Forget the Champs Elysees… Welcome to the little town of Epernay, one hour east of Paris, at the heart of the Champagne region. Here there are 8,000 times more bottles of Champagne than the 25,000 inhabitants. The town even has a one-kilometer-long street called “Avenue de Champagne” dedicated to the wine estates. A very easy walk takes you to Moet & Chandon, Dom Perignon, Perrier-Jouet, Pol Roger, Collard-Picard, Gonet, Mercier and a few others. But what’s more exciting is below the surface, in the 110 kilometers of underground cellars. It is time to rediscover treasures buried long time ago…
More than 200 million bottles
Epernay town has nearly as many kilometers of caves under the ground as roads on the ground. Some caves go down to 40 meters deep. Most of them date back to the 18th century, though they were serving another purpose. Long before becoming the party drink providers for celebrations of the higher society (see our article here), champagne houses’ caves were used for another purpose: there were actually tunnels dug to shelter the population during wars – and there were quite a few in those times.
It was soon discovered that the chalky nature of the soil in this area offers perfect storage conditions for wine: Champagne needed no other place in order to blossom.
When you enter Champagne caves (usually through dark stairs), you may face concrete walls and pallet trucks (many are actually working environments) – but don’t be mistaken, it is nature at work here: stable cool temperature, high humidity levels and excellent solidity provide the ideal environment for the fermentation and bubble-making steps of champagne-making.
When you visit Champagne caves, you can sometimes even touch the moss with your fingers (see picture) or spot some mushrooms on the walls – if you’re trying to find your way up (I wouldn’t mind be left in those cellars for a bit, just enough to down a few bottles ;-). Tunnels are so long and wide – like a maze – that you could run a marathon, ride a vintage bicycle like at Besserat de Bellefon (see picture) , or why not a car – Mercier Champagne organized a car race in 1950 in their cellars!
As we were saying here that the past becomes fashionable again, we tried to excavate some ancestral mysteries and mighty vintages on our visit to Epernay. We learnt that only a handful of houses, including Besserat de Bellefon and Collard-Picard, operate a single fermentation (the first, carbonic one – thus discarding the malolactic fermentation), resulting in higher pressure, more intensity, natural sweetness and thinner bubbles (see picture).
For the record, the oldest Champagne bottle is kept in Perrier-Jouet’ secret cellars: it is an 1825 vintage. France’s most celebrated wine critic, Michel Bettane, found “flavours of mushrooms, woods and a bit of honey”. There are only two of those left, actually only one as I have my hand on the other one as we speak (I wish!).
Many of the underground cellars offer a blend of actual champagne ageing and storage facilities, and large-scale artworks that blend beautifully in the whole atmosphere. “Lost Time” by Glithero, at Perrier-Jouet, appears like soft pearl-made stalactites with their own reflections in a waterbed, coming alive when a drop of water falls along the strings down to the indoor pond (see picture).
Back to the surface, the family house of Collard-Picard hosts a beautiful art gallery featuring local artists just across the courtyard of the tasting showroom on the Avenue de Champagne.
After all, there are light bubbles at the end of the tunnel.
by Julien Yung Mameaux