It’s 5.30am and a group of intrepid London bartenders has gathered at the Eurostar terminal. Despite the fact we’re en route to one of France’s most famed wine regions, it’s a sluggish start, with plenty of pastries and coffee to help ease the harsh reality of dawn. By the time we dash across la Manche, sleep-tussled hair, coats wrapped around us like duvets, we have barely a few minutes in France’s northern city of Lille, where the only views to glimpse are station hotels and more train lines, before transferring to a coach bound for Epernay, one of Champagne’s largest towns.
That morning France’s fields are grey with mist, the motorways are stretched out, heaving with Europe’s lorries, and as of yet, there’s not a vineyard in sight. No matter which wine region you’re heading too, whether it’s the flinty soils of Jerez or the sun-baked shores of Provence, there’s always an understated joy when the first gnarled row of roots is spotted. Champagne kept hers hidden for some time.
But eventually we pull away from the trucks and farmland over a summit and plunge into a valley of autumnal vines, leaves turning rigid and crisp with gentle bursts of straw-yellow, crimson and gold scattered among the green. Land on these slopes is worth every spec of dirt and dust and even now, with the harvest over, the very soil commands a sort of reverence.
Climbing one of the peaks, on land owned by Moët & Chandon, we are faced with a panorama of Epernay’s slopes. All of the hills rising from the flat plain behind us are covered in vines, the verdant plants seeking out every possible spot the sun can lavish with its ripening rays. It’s a million miles away from the polished hotel rooms and extravagant nightclubs that Champagne’s wine is usually associated with, but this agricultural heartland is as elegant and stunning as the bubbles gushing into their flutes.
Our story today however is not on these slopes, where the grapes are grown and harvested, but beneath them. For lying below the houses of Champagne, in both Epernay and Reims, are a vast network of caves and twisting corridors, where all of the region’s wine slumbers as it undergoes its secondary fermentation.
Our first stop are the cellars of Moët & Chandon, where we descend down stone steeps, the cold rising up to greet us alongside a distinct scent of moisture, rock and age. This small corner of the intricate web of tunnels and cellars under Epernay was built specifically to house the wines, providing the perfect chilly environment. Over in Reims however, the caves have a much longer history, dating back to around 80 B.C. when the Romans dug into the ground to mine salt and chalk. Hundreds of years later, in the 1600s, Champagne’s local winemakers found these caves offered them a chilly temperature, humidity control, and protection from sunlight and vibrations, all needed for the perfect maturation of this delicate wine.
Back over in Epernay, the wine makers there copied the idea, and, with a few modern improvements such as the installation of sodium lights to ensure UV rays can’t impact the wines, the caves are still used to this day to house the bounty lying beneath the roads and buildings of the town.
It wasn’t always as organised and well presented as you will find on a guided tour however. In fact this used to be a dangerous place for workers, with exploding bottles, sending glass in every which way possible, an expected part of your daily grind. With thicker bottles and a more exact understanding of the fermentation process, plus more sensible storage arrangements, these are no longer nicknamed the devil’s bottles. Something the group can attest to after being treated to an incredible champagne-paired meal at Moët & Chandon’s own house in the centre of Epernay.
The next morning we make our way to Veuve Clicquot in Reims, one of just six houses with crayeres, or original Roman-era caves, that not only houses wine but with it a lifetime of history. It was here, during World War One, that Champagne’s cellars became a makeshift home to the city above it, as the population decamped and found sanctuary among the maturing bottles. To this day wall markings hint at a time with the caves were turned in hospitals and food canteens, as well as those original patterns from the tools of men who dug these caves out.
Madame Clicquot, of the Grande Dame of Champagne as she was often called, was not around to see her caves turned into a living, breathing town, but in her own era of the early 1800s she worked hard to change to way the wines were handled within them – a time when many did not appreciate a woman’s perspective on business. It was here, in this maze of old salt mines, that she invented the table de remuage or riddling table, to clarify champagne, and innovated the very first blend of rosé champagne.
Intrigued by the sheer volume of bottles down here, I ask if anyone knows the value of what is stashed below. There isn’t a straightforward answer to this, with wine moving in and out constantly but someone hazards a guess that there’s between 60 million to 100 million bottles of Veuve Clicquot in its caves. If you look simply at the non-vintage yellow label, which sells at £39.15 on The Whisky Exchange, the maths is there to figure out. Except of course not all the bottles are non-vintage down here, and inside one very special enclave we see the famous Baltic Sea wines, part of 168 bottles of champagne that were discovered in a shipwreck in 2010. The haul included Veuve Clicquot vintages dating back to 1839. Thanks to the pressure, darkness and temperature of the sea the wine was still drinkable. But before you ask, the price tag attached to such a bottle doesn’t exist. Veuve Clicquot are keeping the last few drops for themselves.
Inside the same enclave is an experiment the brand is working on, having buried 300 bottles and 50 magnums of its champagne in the Baltic Sea, at the same spot the shipwreck was discovered, to compare their taste to ones aging, as usual, in the caves below Reims. While it’s unlikely Champagne as a region is about to decamp to the ocean, the idea is an intriguing one.
Champagne’s hallowed cellars truly contain the hidden secrets of the world’s most famed wine, uncovering the centuries-old alchemy that goes into its production. Around each corner is yet another stash of bottles, some destined to be drunk in a few years, and others which will not see the light of day for 50 years to come. It is down here, in the chilly damp air, that the wines that have become so famous around our world transcend from any other fermented grape juice into something majestic. And that is more than worth any 5.30am start at St Pancras.
If you fancy delving into the depths of the champagne caves book a tour at one of these houses
Veuve Clicquot: https://www.veuveclicquot.com/en-gb/public-cellar-tour
Moët & Chandon: https://uk.moet.com//Visit-us/Visit-our-cellars
Or discover other houses here: http://www.reims-tourism.com/Discover/Champagne/The-Champagne-Houses