Les Trois Maisons.
The region that holds the monopoly on the production of celebratory beverages the world over is richer in history than it is in romance. The country side is beautiful, without being breath-taking. The towns of Reims and Epernay fall short of Champagne’s (the drink’s) reputation of sophistication and luxury. Yet there is something pure and noble about a region dedicated to producing that singular product that encapsulates all things quality more so than anything else in the world, and the region fiercely protects, and upholds their reputation. Principally through two methods.
Firstly, administrative fervor. Not only can Champagne not be produced anywhere else, but the requirements around the type of champagne, the Cru, the age of the vintage, all adhere to such rigid processes and requirements. The best champagnes in the world, and the lesser champagne’s in the world are all held to the same high standards, and as such, the end result is such that the best is amazingly, supernaturally good, and the lesser variants, still manage a consistently fine product of which most wine makers would be proud.
Secondly, and more importantly, every bottle of champagne is imbued with a three hundred year old tradition, maintained by the champenois. Be it the hand turning the bottles (1/4 inch this way, then an 1/8 inch that way every two weeks), to the centuries old chalk caves in which the thousands of dusty bottles ferment, then ferment again, and then rest, absorbing a rich history evident in every bottle, or so we like to believe.
If you are fortunate enough to visit Champagne, you must visit the Champagne houses, and do not limit yourself for each one is different, and equally special. Here are three very different, but equally beautiful options.
Ruinart. The oldest of all the houses, and the joint (although lesser known) partner in the invention of the fizzy elixir. Dom Ruinart and Dom Perignon go way back and were equally responsible for the existence of bubbles in your New Year’s Eve glass of tipple. Upon entering the immaculate grounds, somewhat inconspicuously disguised as a reclusive millionaire’s mansion (the boom gate and lack of welcome sign doesn’t exactly encourage walk-ins). Once inside however, you get the feeling that you are somewhere truly special, almost sacred. Ruinart’s chalk caves are the oldest in the region, dating back to Roman times. 20, 30, 70 metres below the surface, it was a serendipitous discovery of these caves that so perfectly suited the cellaring requirement of the hundreds and thousands of bottles of champagne. If those walls could talk they would speak of three centuries of tumultuous times, of slavery and wars, but fortunately they have settled somewhere more befitting their tranquility, that as a nursery for baby bottle of champagne. Babies they are indeed, treated gently with tender care. Ruinart typifies everything about Champagne. History, prestige, tradition, luxury.
Billecarte Salmon speaks more to an evolving pursuit of perfection. Run more like a business, it is less opulent than Ruinart, although the output is arguable better. Billecarte Salmon has managed to balance tradition with more modern, and precise methods, creating a perfectly sublime catalogue of champagnes. Billecarte forwent hand-turning their bottles some time ago, favouring a more exact method by robotic bottle turner, but they have maintained important traditional methods such as organic fertilizing Le Clos Saint-Hilaire by the fortunate sheep who’s job is to solely wander about the vines keeping the grass to a minimum and ensure the soil is well fertilized.
The cellars hold less mystery and history, and also space, occupying about a third that of Ruinart’s, but their output is a no less exceptional.
Veuve Clicquot, the mother of Champagne and the creator of the freezing process by which the sediment is removed from the bottles, unfortunately retains very little romance about the place. The house is a perfect symbol of the tradition turned commercial, and the magnitude of the champagne business as it stands today can be witnessed by the large tours of international guests being ushered around the trademark yellow-lit caves with efficiency and detachment in equal measures. The visitors centre at the conclusion of the tour is plentiful in all things yellow, but when the product at the core of their business is so wondrous, one can be forgiven for trying to make a dime on the side. They are owned my mega-institution Moet-Hennessy after all.
Champagne, so oft-used as a metaphor for all things perfect, would also be well used in place for precision, tradition, stoicism. The residents of Champagne are well aware of their monopoly on that singular celebatory beverage, and their protection of that monopoly, and it’s reputation is to be admired.