Texto y fotos: Vicky Santana
A quiet and sunny day welcomes us to Hautvillers, a tiny village between Reims and Troyes in northeastern France, whose narrow, winding streets lead up to a small abbey. Crowning the hill, which offers a breathtaking view of the Marne Valley below with its sweeping vineyards, stands the Abbey Saint-Pierre of Hautvillers, considered the cradle of champagne, a drink many herald as the most glamorous and enigmatic of beverages.
In fact, this drink accompanies coronations, the signing of armistices and other international treaties, celebrations of sporting triumphs, the opening of contests, and the sealing of commitments. It is essential at formal celebrations hosted by royalty, celebrities, political figures, business executives, showbiz personalities, and high society. Its bubbly presence in a glass suggests refinement and dresses up whoever serves or sips it.
Although the Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon is recognized as the “spiritual father” of champagne, his friend and fellow monk Dom Thierry Ruinart, with whom he shared the first sparkling wines, envisioned what the magical drink, capable of seducing European nobility, was to become. They are not the only players in the history of champagne, but they transcended their destinies and their contributions were definitive in ensuring a long life for this sublime and bubbly liquor.
Two Monks, One Story
The year was 1668 and 29-year-old Dom Pierre Pérignon was appointed treasurer of the Abbey Saint-Pierre of Hautvillers. During the forty-seven years he led the cloister, this unique Benedictine monk managed to modernize the abbey and expand its vineyards as a way to ensure an income for the community. As he increased the cultivation area, he also began experimenting with new ways to improve the wine they produced.
The abbot, as stated in his manuscripts, was determined to produce the best wine in the world. To accomplish this, he employed the Champenoise method, which improved the taste of still wines by fermenting them a second time, infusing them with champagne’s characteristic effervescence. He is also credited with creating the assemblage, a process used by champagne producers in this region, which is much more than simply mixing different types of grapes or combining different of strains from a variety of years.
People had been making wine in the Champagne region since the Middle Ages, but French and English royal interest in the new sparkling drink provided important momentum. However, exporting champagne was difficult because the accumulation of carbon dioxide produced by the fermentation caused the bottles to explode. This second fermentation is only possible in glass bottles, and not the traditional wooden barrels that were used to produce still wines. So, French law prohibited the transportation of sparkling wine. Meanwhile, the abbot experimented with the controlled addition of yeast and sugar, as well as thicker bottles imported from England. The mushroom-shaped cork, held by a thin wire, also made transportation of champagne safer.
Later, when the ban was lifted thanks to new advances, Dom Thierry Ruinart predicted that sparkling wine would have a great commercial future. He came from a family of textile merchants and he convinced his brother Nicolas to go into the business. His nephew, also named Nicolas, left the textile trade to begin a new career as a wine producer and became the first person to sell champagne in the region. As the business and the sparkling drink’s fame grew, young Nicolas founded the first Maison de Champagne, or House of Champagne, in 1729, paving the way for the new champagne businesses which now number more than 300 in the region.
When the cellars where the bottles aged could hold no more, Claude Ruinart, the third generation of Ruinarts, discovered the perfect solution: the old limestone mines –the famous crayères– from which the materials used to build the houses, walls, and churches in the flourishing city of Reims had been extracted. The ancient limestone mines that have been converted into cellars are unique to Reims, although neighboring Epernay has about seventy miles of more modern cellars built in the nineteenth century.
The underground moisture in these cellars –which descend nearly sixty-five feet below the surface– as well as the darkness and cool temperatures that never exceed 10° C at any time of the year, are conducive to preserving and aging the precious sparkling wine. The cool temperatures are apparent when you tour the Ruinart mines, along with the musty smell and even the small mushrooms on the outside of some of the bottles, which of course never penetrate the glass.
First Comes the Grape…
After just a few minutes of walking the quiet streets that link the villages in the Champagne region, gazing out upon its flowery fields and vineyards, or chatting with the friendly locals so proud of their natural surroundings, you realize that you are in a privileged land. Nature has graced Champagne-Ardenne with a unique soil and subsoil and the exceptional climatic conditions that the vineyards need to produce over 85,000 acres of the best vines. The Chardonnay grapes —the best and most expensive in the world— and the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes are at the heart of the champagne that is produced only in this area.
Exposed to the harsh sun, winds, frosts, and lack of rain, the vines cling to the field and their long roots delve many feet underground, seeking moisture reserves found in the chalky or sandy soil. According to connoisseurs, it is this stress, in fact, that allows the grapes to ripen properly and maintain the proper acidity. Vineyard irrigation is prohibited throughout the Champagne region, and this aridity is what gives the grapes their character and personality. Interestingly, the most prestigious champagne houses do not produce the largest crops. On the contrary, they buy most of their grapes from small and medium producers in the region.
The 280,000 plots scattered through 317 villas —awarded the title of Cru or Grand Cru, depending on the quality of the grapes they produce— are controlled and protected by the Interprofessional Committee of the Wines of Champagne, which places strict controls on elements such as the maximum amount of grapes that may be used annually to produce champagnes, or when to start and finish the harvest in each Cru. The AOC Champagne (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, for its French acronym) is the country’s official body designated to protect both the product’s origin and final quality. It is no wonder that the French fiercely defend their champagne production; it is part of their national heritage and a symbol of their national pride.
The Houses of Champagne
Located ninety miles from Paris, the cities of Reims and Epernay —twenty miles apart— are the most important Maisons de Champagne, or Houses of Champagne.
Epernay, known as the capital of the Houses of Champagne, is home to ten of the largest production houses, featuring incredible classical and Renaissance architecture, located along the emblematic Champagne Avenue. Among the most outstanding is Moët & Chandon’s Maison Trianon, featuring salons, antique furniture, and spectacular fountains and gardens.
Despite being a luxury product with limited production and distribution and a business that favors quality over quantity, champagne consumption has managed to cross local borders and now selectively captivates palates in other latitudes.
Brands such as Dom Perignon, Moet & Chandon, Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, Nicolas Feuillatte, G.H. Mumm, Laurent-Perrier, Piper-Heidsieck, Taittinger, Pommery, Lanson, and Perrier-Jouët have established themselves as leaders in the field. In Latin America, the Brazilian, Colombian, and Mexican markets lead in terms of champagne consumption. Scrupulously tight-lipped about their sales figures, spokesmen from the Maisons never reveal figures, but confirm that France remains the largest consumer: of the 330 million bottles produced in the Champagne region, 180 million are consumed by the French.
Don’t Miss This!
The Houses of Champagne have organized fascinating tours for visitors and tourists with a particular interest in the world of champagne. Specialized guides will teach you the history of the House and its methods, take you on a tour of the vineyards and the cellars, and, of course, serve you one or more glasses of champagne at the end of the tour.
For those who have the time and wish to learn more about the region, the best plan is to follow the Champagne Tourist Route, covering a distance of about 150 miles. In Epernay, the terroirs of the Marne Valley, the Reims Mountains, the Côte des Blancs, and Coteaux Sud offer travelers a Technicolor experience: landscapes with endlessly blue skies and fields of every shade of green and yellow imaginable —vines here, sunflowers there. There are also rolling hills that protectively embrace the valleys and mountains of freshly harvested beets whose sugar is used to make wine and champagne. Not to mention the cuisine and, of course, the wines, both still and sparkling.
Days after touring vineyards and wineries and enjoying the delicate bubbles that burst in our mouths as we tasted Ruinart, Dom Perignon, and Veuve Clicquot champagnes, we return to the Abbey at Hautvillers. From the terrace, we once again delight in the breathtaking view of the vineyards on the slope as we face the intense afternoon sun. The Marne River divides the valley, passing through the vineyards and casting brilliant reflections. Later, a thick fog covers the vineyards and surrounding forests. We vow to return to this place of inspiration and creation.