Land of the bubbly

Intoxicating Journey

Cheers : In Reims, average still wine is transformed into a sparkling golden liquid. Known as Campania (land of plains), the champagne region is largely an agricultural region associated with the bubbly since the late 17th century when a Benedictine monk named Dom Perigon perfected the process of using a second fermentation to make average still wines sparkle.

According to French law, only that bubbly which is grown in designated areas, within specified times of the year, and then aged and bottled according to strictest standards, can be labelled as champagne. We embarked on our journey to explore  Reims by paying a visit to one of the leading champagne producers in the region, Taittinger. They conduct group visits to their premises at different times in three different languages — French, English and German. Taittinger store their champagne in cellars known as caves, 20 metres below the ground. These are chalk caves, originally linked to the nearby abbey and the cathedral. It was the priests of the abbey who first discovered the benefit of the caves in preserving wines at the right temperature (between eight to ten degrees centigrade) to enable the still wine to mature into a  wine with distinctive bubbles.

Wine for the champagne is bought from the company’s own vineyards and from other vineyards in the region. The wine is stored in big bottles, about three times the size of the typical champagne bottle. They need to be stored for a minimum of one-and-a-half years to turn into champagne. The more expensive champagnes are stored between two and five years. During this time, they are kept in racks at an angle so that the sediment moves towards the neck of the bottle. The bottles are turned every ten days for 10 minutes, then 20 minutes and so on, till the cycle is complete.

It is then repeated, anti-clockwise. The idea is to settle the ‘waste’ towards the neck of the bottle. The waste is the byproduct of yeast and sugar that exists in the wine interacting to produce carbon dioxide, which dissolves in the wine and escapes as characteristic bubbles when the bottle is uncorked.

The bottles are then passed through cold water, by dipping just the neck into the liquid, so that the waste solidifies. The next process is to eject the waste. This is done by using gas pressure that has built up in the bottle. The cap is opened just for a second, the plastic cup bursts out and the bottle is quickly capped after adding a fixed amount of sugar extracted from grapes and a little more champagne to replace lost liquid. In large companies, this process is done by machines. The bottle is capped with the cork and a metal wire put around it (the wire you open a champagne bottle with). The bottles are labelled and shipped to stores. Our tour culminated with the ritual of champagne tasting called ‘degustion’ and the offer to buy a few bottles at a reduced price.

The next morning, we left for Epernay in our quest for more details on the bubbly. The town of Epernay is de facto capital of champagne. A number of maisons (champagne houses) like Moet & Chandon are internationally renowned, but much of the region’s liquid gold is made by almost 6,000 small-scale vignerons (wine producers). We were to stop at Epernay for a few hours and catch the Train à Grande Vitesse (high-speed train) to Paris. Our luck was in. At the tourist office, a chance remark made us sit up. “There is a lady who takes tourists to her farm in the champagne area and explains how the wines are grown. Are you interested?” We definitely were.

Nathalie, our feisty guide, picked us from the tourist office in Epernay in her minibus.  She drove us through the surrounding hillsides, covered with rows and rows of vineyards. The area covers 15,000 acres belonging to some 6,000 families. Work starts in January and the grapes are harvested in November. The plants are trimmed in January and once the trimming is done, they are tied to metal wires strung across poles. The attempt here is to keep the vine in disciplined rows. All these stages are inspected by inspectors of the Appellation Controlec, which operates under the French Ministry of Agriculture.

It takes 100 days before grapes can be plucked. Each village has its specified plucking date and this process takes over 10 to 14 days to complete. The exercise is carried out by gypsies, who are preferred as farmers do not have to provide accommodation and food for them.

Once the grapes are plucked, they are taken to the press. The important thing is that each of the three varieties of grapes that grow in this region is pressed separately. The juice is collected in tanks and  sold to big companies like Taittinger, Moet & Chandon and other champagne houses. A small quantity is kept for the household, friends and some to sell to known customers.

Small bottlers like Nathalie’s Farm have no automatic machines to uncork, throw out the waste and recork the bottles. But, as she said, “We have Max.” Max turned out to be her husband, who showed us how to uncork and recork the bottle, a very delicate operation indeed. Nathalie then opened a few champagne bottles for us to taste and buy. She then drove us back to the station and said, “If you are lucky, you may still catch your train to Paris.” And we did! We bought a few bottles for ourselves. It awaits a suitable occasion to be opened and when it is opened, I will most certainly raise a toast to Nathalie and the mysteries of this drink called champagne.

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