“So, how much do you all know about champagne”, we were asked. A few moments of awkward silence followed. Me: “I know that I like to drink it!”
That seemed to break the ice. I was sitting in a beautiful stately lounge with six other Canadians and Americans, waiting to get our first tour of a “Maison de Champagne”, a real live Champagne production house. We had taken a 45 minutes train ride from Paris to Reims, a lovely town in the Champagne region rich with history, home of more than a dozen Champagne houses, including the biggies like Mumms and Veuve Cliquot. We had chosen to visit Ruinart, the oldest Champagne producer, having started production in 1729!
Our charming young tour guide, after discovering that we were all champagne newbies, set about educating us with some basic knowledge about champagne, how it is made and stored. The storage is the truly incredible part: after production, the champagne bottles are placed in chalk cellars deep underground, which have the perfect combination of humidity (about 90%) and temperature (about 10C). The aging of the champagne takes between 3-10 years and the bottles are turned every day so that the sediment can accumulate near the top of the bottle. When the champagne is ready, the neck of the bottle is flash frozen and the sediment is removed – the bottle is opened, and the pressure of the carbonation pushes out the sediment-laden chunk of ice. The bottle is then re-corked and is ready to sell – what a cool process!
After our brief chat, our guide took us on a tour of their beautiful cellars. We descended about 40 meters down a deep chalk stairwell and then walked through passageways leading into endless high chalk-walled rooms filled with hundreds of bottles of bubbly (the cellars are 8 km long!) These cellars are so unique and stunning, they have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. Interestingly, the cellars at Ruinart also served as a hiding place for the townspeople of Reims during bombing in World War I – if only those walls could talk!
After our tour of the cellars, we went back to the lounge, where had had our choice of two of four champagnes that were offered: two whites, and two roses. Two of the bottles were the higher end “Don Ruinart” brand and two were their house brand. I chose a white and a rose, and my partner chose the other two, so we could both have a sip of each of them. They were all delicious! I had never tried rose champagne before – they both had pronounced berry flavours and were fairly dry.
Our favourite was the more inexpensive white of the two, a Blanc de Blancs. It is called a Blanc de Blancs because it is only made of Chardonnay grapes, unlike most champagnes, which are made of a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. The flavour of this champagne was incredible – fresh, crisp and citrusy. Of course, we had to buy a bottle and bring it home!