I’m standing at the grave of Dom Perignon in Hautvillers, France. It’s misty and cool outside and, only a few minutes ago, snow was falling. The light in the church is dim, and I can hardly read his name. But he’s there, entombed under a well-worn sheet of black marble, only a few feet away from where I stand.
For a Champagne lover, the name of this Benedictine monk is legendary. Often credited as the inventor of sparkling wine (although he likely wasn’t), Dom Pierre Perignon strove constantly to improve his wines by experimenting with presses, blending and corks to seal his bottles. He lived and prayed and worked for close to 50 years in this quiet hilltop abbey and church.
Dom Perignon's abbey in Champagne
And he now lends his name to one of the world’s most famous wines.
I recently had an opportunity to visit Champagne — the trip of dreams for any serious wine or spirits fan.
I paid homage to Dom Perignon, as well as Krug and Veuve Clicquot. And I blissed out in the white chalk wine cellars at Ruinart.
Yes, after my visit to Dom Perignon (and plenty of wine tasting, I admit), I found myself at Maison Ruinart in Reims. Founded in 1729, Ruinart is one of France’s oldest champagne houses but, like others in the region, actually started as a cloth-making business. Turns out bubbles were a better financial investment and by 1735, the family had abandoned fabric to focus on wine. By 1761, they were selling 36,000 bottles a year, and the entire region was on its path to fame and fortune.
Flash forward to the First World War. Then the Second World War. The German army officially surrendered in Reims in 1945, but not before incredible damage to the industry, the town and the families in the region.
More than 70 years after the Second World War’s end, I found myself standing in Ruinart’s famous chalk caves — a vast underground network of cellars and underground storage rooms that are 20 to 40 metres underground and date back at least to medieval times.
The ancient entrance to the Ruinart cellars
Still in use today because they offer the perfect temperature and humidity for storing wine, these rooms are like underground cathedrals, with high white walls and ceilings. The air is so quiet, I can almost hear the wine ageing. “Wines that will go around the world,” my guide points out softly. Every word we speak echoes around us.
During the wars, things were considerably more terrifying. Many hid from the fighting in the cellars, going about their daily lives underground. There was even a makeshift school for neighbourhood children set up in one of the caves during the Second World War.
Turns out I’ve visited Champagne during what some are calling the worst season since 1956. There’s been hail. Rot. Rain and frost. But from a visitor’s perspective, Champagne is the stuff of history and legend, and I can’t wait to return.