Here I am in my birthday month, looking forward to uncorking and enjoying a gifted bottle of champagne from a dear girlfriend. Champagne pairs so perfectly with birthdays; but then again, what doesn't champagne pair well with? I would say it pairs well with everything, and I know I am not alone in this feeling, as evidenced by the following quotes.
"Remember gentlemen, it's not just France we are fighting for, it's Champagne!"
- Winston Churchill
"Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right."
- Mark Twain
"I only drink Champagne on two occasions, when I am in love and when I am not."
- Coco Chanel
"I drink champagne when I win, to celebrate... and I drink champagne when I lose, to console myself."
- Napoleon Bonaparte
"There comes a time in every woman's life when the only thing that helps is a glass of champagne."
- Bette Davis
While in France over the Christmas holidays, planning to travel from Paris to Nancy (to pick up our son's books), it occurred to me that Reims would be a perfect stop, both to see that wondrous cathedral and to visit the Champagne region. Then I decided to go from Paris to the Loire Valley to visit the chateaus. Even though less direct, I could not quite let go of my desire to visit Champagne, so we did all three. My trip planning often goes something like that.
Champagne is not just any bubbly. It is made according to specific standards within France's Champagne regions. The popularity of French champagne requires one to have a strategy and make appointments weeks in advance. Reims, the capital of the Champagne region unveils many opportunities to visit its world-famous cellars, making the selection of which to visit, daunting. My goal was primarily two-fold. First and foremost, I wanted to see those UNESCO World Heritage Champagne Houses and Cellars. But I also wanted to learn more about the production and certainly enjoy some tastings.
After considerable research, I chose two champagne houses for our family to visit, the larger Taittinger headquarters, and the smaller family owned G.H. Martel for a more personal experience. Among the major houses, Taittinger is agreed by most insiders to be both the most insightful as well as the best organized tour for visitors. And just for your information, while fans of the James Bond movie franchise might associate the British spy with Bollinger, in the original Ian Fleming novels Bond drank Taittinger. In “Casino Royale,” the first in Fleming’s series, Bond describes Taittinger as “probably the finest Champagne in the world.”
The cellars in the Reims area are unique, set in old Gallo-Roman chalk quarries. The oldest cellars were dug by the Romans mining chalk and salt in the 1st century BC. Hundreds of years later, champagne producers converted the caves into champagne storage, primarily because they happen to have the perfect temperatures, which remain constant throughout the year. Taittinger and Mumm are considered to have the most impressive cellars; thus, Taittinger had clearly made my cut. Being literally just up the street from GH Martel, I had found my perfect duo.
Taittinger was delightful. The historic caves are extensive (8 miles for the Taittinger location alone, out of about 125 miles total in the Reims area), and the tour and presentation, excellent. A spiral staircase twists down to the cellars; an elevator is available if you need it.
There were a number of stops throughout the tour, where Taittinger's guide would fill us in on more of the process and standards. For example, the champagne is aged for years in the cellars and the bottles must be turned by hand regularly to cause the yeast to settle in a way that it can be readily removed at the end. The caves / cellars were simply remarkable.
And champagne everywhere, in every nook and cranny, in various stages of its production.
Some of the galleries were of dizzying heights, called crayères. The bottom right photo I took holding my camera above my head. The bottles of stacked champagne were well above my height. Taittinger stores 3 million bottles at this site and another 20 million at other sites. So many bottles. So many celebrations. An ocean of champagne.
The room above houses only the very best of the best. And then back upstairs to the tastings.
Taittinger is a highly atmospheric place to come for an excellent presentation, to soak up the authenticity of their outstanding UNESCO champagne cellars, and to enjoy some fine champagne.