SIDE ORDERS

Reims's Champagne Caves, Chilled

Sunday, November 19, 2006

WHAT: Deep, Roman-era pits devoted to the aging of champagne.

WHERE: Reims, France.

WHY GO: To learn about, then savor, some of the world's best bubbly.

Suspended between anticipation and awe, I hoist a glass of Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blanc champagne. The anticipation stems from the prestige of Ruinart, a top-of-the-line champagne maker and this high-end example of its wares; the awe, from the price per bottle -- 115 euros, about $150 at the current dismal exchange rate.

I was standing in Ruinart's tasting room, at the end of a leisurely tour of the company's facilities for aging. They're located in a most unusual setting: a group of chalk caves dug by the Romans in the 4th century A.D.

The Romans wanted the chalk for construction purposes in and around Reims, a smallish city in the Champagne region. (Among all the cities in France, Reims may be the hardest to pronounce. It almost rhymes with "chance" if you hit the "n" lightly.) The champagne makers like the deep chalk chambers for very different reasons: the constancy of the underground temperature (about 53 degrees Fahrenheit year-round); the sponge-like quality of the chalk, which soaks up humidity and keeps it at an equally constant 88 percent; and the absence of light and vibration.

Several makers age their goods in Reims's Roman caves. I chose Ruinart because it's the oldest champagne house, founded in 1729. Also because, unlike most of the others, it charges a fee for its cave tours -- so it must put on a good show, right?

Company headquarters, a handsome complex complete with gate guard, is built around and above the caves. The reception hall smells pleasantly musty and exudes a sense of old-line luxury. I joined a group taking the English-language tour. Guiding us was Laetitia Masson, a young woman with a jaw-stretching smile. She led us down wide but dimly lighted stone steps into a series of corridors -- some five miles of them -- that open into equally dim caves. The depths range from 25 feet to 40 feet. The wine can be aged in any of them, and tens of thousands of bottles are arrayed in huge stacks along the walls.

The caves, Masson told us, have a colorful history. In the Middle Ages, before champagne was invented by a bibulous monk, they were used by smugglers and people engaged in other "licentious activities." Later, despite the damp chill and the difficulty of hauling stuff up and down, they served as locations for fancy dinners and receptions. And during World War I, when Reims suffered heavy bombardment, they served as shelters for the populace.

The champagne starts as still wine, Masson told us, "and over five or six months, it is sampled to create our 'signature' taste." That's an especially tricky task because the tasters "need to anticipate what that still wine will be after the entire process is complete." Two fermentations occur, both in the original bottle (no vat fermenting here), with natural sediment removed in a lovely sounding dégorgement. Each bottle gets a slight turn every day. Turning, now mechanized, used to be done entirely by hand -- before anybody cared about repetitive motion injury -- and Ruinart keeps a single turner on the payroll. "A house of great tradition," Masson said proudly, "couldn't do without one."

After 40 minutes or so of spelunking, Reims style, my group received its great reward: a small glass each of Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blanc, which ranks No. 2 among the six champagnes the house produces. Masson poured it ceremoniously, holding the bottom of the bottle in the palm of her hand. Was it worth $150 a bottle? Not to me, but to me, no wine is. Was it superb? Absolutely, so much so that I yearned for a refill that, alas, was not offered. Most of the tour party then headed for the sales counter to purchase a few bottles of the cheaper stuff, which starts at about $45.

One discovery remained. A Paris friend who accompanied me decided to spring for a bottle of Blanc de Blanc. "Once in a lifetime," he said nonchalantly. To shore up a shaky love affair, I suspected. Before leaving Reims, we stopped in a downtown wine shop, where the B de B sells for about $25 less than at the winery. Ah, well, we thought philosophically, just another aspect of "great tradition."

-- Roger M. Williams

At the Ruinart winery (4 Rue des Crayeres, Reims, telephone 011-33-326-775-151, http://www.ruinart.com), a tour of the caves plus a glass of very expensive champagne costs about $25. You can visit the caves -- calling ahead for an appointment to join a tour group -- throughout the year, with the exception of the first week of January, when tours are suspended. For more information on Reims's caves, visit the Reims Chamber of Commerce Web site, http://www.ville-reims.com.


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