Next time you write on a blackboard, remember: no chalk means no champagne

By / Wine + Drinks / January 11th, 2017 / 16

Pictured are the crayères at Ruinart in Champagne. 

Without chalk, there would be no Champagne. The next time you scribble some nonsense on a blackboard, stop for a second and think about that.

The tiny region in northeast France eponymous with the world’s most famous sparkling wine wouldn’t be quite so influential without its limestone sub-soils, which grace the wines with a distinctive mineral zing and dazzling acidity.

But far before Champagne was ever a twinkle in Dom Perignon’s glass or a spark in the enterprising mind of the Widow Clicquot, let alone a multi-billion-dollar industry, its land was part of the Gallo-Roman empire. Roman Gauls were the first to cultivate vineyards in the area around the 5th century, but their main focus was hidden far below what are now endless fields of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.

They carved out chalk mines connected by a labyrinthine network of tunnels beneath Reims, some dating back to the C1st, from which they extracted hunks of limestone for roads and cities, cosmetics and fertilizer.

These ancient quarries, called crayères from the French word for chalk, now serve as precious wine warrens for a handful of les Grandes Maisons like Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, Charles Heidsieck, Pommery and Ruinart, debatably Champagne’s oldest established house and the first to use the ancient subterranean network for aging in 1768. The chalk pits are also a large part of what won the hillsides, houses and cellars of Champagne a UNESCO World Heritage Site classification in July 2015.

Underground cellaring systems are essential to the méthode champenoise, the secondary bottle fermentation that lends the wines of Champagne their prized texture; the crayères are special not only for their historical significance and racks upon racks of jaw-droppingly old Champagne, but for their ideal storage conditions.

As you descend in a careful spiral into the crayères, some of which sprawl almost 40 metres below the surface, the temperature drops sharply and you’re glad you had the foresight to bring a jacket and scarf; this is the kind of cold that makes the tip of your nose turn pink, the kind that creeps into your core and threatens to stay until two glasses of Champagne work their magic.

Temperatures down here are naturally cool and consistently so, hovering around 10°C. The humidity is high enough to make your teeth chatter. It’s quiet and incredibly still and only your emotions flutter, overwhelmed; this far down, the nests of slumbering Champagne are sheltered from the vibrations of the outside world.

As you wind through endless chambers stacked with chalk-dusted bottles and peek into dark crevices stuffed with even more, you settle on a single sentiment: awe. When you emerge into daylight a little while later, you’re struck with an uncontrollable giddiness. You can’t stop smiling — and no, it’s not just the Champagne.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah Parniak is a freelance writer, bartender and consultant with a (healthy) spirits obsession that she channels into a weekly drinks column for Toronto’s NOW Magazine. She’s represented Canada in international bartending competitions and currently works behind the stick at People’s Eatery in Chinatown on weekends. When she’s not working in bars, she’s usually drinking in them. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @s_parns.

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