Remember when I went to work in France for a bit last year? Well, turns out my co-worker’s daughter was doing an internship at Taittinger at the time, and due to this fortuitous turn of events we found ourselves making the hour-long trip up the autoroute to Reims one sunny Wednesday afternoon.
We had been booked a place on the last cellar tour of the day, led by none other than my colleague’s daughter herself. For free!
Don’t mind if I do.
Let’s back up a minute – founded in 1734, Taittinger is one of the last Champagne houses to still be run by the original family; a direct descendant of the founder Pierre Taittinger heads the business and other family members hold various positions within the firm. This all means it retains a small, friendly and somewhat quirky vibe. None of the rampant commercialism of the bigger brands is found here – this is a much more intimate affair.
After checking in at the front desk we were shown into a mini theatre to watch a short film about the family, the champagne, the legend. It was very slick, with no expense spared in production. After the film had finished, our tour guide took over.
She led us down some beautiful spiral steps – down, down, down. It was a pretty long way (18 metres to be precise). The temperature dropped noticeably, and we pulled our coats a little tighter.
These cellars were originally Roman chalk mines, dug in the 4th century and formed in pyramid-shapes to prevent roof collapses. This is a bit of a bizarre picture but it shows the actual chisel marks made by the Roman miners. They drew lines on the walls to mark daily quotas – you can see these on the picture, too.
These mines were later enlarged and connected together to form tunnels by the monks of Riems, in this case the monks of the Saint Nicaise Abbey. They used these cellars for champagne production from the 13th century onwards, and although the abbey was pulled down during the French Revolution the cellars remained in use.
These tunnels actually spread under most of Riems, and various champagne houses occupy different parts. They’ve had to block off some of the tunnels to prevent sabotage between champagne houses!
Some elements of the original abbey remain, such as the ironwork from this magnificent door – once part of the abbey, the woodwork has been restored and it now sits in splendour in the cellars.
There are also numerous carvings throughout, the soft chalk proving the perfect material for creative expression.
Some carvings are pretty old; this is thought to have been done by a monk back in the day.
There are also more recent carvings, as the cellars were used as a place of refuge for the local population during the wars. There are plenty of lucky clovers for protection.
Walking on – there are over 4km of tunnels under here, but luckily we didn’t walk them all – we saw the Taittinger family’s private collection, housed in a cave of its own, behind some sturdy looking bars.
I dread to think how much that relatively modest looking collection is worth.
Everywhere you walk there are bottles of champagne in the midst of the complicated fermentation process.
Once the champagne has been assigned a vintage, it is stored in these large tunnel offshoots.
I mean… that’s a lot of fizz.
Finally, our champagne education suitably complete, we were led back upstairs for the grand tasting. Being on the friends and family tour, we were allowed three glasses of champagne to taste each.
I had a glass each of the Brut Réserve, the Prestige Rosé and their flagship champagne, the Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2006.
Despite being a champagne novice, I could definitely taste the difference between the three as well as the difference between the budget prosecco I tend to drink when bubbles are called for. Beautiful champagnes – and I worked out that I managed to drink over €100 worth of champagne in fairly short shrift.
Feeling a little light headed to say the least, we bade a fond farewell to the house of Taittinger and went for a brisk walk around Reims to try and regain our sensibilities.
The cathedral is an absolute stunner, by the way.
Overall I’d really recommend the tour – I’ve heard others are more flashy, with trains and whatnot, but I think the Taittinger tour struck a great balance between historical interest and information for the champagne buffs. Also, it’s a much less touristy and commercialised experience than some of the others
Tours are available throughout the day in a variety of languages, the most common being English, German, French and Spanish. You can find the relevant bit of the website here.
> Wear a coat: it’s a constant 12 degrees celsius down in the cellars, and you do stand around a fair bit.
> Don’t expect a factory shop/cellar door experience: there’s a small stand which sells a few bottles of their best sellers at the end of the tour, but you won’t be grabbing any bargains here. They’re all full price unless you’re buying in serious quantity.
> If you’re going to be drinking, make sure you have transport afterwards arranged where necessary. The cellars are a little way out of town so it’s a >20 minute walk back if you’ve drunk too much to drive. Plan accordingly…
Have you ever been on a champagne cellar tour?
Linking up with <ahref=”http://bonnieroseblog.co.uk/” target=”_blank”>Bonnie, <ahref=”http://www.slightlyastray.com/” target=”_blank”>Anna, Swags and Diana for Travel Tuesday. The prompt was ‘a sporty adventure’ but I’m basically the least sporty person you’ll ever meet. This is what looks like when I try to have a ‘sporty adventure’ aka snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef:
And nobody needs to see any more than that.
P.S. Sorry for the below par picture quality – this was one of the weeks when I forgot my camera, so these are all taken with my trusty 5S.