“I drink Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.” – Madame Clicquot
No visit to Reims would be complete without descending into the subterranean world of the city’s champagne cellars. The headquarters of some of the world’s most famous champagne brands are scattered around the city, most are a walk or taxi journey from the centre. Reims doesn’t have the grandeur of Epernay’s Avenue de Champagne, lined with magnificent champagne houses, but a tour of the Reims’ champagne cellars is easy to arrange and even easier to enjoy.
We visited one of world’s best known champagne producers, with a history to match its famous yellow labels: Veuve Clicquot. The story of Veuve Clicquot is the story of a visionary businesswoman and champagne innovator, Madame Clicquot, La Grande Dame de la Champagne. We opted for the “Footsteps of Madame Clicquot” cellar tour (a pricey €50), which gave an insight into the life of the woman behind the empire, and ended with a tasting that included a glass of La Grand Dame champagne.
Born in 1777 into an aristocratic family, at the young age of 27 Madame Clicquot took control of the company in 1805 following the death of her husband. This itself was pioneering, women just didn’t run companies in the early 19th century. She was known to be uncompromising about the quality of her champagne and prepared to take risks to sell it all over the world – the very first shipment of Veuve Clicquot went to Venice.
Veuve Clicquot has a long tradition of exporting champagne, and 80 percent of today’s production is drunk outside France. Madame Clicquot was a pioneer in this respect, establishing the brand with the royal courts of Europe, including the Imperial Russian court in 1814. This was during the Napoleonic Wars, when France was at war with Russia, and she deliberately broke a trade blockade between the two countries to ship 10,550 bottles to the enemy. Not very patriotic, but very lucrative.
The year 1811 is famous in Veuve Clicquot history: this was the year of the Cuvée de la Comète. After a string of bad growing years, the 1811 grape harvest was exceptional. This was attributed to the fact that the Flaugergues Comet was visible throughout the growing season. For many, the comet presaged the end of the world, but for many wine producers it transformed their fortunes. Comet vintages had great value, and it was this wine that Madame Clicquot sent to Russia. These days, a comet symbol can be found on all their labels.
We arrived at the visitor centre without a reservation, but got onto the next tour. As we descended into the vast network of tunnels that honeycomb subterranean Reims, the temperature dropped and our eyes slowly adjusted to the dimly lit cellars. The millions of bottles of champagne in these cellars, worth billions of euros, are the main attraction, but walking these tunnels is to walk through history. They’ve been here since the Romans mined them for chalk in 1AD.
Once underground, our guide took us on an hour-long tour through the cellars and narrated the life of Madame Clicquot. Amongst her many achievements, in 1810 she invented the first vintage champagne, a tradition that continues to this day. In 1818, she created a new way of making rosé champagne. Responding to early consumer concerns about authenticity, she invented the iconic yellow label that distinguish Veuve Clicquot from its competitors.
Perhaps her most significant contribution to the art of champagne production came in 1816, when she invented the riddling table. This simple but effective way of separating and expelling the yeast and other solids in a champagne bottle ensures a crystal-clear wine. The process has been mechanised today, but is essentially the same one Madame Clicquot invented.
Passing a bottle of Veuve Clicquot that had been retrieved from the bottom of the Baltic Sea two hundred years after the ship carrying it sank, we emerged back into the sunlight and warmth. We took a seat in the garden and finally got to taste La Grand Dame, a vintage created to mark the 200th anniversary of the company … there are worse ways to spend a morning in Reims.