|The highlight of the tour.|
|Where better to begin?|
|The River Marne - flows through the Champagne region|
And where better to begin this indulgent few days than the Reims establishment of the House of Veuve Cliquot -- which we learnt means "Widow Cliquot". We also learnt that this redoubtable widow - her husband died when she was 27, leaving her with one daughter and a wine-making business - is credited with several of the more important innovations which have brought us the champagne we know and love today.
|Descending into the Veuve Cliquot caves|
One of the curious aspects of the Champagne region is the chalky soil, which we're told gives the delicious wine its unique flavour (along with other aspects of the terroire, or land). And this chalk is quite easy to dig - the first Romans in Gaul, as France was known in ancient times, dug quarries in this area for building materials. Those old quarries are today the underground caves of Champagne. They have been used as shelters, storage places, hiding places during the world wars - both WWI and WWII raged through this countryside (what a hideous image) -- but these days they provide optimum storage conditions for wine.
|Optimum storage conditions.|
The House of Veuve Cliquot was established in 1772. And Madam Cliquot? She took over in 1805 - more or less in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars. First of all, it was pretty feisty of her to decide to run the business with which she was left, but hey - she was raised by a strong father, a mayor of the district, M. Ponsardin, and took on the challenge of learning the business and then growing it. Today, Veuve Cliquot (sometimes labelled 'Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin') is a major export label, possibly better known, or more widely drunk, abroad than in France.
The Widow Cliquot was an early exporter, sending ships past the Napoleonic blockades and into Russia for the Tsar's dining table. In an extraordinary historical footnote, a shipwrecked cargo of champagne dating from the 1840s was recently fished out of the sea near Finland - some that didn't make it to the Tsar. Some of the bottles were Veuve - and they claim it's drinkable.
|méthode Champenoise: second fermentation in the bottle.|
These are the bottles in which your champagne
will eventually be served to you.
|Upended champagne bottles, allowing the yeast lees |
to settle in the neck of the bottles.
The first fermentation then takes place in stainless steel vats (in the past, and still sometimes today, in wooden casks). Then you have flat white wines, made from three different grape varieties: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier (a frost resistant variety). The champagne blender takes over, and when the correct blend has been concocted, the wines are mixed and bottled. To each bottle is added yeast and sugar, in regulated amounts, for the second in-bottle fermentation. The bottles are capped with metal caps (like beer bottles) and then laid in the caves to mature for a regulation period of time - the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) has strict rules. Champagne must age for at least 1.5 years, though most houses age it a lot longer. Vintages are aged for at least 3 years, and even longer periods.
During the resting time in the caves, the yeast then 'eats' the sugar in the bottle, causing - voila! - the delectable champagne bubbles. But how to get the yeast dregs out of the champagne? Back in Madame Cliquot's day, they basically didn't, resulting in cloudy wine. They also used a great deal more sugar - champagne in the 19th century was really a dessert drink. As a result of this yeasty concoction they lost up to 50% of their bottles in explosions (the very occasional bottle explodes today down in the caves).
Madame Cliquot is credited with inventing the tilted rack with angled holes in which the necks of the bottles are placed to allow the lees of the yeast to settle in the neck. The bottles are racked like this for a couple of weeks, and are turned a fraction every day to allow for even settling of the lees: the turning is called remuage, and in times past there were traditional workers for whom this was their specialised job. These days some bottles are still hand-turned in the big houses (and in the small ones), but there are also mechanical devices to do the task more easily and quickly.
|The yeast and sugar lees in the bottle.|
The next step is called 'le dosage' - a dab more sugar syrup is added to flavour the champagne. Some boutique winemakers claim a secret recipe for their dosage - perhaps some old champagne wine, perhaps some herbs, who knows? Le dosage adds a little more character and sweetness to the wine. Of course, this needs to be done quickly, and the bottle immediately corked to preserve the carbon-dioxide bubbles that have been painstakingly maturing over the past 3+ years.
|Waiting quietly for remuage, disgorement and le dosage.|
|The finished product.|
|Pouring the three-year matured bubbles.|
|Madame Cliquot, immortalised on her bottle caps.|
|"Tastes like wedding".|