Our tour guide smiles and asks us to follow her yet deeper into the Veuve Clicquot cellars of Reims in north-eastern France.
Once the subterranean chamber empties of my fellow guests I press my camera’s shutter release to photograph a scene featuring hundreds of Champagne bottles balancing by their necks from wooden racks. The low lighting means the tripod-mounted exposure requires 30 seconds.
I’m optimistic that I’ll capture a telling, atmospheric shot that depicts the environment where every bottle of Veuve Clicquot Champagne spends its formative years. The famous Yellow Label non-vintage bottles spend three years down in these cellars while vintage blends mature for at least seven.
Thirsty for Champagne-related information
A pang of concern flashes across my mind. Hopefully the rest of the group won’t get too far ahead. Then it strikes me; the guide mentioned there are 100 million bottles of Champagne in these cellars. Even if I do get lost and find myself forced to ‘live from the land’ until a rescue party finds me certainly I won’t go thirsty.
These cellars run for 24 kilometres below the famous chalky terroir of the Champagne region.
Over the centuries the cellars have been utilised for storing food and, more sinisterly, hiding smuggled goods. On 4 July 2015 the Champagne Slopes, Houses and Cellars were listed among UNESCO’s ‘living cultural landscapes in process of evolution. You won’t get a prize for guessing what locals toasted with that night.
Blended from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier
The region’s vineyards, up above, are renowned for producing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier grapes. Veuve Clicquot’s most popular blend features 55 per cent, 35 per cent and 10 per cent respectively of those varietals.
Champagne, of course, has a reputation for being a luxury product. If you estimate the average retail price of each bottle within these cellars at €45 — and many could be sold for significantly more — that means I’m surrounded by a cool €4.5 billion of merchandise.
After the exposure completes and the photo flashes up on the camera’s display I grab my tripod and hurry along the semi-dark corridor to the next chimney-like vault. Looking up, I notice the ceiling tapers ever narrower.
The vision of a woman
Veuve Clicquot is one of the most widely recognised Champagne brands and, in part, that is a legacy of the vision and efforts of Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin.
“She was the first business woman in France with global ambition,” says our guide.
The woman who became known as Madame Cliquot-Ponsardin married into the Champagne-producing family more than 200 years ago but became a window at the age of 27, when her husband François died in 1805. Though Napoleonic France was at war, and Russia was in the coalition of enemy nations, she sold her wine to clients in St Petersburg.
In 1816 she invented the riddling method for gradually shaking down the sediment, formed by yeast during the maturation process. The process involves hard turning each bottle daily over eight weeks. Machines cannot be used. Skilled riddlers can, remarkably, turn between 45,000 and 55,000 bottles a day.
When the sediment is within the neck of the bottle it will be dipped in a bath cooled to -28°C. The chunk of ice that forms contains the residue, meaning the Champagne we drink today is clear.
Dry, sweet and extra sugar
“In 1792 Champagne used to be a cloudy drink containing around 150 grams of sugar per litre. People then would have spooned extra sugar into their glass,” explains our guide.
These days a brut (dry) bottle of Veuve Clicquot contains just nine grams of sugar per litre. With 45 grams, a demi-sec (sweet) bottle contains less than a third of the amount of one of the bottles that people would have drunk at the years after the French Revolution.
She shows us towards an illuminated staircase bearing key years from the history of Veuve Clicquot.
“Follow the staircase and you’ll find a glass of our Champagne waiting for you in our tasting room,” he says, eliciting grins and a cheer. After seeing where Veuve Clicquot is produced we’re thirsty to taste the product.
Getting to Reims
I travelled to Reims by train as a guest of Voyages-SNCF. The rail journey by Eurostar between London St Pancras and Paris Gare du Nord took just over 2.5 hours. The onward journey, from Paris Gare de l’Est to Reims, took 48 minutes.
Staying in Reims
I stayed at the Holiday Inn Reims – City Centre (46 Rue Buirette, 51100 Reims; tel. +33 (0)3 2678 9999) a four-star hotel within a 10-minute walk of both the railways station and Reims Cathedral, the medieval place of worship used for the coronation of 25 French kings.
If you want to stock up on Champagne don’t miss popping into Cave des Sacres (7 Place du Cardinal Luçon, 51100 Reims). The champagne store stocks bottles from dozens of the region’s Champagne Houses. When I stopped by the member of staff on duty proved very helpful, and was able to suggest Champagnes in a variety of styles.