In the depths of Saint-Nicaise, in the French town of Reims, sleeping beauties lie.
A bunker-like steel door opens to deep, stone steps that reveal a mouse-like maze of tunnels, stretching 17kms underground, carved from chalk by the Romans.
This Cathedral-silent nave holds not a congregation but hundreds of thousands of bottles. They’re in ‘crayeres’ or cellars, and it’s here that Charles Heidsieck, Ruinart, Pommery, Veuve Cliquot, Taittinger and Martel store their fermenting and maturing bottles of wine.
The big Champagne houses whose names are synonymous with bubbles. The label’s Brand Ambassador, Catherine Curie gives us a tour of this magical space.
The low-sodium lighting, and a beam torch manage to pick out hollowed out spaces where candles once burned brightly. The distinct lack of light protects the champagne, which in this particular Maison, owned by Charles Heidsieck, is left to age longer than any other.
The law requires this category to age for just 15 months and, as a result, this is one of the favourites often drunk by the champagne makers from all houses. The non-vintage bottles age for thirty-six months and time creates a beautiful thing. Just one cage has almost fifty-four thousand bottles laid on their side, fermenting.
The wines get mixed with yeast and sugar and the bottle crowned by a metal cap. Over a period of up to two months, the yeast consumes the sugar to release alcohol and carbon dioxide. Residual yeast lies within the bottle that helps the final flavour. Once aged, a Riddler will hand-turn the bottles about a quarter of an inch a day to encourage the yeast to work its way to the cap of the bottle.
When it’s ready, the bottlenecks are frozen, uncapped and the iced yeast disgorged. The champagne is topped up and more sugar added. Corked and left to age, they’re not labelled until the Master decides it’s ready.
Another corner turn and another gated room, this time with the vintage wines and beyond that the really old stuff.
Above ground, I find out more about the man who began this house. Charles-Camille Heidsieck founded the brand in 1867 and is the original Champagne Charlie. He was given the title when he brought his champagne to America. To cut a very long story short, this entrepreneur sold more champagne there then the company does now but after quite a bit of partying, a civil war and a sinking ship of cargo, he was left penniless. His luck didn’t get any better after he was charged with espionage in Mississippi and released by Napoleon III. After a hefty loan, he focused his business on Europe, with a clutch of Royal Warrants given by the English kings. When Charles died in 1893, he was succeeded by his son Charles-Marcel who didn’t have an easy time of it either. Reims was razed to the ground in the First World War although the chalk cellars came in very handy and became a refuge, a place to learn as well as a space to hide for refugees.
Today, it buys Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier grapes from growers who pick the grapes between August and October. As soon as the harvest is over, specially trained pruners tend to the vines. The grapes get gathered, pressed and the liquid fed into thin-skinned steel vats to begin the first stage of fermentation.
It’s not a name I was familiar with, but after a fair bit of tasting and comparison with other wines their Brut Reserve has got to be the best value non-vintage offering. Heidsieck has built up thousands of litres of reserve wines over the years which when blended gives the wine a rich complex. A bottle is less than £50, and when you compare it to another Grande Cuvee, you’ll be paying almost triple. While it’s unfamiliar to me, the trade knows a good thing when it tastes it, and this champagne is the choice of winemakers all over the region. It won’t be long before this champagne’s real worth is realised and the price inflates.
Sixty percent of wines from the year get blended with 40% of reserve wines – the job of the current Chef de Caves, Cyril Brun. The wines from the year are made up of equal parts of Chardonnay, for its freshness and elegance, Pinot Noir gives it the structure and Pinot Meunier for the fruitiness. The skill comes when the winemaker has to blend the reserve wines with the year wines, ensuring the balance and quality are as excellent.
The range includes Brut Réserve (more three years maturation), Rosé Réserve, Brut Millésime 2000, Rose Millésime 1999 and my particular favourite their Blanc des Millénaires 1995 (100% Chardonnay grapes) and a Premier Cuvee, taking its name from the chalk cellars.
If you want to visit the cellars of the other big name houses, Reims is just a 45-minute train journey away from Paris. All the larger Maisons are accessible on foot but if you want to visit the vineyards, it’s a taxi or hire car ride away.
I’d thoroughly recommend it because it’s here you find out more about Cru. I discover that out that of the 319 grape-growing villages in Champagne 17 are rated as growing the perfect grapes and are known as the Grand Cru. On the next level, 42 villages are graded between 90-99% and are classified as Premier Cru and the lower level grapes are graded between 80-89%. You need the minimum of 3 hectares of vines before you can begin to consider making your own label champagne or joining a co-operative.
Timed visits mean it’s essential you book your visit in advance. You’ll get an opportunity to go behind-the-scenes of the well-known champagne names, famous the world over. It’s an opportunity to find out everything there is to know about champagne from the grape to the bottle. For maximum impact serve your champagne, not in flutes but larger glasses for a better serve and get your magnums out of the fridge. Now.