I was standing in St. Sindulphe church, at the grave of Dom Perignon. It was a misty and cool March in Hautvillers, a small town in Champagne, France and, only a few minutes ago, snow was falling.
The light in the church was dim, and I could hardly read his name. But he’s there, entombed under a well-worn sheet of black marble, in the church floor, only a few feet away from where I stood.
For a champagne lover, the name of this Benedictine monk is legendary. Often credited as the inventor of sparkling wine (although he likely wasn’t), Dom Pierre Perignon strove constantly to improve his wines by experimenting with presses, blending and corks to seal his bottles. He lived and prayed and worked for close to 50 years in this quiet hilltop abbey and church. And he now lends his name to one of the world’s most famous wines, thanks to a combination of critical success, marketing and history.
A few years ago, I had an opportunity to visit Champagne and Cognac — the trip of dreams for any serious wine or spirits fan. I paid homage to Dom Perignon. I blissed out in the white chalk wine cellars at Ruinart. And I followed around a barrel-maker at Maison Hennessy in Cognac.
After my visit to Dom Perignon (and plenty of wine tasting), I found myself at Maison Ruinart in Reims, about a 30-minute drive from Hautvillers.
Founded in 1729, Ruinart is one of France’s oldest champagne houses, but, like others in the region, it actually started as a cloth-making business. Turned out bubbles were a better financial investment, and by 1735, the family had abandoned fabric for wine. By 1761, it was selling 36,000 bottles a year, and the entire region was on its path to fame and fortune.
Flash forward to the First World War, then the Second World War. The German army officially surrendered in Reims in 1945, but not before inflicting incredible damage to the industry, the town and the families in the region.
More than 70 years after the war, Ruinart’s famous chalk caves endure — a vast underground network of cellars and storage rooms that are 20 to 40 metres underground and date back at least to medieval times. (Parts were first excavated during the Roman Empire.)
Offering the perfect temperature and humidity for storing wine, these rooms are like underground cathedrals, with high white walls and ceilings. The atmosphere is so muted, I can almost hear the wine ageing. “Wines that will go around the world,” my guide says softly. Every word we speak echoes around us.
During the wars, things were considerably more terrifying. Many hid from the fighting in the cellars, going about their daily lives underground. There was even a makeshift school for neighbourhood children set up in one of the caves during the Second World War.
Turns out I visited Champagne during what some are calling the worst season since 1956. There was hail, rot, rain and frost. But from a visitor’s perspective, champagne is the stuff of history and legend, and I can’t wait to return.
The process of making cognac is part science, part magic. Wine is distilled into eau-de-vie; that eau-de-vie then gets aged in wood barrels. Eventually it’s blended by master distillers into a type of special brandy that can only be called cognac if it comes from France’s Cognac region, 400 km southwest of Paris.
While the history of the region is as rich as Champagne’s, it’s the barrel-making that has me hypnotized here.
Some cognac houses buy their barrels. Some make their own. The team at Hennessy makes about 200 barrels a year for the distillery’s famous cognacs, and repairs many other barrels from supplies stored in its vast workshop.
It takes two years to become a cooper (a barrel-maker), and “it takes 10 years to become good,” says my guide with a chuckle.
Even the wood (French oak) can’t be rushed; it must spend three years outside in the rain, snow and summer heat before it’s ready to be turned into barrels. The bark is removed early in the game, as it adds unwanted and bitter tannins.
Then, the wood is turned into staves — the long planks that make up a barrel. Each is slightly tapered at the ends, so they all fit together into the classic barrel shape when bent. A single barrel is made of 32 to 36 staves and will contain about 350 litres of precious elixir.
Assembling a barrel is hard work. The cooper must line up each stave, pulling them all tight into the metal rings that hold the barrel together, and then toasting the interior to just the right shade of brown.
Then there’s the lid, made of another nine or so short oak planks. A razor-sharp old-fashioned axe is used to create a groove inside each barrel, where the lid will be fitted. No nails are used at any time. No staples. No glue. Instead, a reed — yes, a non-toxic plant — is carefully wrapped around the edge of each lid. Wheat starch is then dabbed into the barrel’s groove and the lid is jammed in. The reed and starch will make each barrel watertight, absorbing any liquid that tries to escape.
And for that, I am grateful, as I think of my favourite evening nightcap. More for me to enjoy. More for the world.
IF YOU GO:
If you have a favourite champagne producer, call or email to ask about tours. Many offer visitors a chance to go behind the scenes. Here, a few suggestions:
Take a tour: Book tours of the Maison Ruinart Cellars in Reims. Each two-hour tour is guided and includes a tasting of two Ruinart champagnes.
Like Ruinart, the Veuve Clicquot Visitors’ Centre in Reims requires pre-booking. You can take kids along, but they can’t join in the tasting.
While Abbey Saint-Pierre in Hautvillers where Dom Perignon spent most of his life is generally closed to the public, St. Sindulphe church, where he is buried, can be visited.
Eat: You’ll never forget your meal at Le Parc des Crayères in Reims, France. It holds two stars from the prestigious Michelin guide, which describes it as “an exceptional gastronomic experience.” Order champagne. You didn’t go there for the coffee.
Stay: Hotel De La Paix in Reims has a good breakfast and great internet access, so you can post all those wonderful champagne pics on social media. Plus, it’s only a short walk to good shopping and the famous Reims cathedral.
Take a tour: Hennessy recently opened a new visitors’ centre, which features the cognac production process, a tour of the ageing cellar and a tasting workshop alongside stories of both the Hennessy family and the Fillioux family, who’ve been Hennessy’s master blenders for eight generations. Go to http://www.hennessy.com for details.
Eat: La Ribaudière holds one Michelin star and offers typical French elegance and outstanding food. Save room for the beautiful desserts and cheeses.
Stay: Hôtel François Premier is housed in a building that’s more than 100 years old, but the rooms offer every modern comfort. Best, this chic, yet cozy hotel is very central, meaning you can easily walk around town. Good breakfast, too.