What’s special about Maison Taittinger (other than the wonderful champagne) is its white chalk cellars. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, these caves date back to 4th century Gallo-Roman times and also contain vestiges of the 13th century Benedictine Abbey of Saint Nicaise that stood above them until it was obliterated in the bombings of WWI. The walls still bear markings of the many who took refuge underground during both World Wars. Today these caves serve as vaults that nurture millions of bottles of champagne, but the chalk carved out of the hillsides and mined was used to build the city unfathomable centuries ago.
Following a short film lauding the historic importance of MaisonTaittinger, we descended a stone spiral staircase down into the caves…as far down as 20 meters (65 feet) below the ground. It was cold down there–12 celsius (about 53 fahrenheit), though the dampness made it feel much cooler. A Taittinger tour guide related the history of the caves while telling us how their champagnes are born, from the 800 pickers who work during le vendange (the harvest)–which was, incidentally, in process–to the aging for different varieties, to the riddling (the turning of the bottles), to the disgorging of the sediment, to final bottling. We learned that champagnes must age a minimum of 18 months, but at Taittinger, they let their champagnes rest in the cellar for four, six or ten years, depending on the wine.
Back above ground, we tasted two of the house’s champagnes–the Brut and the Prelude–both of which were quite nice and represented different blendings of three principal grapes: the chardonnay, the pinot noir and the meunier. This was at about 10:30 or so in the morning, by the way, and while I had grabbed a quick cafe creme prior to climbing into the minivan back in Paris, I hadn’t yet eaten anything.
Luckily, we were on to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Reims next, and as Luiz regaled us with some background on this cathedral where many of the kings of France were coronated, he plied us with delicious croissants au beurre. We left a circle of croissant flakes in our wake as we headed inside this breathtaking cathedral that impressed me most with its height (one of the tallest cathedrals in the world) and its stained glass windows, including one by Marc Chagall. The cathedral’s construction began in the 9th century and was completed in 1211, but it suffered significant damage in WWI and restorations continue 100 years later.
Between Taittinger and the cathedral, the deluge of information had worked up an appetite in all of us and, just in time, Luiz whisked us back into the car and off to Ay, another city in the Champagne region. We ate lunch in the quaint garden at Rotisserie Henri IV, a preferred spot for winemakers in the region, and what a lunch it was! Sitting on the outside terrace under the sun and presided over by a stone Bacchus, we sipped a delicious and shockingly inexpensive red wine that I paired with escargots tucked into potatoes and topped with a savory brown sauce and an escalope of foie gras with fresh raspberries on toast. One of the better meals I’ve had in France–and definitely one of the least impactful on the credit card (outside Paris).
Then, a brief walk through the charming little town of Ay and on to our next winemaker: Lallier Champagne. I wasn’t familiar with Lallier, a smaller producer that caters more to restaurants and professional sommeliers than to end-consumers like me. (That said, I did find Lallier champagnes on Total Wine’s website.) Lallier is apparently highly regarded by these professionals and provides champagne to every Michelin-starred restaurant in France, as well as other Michelin restaurants around the world, including New York, San Francisco, Madrid, Tokyo, et al.
In contrast to our cellar tour at Taittinger, where our small group got lumped together with another large one, this tour was very personal–just the eight of us and the young woman giving the tour of the Lallier caves. We’d learned about the champagne-making process during our Taittinger tour and it was repeated here, but it was easier to absorb in this smaller group. I’m not going to lay out the entire process here, but I was especially fascinated to learn about how over the years, a sediment accumulates–which is why the bottles must be turned a notch every few days (riddling)–a sediment that must be disgorged through freezing the neck of the bottle so that it will come out in one frozen little block. Then the displaced wine must be replaced, and sugar is added in the amount appropriate to the wine being produced, i.e., brut, semi-sec.
The tour was naturally followed up by a tasting and this time we tried four champagnes, including a Brut Natura (no sugar added), a Blanc de Blancs (chardonnay grape only) and a Grand Cru, the Ouvrage. A note on Grand Cru and Premier Cru, in case you’re clueless what these designations mean, as I was. These classifications are bestowed to certain vineyards or villages based upon the quality of the grapes grown there–essentially a recognition of a certain terroir. In Champagne, there are 43 villages designated Premier Cru, while only 17 are Grand Cru (the best), including Ay. Champagnes made from grapes in these villages are therefore Grand Cru champagnes. Only about 8.5% of all champagne is Grand Cru…pretty darned special!
As if I hadn’t already taken enough pictures all day long, our next stop was the photo opp of the day–a stunning spot overlooking the vineyards of Hautvillers. Acres of vines stretched out before us and, in the distance, we could see a sprinkling of workers still out picking grapes in the waning afternoon. Add to this picture-perfect setting another bottle of champagne that Luiz sprung upon us, as well as some rose biscuits typical of the region and some cheese and olives kindly provided by the Los Angeles couple. That brought our tally up to seven glasses of champagne for the day–56 between the eight of us!
The day had gone by in a flash and now it was time to return to Paris. As we whizzed by the vineyards toward the highway, the seasonal workers were ending their days, too. Besides their campers and mobile homes, they were making fires to cook their meals and the children were playing and shirtless men leaned into barrels of water to wash the soil and sweat from their arms and necks. It was a crucial reminder that the tastes of luxury I’d enjoyed all that day were, in large part, thanks to these hard-working men and women who do the back-breaking work to eke out a meager existence. I really hope they sometimes get to drink the champagne to which they make such a basic and vital contribution.