Far below the astonishing beauty of the Champagne countryside lies an underground maze of equal beauty and history.
There are hundreds of kilometers of the cellars running through champagne, which were originally built 30m below ground to keep the champagne at a constant temperature while it was fermenting. Ironically, the cold winter temperatures in the region stopped the fermentation process. The warmer spring temperatures caused the dormant yeast cells to start fermenting, and the carbon dioxide gas that was released as a by-product of fermentation caused the intense pressure that created the bubbles which set champagne apart from other wines. Unfortunately in the early days, the bottles were not strong enough to withstand the pressure and many of them exploded underground. Only those that survived managed to be enjoyed in a glass.
There is a magical feeling when you descend into the depths of the Champagne underground. The cellars were dug into chalky limestone hills, and seem to have a constant temperature of 12° C. It is quite damp and the walls are lined with mould. This mould came in handy during the World War II, when soldiers hiding out in the vast maze noticed that their wounds would heal if in contact with the mould. It was discovered that the mould was actually penicillin, and many soldiers survived horrible infections by scraping the mould from the cellar walls and applying it to their wounds.
Lining the corridors are racks, or ‘pupitres’ housing bottles of champagne at varying angles. The bottles are initially placed horizontally in the holes of the pupitre, and are ‘riddled’, or turned everyday. A ‘riddler’, will turn each bottle a quarter of a turn and slightly angle the base of the bottle up each day. After about 8 – 10 weeks, all the sediment should have deposited in the neck of the bottle. This sediment is then disgorged. Originally, it was a very specialised technique when done by hand. Disgorgers needed to work very quickly to remove the metal cap, allow the sediment to escape and get a cork in without wasting too much of the precious drink inside. These days, although riddling is still done by hand, disgorgement is mechanised, with the tip of the bottle frozen to help release just the sediment, and machines corking the bottles along an intricate production line.
One of the loveliest cellar visiting experiences you can have is at the Mercier Cellars in Epernay. They have organised tours in many different languages. The tour starts off with an educative video describing the history of Mercier, after which you are bustled into a lift with a panoramic view as you descend below ground. It is here where the real fun begins as you are ushered into little laser guided trains to make the 18km trip around the cellars. Sure beats walking, and puts you in the mood for the flute of Mercier Brut waiting for you when you arrive back at ground level.
The small producers are also usually very willing to take you for a tour of their cellars, and each is it’s own unique experience. If you are lucky enough to go on a guided tour of Jacques Selosse with Anselme Selosse himself, you are sure to have an experience you will never forget. My experience is worthy of its own post – I will write about it soon.
If I haven’t convinced you to visit the Champagne region and the cellars yet, at least I hope you feel like drinking some bubbles after reading this post!