As you may well imagine, one of the main reasons for stopping off in the Champagne region was to drink some of the locally produced booze. Imagine!?! Not just drink it though, see all the in’s and out’s of it, to do the tour so to speak. Having done some research online before setting off, it seemed Ruinart was one of the best if not the best tour to do in Reims. So I emailed them and enquired about booking a tour. At the time I didn’t see any mention of tour opening hours or days off or anything useful like that on their website. So I let the email do it’s work and waited for a reply. And I waited. And I waited some more. Then we arrived in Reims. No email back from Ruinart. On the morning of day 8, our second and last full day in Reims, I began to fret about the fate of the Ruinart tour. I rang them. I think I got the gift shop. It surprised me (perhaps only in the way an English speaking tourist can be surprised while in mainland Europe) that the guy in the gift shop didn’t have a word of English. So in my best leaving cert French (and I waited until Julie was in the shower so as not to embarrass myself further), I mumbled through a short conversation with the man. It was Sunday morning, perhaps not the best day to be enquiring about tours. As I said though, I didn’t see any opening hours on the website. No tours today was what I was able to translate. Shit. I’m not leaving Reims without doing this.
I trawled some websites detailing the other champagne houses that existed in Reims and it appeared the closest and most accommodating was the house of G.H. Mumm on the other side of the city to us. I say other side, I actually mean 20 mins walk. I got the tour start times, read various reports that pre-booking was not necessary and we were away. Well, we were away after a coffee and croissant breakfast. Priorities people.
After finding the location of the tour (and making several very poor ‘Mumm’s the word’ jokes), we walked into reception and enquired about two of the top tier tour tickets. I wasn’t coming all this way to do the bargain basement, poor mans tour. Having said that, it was only something like twenty euro each and the tour was exactly the same. The champagne you got at the end was different though. The four women behind the reception desk were seemingly bemused at our arrival. There was some shuffling of papers, some inter-receptionist hushed conversation and finally ‘you want to go on tour now?’ question. Eh, yes. It turned out that although listed for a 2pm start, the tour had started at something like 1:57pm and we arrived at 1:57pm and 30 seconds. Panic! When we finally got our tickets printed and were shown to our seats amongst the tourists that managed to be on time for the tour, it appeared the only thing we’d missed was a minute or two of the bloody introduction video. Having said that, beyond the initial confusion, the staff were very friendly and very knowledgeable.
After the video came the part we were here to see, the long stone staircase down into the caves several storeys underground. We began our underground adventures with an introduction into the three different types of grapes used to make the final product, where the grapes came from, some detail on the vineyards exclusively growing grapes for Mumm and all that kind of thing. Some terms I’ve seen on bottles were thrown around the crowd of about 25 people and along with the backlit posters on the walls, things started to fall into place. Grand Cru, demi sec, brut, bits and pieces to make up a better understanding of where this complex process is rooted. We were brought through rooms like the one on the right that had vast fermentation vessels, storage vats and lots of other stuff that was quickly forgotten about as soon as we moved to what I saw as being the more interesting part of the tour.
We saw the various sizes of bottles and learned that champagne is only produced in bottles up to magnum size (if I remember correctly). Anything larger is filled from separate magnum bottles. Makes sense I suppose.
At the end of the corridor, we paused for another short video and some more of the process was explained. I tried to take as much in as possible, as if there was going to be an exam at the end of the tour to determine if I got to taste the final product or not. The video ended, the tour guide opened another door and we were going down another stone staircase into a distinctly colder level, several stories below where we already were.
I can’t remember how deep underground she said we were, but it was getting quite chilly. Evidence of the change in temperature was on the faces of those that had not thought to bring jumpers or jackets to cover themselves with. Star jumps, you’ll be fine. The end of the stairs opened out into an arched room, racks of bottles in various states of maturity lined the walls. We learned how before computerisation, one man would make minute turns to each bottle in the racks to manage the sediment. Not so amazing until you consider that the man would handle up to 40,000 bottles a day. Suddenly, sitting at a computer for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week didn’t seem like such an RSI inducing chore. The poor bugger.
So the bottles would get gradually turned and in doing so, would start to stand more and more upright in the racks. The sediment was forced to sit in the neck of the bottle with this turning and lifting action, making it easier to remove when the bottles were properly matured and ready for sales.
Photography was quite challenging in the dimly lit cave. In fact the cave was only lit with warm orange coloured bulbs so it also turned colour control into a nightmare. This didn’t seem to bother the other tourists who gleefully lit everything up with a burst of flash, blinding us all in the process. For those who wanted something other than the ‘champagne like a rabbit caught in the headlights’ look, the process was a bit slower and required more thought. That and very high ISO. There were seemingly miles of caves, the racks upon racks of bottles in various states went on forever. Quite an eerie place to be on your own I imagine.
While hanging back to take photos of pretty much what you see above, I missed some vital piece of information. The loss of this information will surely haunt me to the end of my days on earth. It was something like ‘the longest tunnel in any champagne cave’. Sure enough, a fairly long tunnel.
I suppose the plight of any photographer on an organised tour is that we always seem to find ourselves at the back of the group, always playing catch up and being hurried along by sometimes impatient tour guides. Thankfully this tour guide wasn’t impatient, about as far from impatient as is possible in fact. That helped to create a thoroughly enjoyable tour and while I may have missed some information, I made up for it in the photos I got.
So where were we? The bottle is sitting on it’s head in the rack, waiting to be released to the general public. In the old days it took an awe inspiring sleight of hand to quickly remove the temporary cork and the sediment before re-sealing the bottle so that none of the contents or indeed the fizz can escape. These days, they just freeze the neck of the bottle before removing the cork. The sediment, frozen in a small amount of champagne, slips out of the bottle before it’s re-corked and has a neat little wire basket fitted. Like getting the figs into fig rolls, I never fully understood how champagne became carbonated. The tour and the attitude of the tour guide served to dispel any illusions that some people have built up about champagne being a drink only for special occasions. It’s wine. We drink wine with dinner, with sweet food or just because we want to drink wine. I suppose I never really thought about champagne like that until I did the tour. Tell that to the bottle that’s been sitting in the fridge for two years.
All that was left to sink in as we took a lift back to ground level and made our way across the the courtyard to ‘the best part of the tour’. Yes, the tasting. Our super elite mega pricey ‘considerably richer than you’ tickets granted us the opportunity to taste two different champagnes; A rosé and the grand cru. Better still, I got the flute of grand cru that Julie wasn’t too keen on. It was Glenmorangie distillery all over again.
Having been allowed some time to taste and gather our thoughts, admittedly most about what we were going to have for dinner, we were ushered out of the tasting room to make space for the next group. The route brought us through the gift shop and I had to do an on-the-fly bit of calculation to work out if a bottle of grand cru or demi sec would fit in the luggage on the bike. Alas no, it wasn’t to be this time. I started to feel like I could easily enjoy a flute or three of champagne when I wasn’t being a coffee or whisky snob. I still wondered about the likes of Dom Perignon though. Was it all that better or is it just ‘badge snobbery’? I knew the answer to the question ‘would I be able to taste the difference?’ though. A certain and resounding ‘no’.
After wandering through the nearby graveyard and before venturing out for dinner we indulged our newly found appreciation and curiosity for champagne by popping into a shop and buying a demi of Laurent Perrier demi sec. We didn’t get to taste demi sec during the tour but loving all things sweet, we were curious enough to buy a bottle. Long story short, it worked out. I want more.
Wait, what? Graveyard? I don’t know if it’s just a photographer thing or what, but I have an almost unnatural appreciation for a photogenic graveyard. There was one such graveyard on the route from G.H. Mumm back to the city center. It began to rain. Enough said.
Strolling around for a few minutes, it seemed a lot of the most recognisable champagne families had plots here. We spotted several famous names among the several acres of stones. Nothing too exciting for the remainder of the day except a real sense that the holiday was coming to an end. All good things and all that.