John’s Journeys: Bubbly and Battlefields
John Burke visits Champagne province
That heady drink, Champagne, is synonymous with Gallic stylishness, something that can be appreciated by visiting cellars in either Rheims or Epernay, even during the colder months. The vineyards around them are worth seeing later, and young people with time to spare in the autumn could even be part of this sparkling industry. Some tourists in any season might also want to see surrounding cemeteries and monuments from the First World War.
The making of still wine in north-eastern France began with the Romans, and continued in monasteries, but the fizz we know today stems largely from judicious blending and bottling. It is related that Count Theobald IV brought back a vital shoot from the Holy Land in 1240, and, four centuries later, a Benedictine called Dom Pérignon improved quality with different grapes and immediate pressing.
Yet there was unexpected effervescence, and as many as four bottles out of ten were still bursting or popping their corks after the industry began to boom in 1820. Eventually, finer fermenting, coal-fired glass and wire muzzles allowed the sparkling wine we know to be promoted worldwide. The latest annual figures show that 307 million bottles of Champagne were shipped out, split almost equally between France and 191 foreign countries.
That includes almost 28 million bottles to Britain, and not much fewer to America, by far the two biggest importers of Champagne. The yearly turnover of this select product has reached a record of almost five billion euros whereas Bordeaux gets only the same turnover from four times the growing area.
The province’s viticulture has expanded so far to 33,868 hectares around 321 villages, of which 17 are called grand and 44 premier. The district is so fragmented that even a major house has separated vineyards. The grape-growing is done in plots with an average size of two hectares by 15,800 wine-growers and 136 co-operatives. And an international army of 100,000 casual labourers descends on the triangle formed by Rheims, Bar and Charly-sur-Marne to gather the grapes in September.
More than a hundred requirements and regulations are involved in Champagne, from pruning the vines to pressing the grapes and from corking the bottles to ageing the must, not to mention serving correctly. The industry remains at the mercy of nature – a bug destroyed the whole crop in 1890 ; one-tenth was ruined by hail in 2000; and three years later, frost killed half the grapes.
It all starts with the mauve Pinot, blue Meunier and white Chardonnay varieties growing at the limit of favourable latitude on sloping ground, and the only simple thing is a single generic name accorded by law in 1891 and 1927 to the namesake region: Champagne AOC. These initials stand for appelation d’origine contrôllée meaning protected designation of origin.
The famous name is jealously guarded by the trade association, Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne. Its spokesman, Philippe Wibrotte (who was at Brighton University) told me, “We retain lawyers in 70 countries to combat infringement and counterfeiting”. Argentina, Brazil, Ukraine and Russia seem to be major culprits, and the last country spells the illegal name in Cyrillic characters: ШАМПАНСКОЕ.
Unlike elsewhere in France with a myriad of châteaux and appelations, every bulbous bottle from Rheims or Epernay highlights the word CHAMPAGNE rather than the bottlers. These include 5,000 of the growers and 46 of the co-operatives, but two-thirds of all sales and 90% of exports come from 30 big names among 100 in the Union of Champagne Houses. Yet only one-tenth of the growing area is their own.
Largest of all is Moët & Chandon (Dom Pérignon) at Epernay, while nine houses in Rheims also do guided visits that are best booked in advance due to varying opening times. The oldest is Ruinart (1729), but Cazenove and Mumm are nearest to Rheims station, while the most popular cellars, under what was once an abbey, have belonged since 1932 to Taittinger, half of whose production comes from its own vineyards.
It takes two men one week to stack 72,212 bottles in one vault, some of the 1,393 million in the district that work out at four years’ reserve. That refers to a 75 cl bottle, because the other thirteen sizes have other specific names, starting with quart and demie, while a Nebuchadnezzar contains15 litres and a Melchizedek double that. The length of Epernay’s cellars is 110 kilometers, and there are 200 kilometers of tunnelling under Rheims where the Romans once quarried chalk.
Cellars were requisitioned as shelters, including a military hospital, during the First World War. As the only city on the front line, Rheims saw not only the destruction of four out of every five buildings, but enormous damage to the cathedral once used for 33 French coronations – that of 1429 being in the presence of Joan of Arc. After even a century of restoration, some statuary is still incomplete. In the nearby place de la République stands a war memorial which is but one among 60 monuments and cemeteries scattered across Champagne province.
Most are French, but the British military cemetery is at Hermonville, only 13 kilometers north-west of Rheims. Elsewhere are the war-graves of Americans, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders and South Africans, the last of whom have a massive memorial at Longueval, 35 kilometers away.
TGV express trains from Paris reach Rheims within 45 minutes, and a short walk from the station is Best Western, incorporating the city’s famous Café de la Paix. Clustered around are various hotels with rates less than half its 139 euros per night.