with 100% chardonnay grapes, for the brut.
It was quite fresh yet dry, and would have paired wonderfully with seafood, especially oysters, just like Marie suggested. The colour was a light amber, transparent as a mirror, yet the bubbles were almost inexistent.
For the millesimé I chose the Rosé. It was 2004 vintage, and let me tell you, one has not tasted champagne until one has tasted a millesimé.
The refinement in this champagne could be tasted from the first sip. The bubbles felt as if they were dancing on my tongue, and even after I’d swallowed, its effect endured. A lovely orange-salmon in colour, this wine can transport its drinker places. Marie recommended it to be paired exclusively with a carré d’agneau.
Of course the right glass makes all the difference when tasting champagne. We were advised to ALWAYS use tulip-shaped crystal glasses, which help both develop the bouquet and encourage the bubbles to circulate in spiral motion throughout the tasting experience. The long, straight flute was strongly discouraged, as it does not allow the champagne enough room to “breathe”. The “coupe”, so traditional during the 1920’s and 30’s, was recommended only for demi-sec or doux champagnes, which would be paired with desserts.
Ruinart’s tour is currently one of the most expensive ones - 80€ per person, but it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. One observation I would make is that it would have been nice to have some amuse-bouches during the tasting, for it was early in the morning, and on an empty stomach, all that lovely wine does go to one’s head. It was all for the better I’m sure. After I left, I felt just like Dom Pérignon himself, “seeing the stars”.