Part Quatre: Felix Felicis, or liquid luck

After spending Monday through Wednesday spoiled with sunshine, we woke up on Thursday to the chill of a rainy morning in Châlons. Today, we would bring our luggage with us back to Reims and eventually back towards Épernay, where we’d spend our final night in France in a lovely spa hotel overlooking the vineyards.

We departed Châlons with some real rainy day energy, which is to say we both felt a little weary. Ruinart opened at 9:30am, and we arrived at around 9:45. Feeling confident, we pulled up to the gate where a woman stared at us incredulously.

“We don’t offer parking here,” she told us. “But we’ll lift the gate, and you can go around and come back out.”

Not the best first impression, but we were undeterred! We parked down a small side street where parking was free, then tromped up the hill back to the gates of Ruinart.

Of all the Champagne houses we’d visited on our trip, Ruinart is by far the most stately and imposing. Through the iron gates, a massive courtyard awaits, with winding pebble paths leading through a handful of trees and eventually to the front door of a grand mansion. Beyond the mansion is yet another courtyard that looks like a small copy of the Versailles gardens, and beyond that is another, somewhat smaller mansion. In my scuffed red Converse and yellow hat, I felt very much like an intruder.

And as we scurried across the gravel paths to the first mansion to escape the rain, we realized immediately that we were intruding when a French woman who had been occupying a small office by the gate came dashing out after us, calling, “Excusez-moi! Excusez-moi!”

She reached us, somewhat breathless, dressed in the same tailored black suit jacket and trousers and crisp pressed white blouse that is the uniform of so many other Champagne houses.

“Do you have a reservation?” she asked us.

“No,” we told her. She regarded us as if we were burglars. “But we’d like to do a tasting,” I added.

“There are no tastings,” she said, apologetically. Behind her, another woman, dressed identically, stepped out from the same small building.

“But I have an e-mail,” I went on, rather desperately. A few months ago, I’d written when I’d been unable to book a tour online. Someone had responded, saying we could visit the gift shop and possibly arrange a tasting there. I showed the woman the email, and she pressed a button to her ear and communicated something to someone. Back at the gate, the other woman pulled a phone out of her pocket and made a call.

After much discussion, the phone was put away and the woman pointed toward the small mansion and said, “Follow the path to that building. Someone will meet you there.”

We arrived at the door to the small mansion at the same time as a third woman, also dressed impeccably. She let us in and we stood in a small, empty gift shop. Down a hall to the right was a great room with a small bar in the center of it, studded with Champagne glasses.

We browsed, and then I asked the woman at the register if they do tastings.

“We do, but not right now. Now there is a special event happening,” she told us. I looked around at the empty rooms, puzzled. “You could come back at 2.”

This was tempting, but Dan and I had decided that we’d adventure through the vines today, seeking out the small Champagne houses and growers located outside of the towns and along the Champagne route.

I plopped two heavy bottles down on the counter, and as she rang me up, I asked, “Is there any chance at all that we could get on a tour today?”

“I’m sorry, but they’re all fully booked. You need to book online, in advance.”

“I know,” I told her. “I tried. I was too late. I just thought maybe there might be a chance, if someone cancels?”

“Perhaps,” she said, “but all of the tours today were booked online, so everyone has already paid. The chances of a cancellation are small.”

Sensing my disappointment, she graciously added, “But if you leave me your name and a phone number, I will call you if anyone cancels.”

I neatly printed my name and number and took the fancy bag of Champagne and we left. I felt somewhat morose about it all, while Dan cheerfully looked up other Champagne places we could visit. He suggested we make a detour for another coffee before hitting the road out of Reims to the vineyards.

Over two small espressos, we outlined our route, figuring we’d stop at as many as we could on the road between here and our next hotel.

And then – luck! My phone rang, the +33 country code suggesting France.

“Hello,” came the voice, “we just met. You were here at Ruinart, in the gift shop, and you left your number. I said I would call you if there was a cancellation, and just after you left, someone has cancelled. There are two spots on the English-speaking tour at 2pm.”

What absolute luck.

“Maybe this is fast karma for yesterday,” Dan said as we left the coffee shop and headed to the car. (Yesterday, after meeting two women from my hometown who said they’d eventually be visiting Veuve, I bought two glasses of Champagne at Veuve to leave for them as a surprise on their arrival. The woman at Veuve was very kind and took down their names and descriptions, but I’ll never know if they ever got the glasses.)

We had time to spare before 2pm, so we drove out through the vines. This is where all the Champagne houses have their grapes. The acreages were marked with what looked like a headstone bearing the name of the Champagne house whose vines we were driving past. Eventually, we entered a tiny village whose road wound through Champagne house after Champagne house.

We parked on the street and wandered into one called Quatresols-Gauthier. A small courtyard area opened up to a small house, whose sliding glass doors revealed a dark room inside. Near the entryway to the courtyard, a sign hung above a wheelbarrow on a stone wall with the phone number and a note to call if no one was there.

As I was typing in my phone password, a tall man emerged from around the side of the house and we called out to him.

“Do you do tastings?” I asked, and he replied, “Yes. Let me wash my hands first.”

The man’s name was Guillaume, and he led us into the small room with a small wooden bar and a table. He talked a little about the Champagne house – in the family for five generations, he told us, and still doing quite a bit by hand. Guillaume’s job today, for example, was to label 1,000 bottles, which he told us he could do in about 8 hours.

We tasted two of his Champagnes and talked to him about the growing process. He explained that in late August, early September, for 8-10 days, about 30 people come out to help harvest the grapes.

“Are they all family?” I asked.

“No, there is some family, but most are college students or people without work,” he told us.

“So I could come out and pick grapes?” Dan asked.

“Well, sure!” he replied, and I imagined a world where I could take off two weeks and pick grapes in the French countryside. I also struggled to imagine anyone trusting random people with their precious grapes, because what if someone was heavy-handed and squished them?

All around us on the walls were photographs and pictures of the picking process, including one of several people standing in front of a small white building.

“That one was during World War 1,” Guillaume told us.

“Is that this house?” Dan asked.

“Yes, it is.”

“Was that a good harvest year?” I asked.

“No, that year because of the war, the vineyards suffered. We didn’t make Champagne, but we took the grapes to the Negotiation,” he told us. I haven’t been able to figure out what this means, so if anyone out there is a researcher, do let me know!

What I learned is that World War 1 destroyed so many of the vines, but World War 2 was more of a “conquer to keep”, as Dan said; they invaded and took over, but didn’t destroy everything.

“It was a bad year for Champagne, but so was 2020,” Guillaume told us. “The pandemic has hurt sales. Champagne is a drink for parties and celebrations, and no one was doing that.”

Unlike the major Champagne houses in town, who produce millions of bottles, Guillaume’s house only produces about 20,000 a year. We walked away with two bottles. If you ever make it to the Champagne region, rent a car one day and get out of the towns; the little Champagne houses in the villages are rustic, gorgeous, and a lot more intimate.

Champagne House: Quatresols-Gauthier Founded: ?? Cost: The tasting was free, I think, perhaps because we bought 2 bottles (24 euro per bottle) Chill/Posh: Intimate/chill Parking on Premises: Easy to find in the road What makes it cool: Family-run, really quiet. A good place to ask all the questions you have about Champagne and hear about a local grower’s experience

For lunch, we drove up to a bar in town that was full, and then down to a little cafe called Bacchus that was not full and offered a very delicious meat dish (says Dan). I opted for a cheese platter, which I could barely finish, and then we headed back towards Reims.

On the way, we passed the vines that belong to Ruinart, marked with a bright green building. We pulled into the small parking lot and had a look around. The building seemed like offices, with upstairs windows revealing several canvases. Outside, a QR code on a small stone suggested one might explore the vines. Among other things to see, an insect house made of wood stood just at the edge of the parking lot, offering a space for bees, ladybugs, and other insects that might want a quiet space to do insect things.

Back in town, we parked the car and headed back to Ruinart, where we met the same women at the gate.

“We have a reservation,” I said proudly, and the woman looked at her list.

“I don’t see your name,” she said. In broken French, I explained how someone had cancelled and we’d been added last minute. Again, a phone came out and after some discussion, we were let through, this time to the large mansion in the front.

Once through the doors, we were greeted by our friend from the gift shop, who seemed genuinely happy to see us.

“Welcome back!” she said. “Almost immediately after you left, there was a cancellation. You are in luck!”

For 75 euros each, we were escorted into what looked like someone’s posh living room. On the wall behind us were paintings mounted in gilded frames. We sat down on a long couch facing a coffee table lined with glasses and bottles of water – still and sparkling – with weak sunlight streaming in from the windows overlooking the vast courtyard.

Slowly, the room filled with the remainder of the tour guests. We sat sipping our water in silence when suddenly, the door to the room opened and a young woman in a navy blazer and smart trousers entered and sat down in an armchair in the corner. She introduced herself as our tour guide and began with the customary, “Where are you all from?”

By now, Dan and I had our intros down: “FromtheUSbutweliveinSwitzerland.” Then we’d go around and inevitably someone in the group would be from New Jersey.

The first twenty minutes of the tour continued like this, with all of us sitting comfortably on armchairs and sofas, as if we were just hanging out in someone’s living room. Our guide began by pointing out the painting behind us.

With the original in the Louvre, Ruinart was one of a few establishments that was allowed to own a copy, mainly because the Champagne bottle on the table looks very much like the bottles used by Ruinart, so it was agreed by some wise folks in the art world that they earned the right to display the painting.

She explained how Ruinart is the oldest of the Champagne houses, and the painting depicts the wonder and excitement surrounding Champagne. Whereas rich people used to take their meals alone in their bedrooms, times were changing back then and people were starting to spend more time together and learn about the joys of eating together. Champagne brings people together, has been the message of the Champagne region, and the painting showed this: a cork flew out of a bottle, observed by several excited guests. A cluster of three held a small coupe glass up to the light, apparently comparing the color of their Champagne. On the floor, two bottles rested in a tub of ice, which she explained was the real signifier of the rich.

“Imagine that,” she went on, “To get ice, they would have to travel up to the mountains and bring it down, and then store it somewhere. Ice was a luxury – chilling your Champagne on ice was a luxury.”

“But why is all their stuff on the floor?” Dan asked, pointing to oyster shells and napkins discarded in the foreground of the painting.

“They didn’t care,” she said, “they had servants. And women. You don’t see any women in this painting.”

From there, she lifted a green glass bottle on the table to show how thick and heavy original Champagne bottles were.

“They had to be strong enough to withstand the pressure,” she said, and we passed the bottle around so we could all feel how heavy it was. “It’s not as heavy today, but the Ruinart bottles retain the same shape.”

And so they did, and looking closely at the painting, one can see how that bottle might have very well been a Ruinart bottle.

From there, we all stood and left the room to descend several scores of stairs into the cellars. Along the way, she pointed out artwork that illustrated the Champagne-making process or Ruinart’s history of working alongside artists. We descended into caverns that were larger than any we’d seen before, and she pointed out the chalky walls.

“According to Champagne laws, you cannot irrigate your vines,” she explained. “If it becomes too dry, the roots will begin to search for water and eventually find it in this chalky soil. This water contains minerals that make the grapes hardier and more flavorful. The roots can penetrate down to 30 meters.”

The Ruinart cellars are 40 meters below ground and cover about 8 kilometers, but they felt vastly bigger than that. Unlike the small cellars of Martel, it seemed like most of the work was still happening directly under Ruinart, with our tour occasionally interrupted by forklift drivers.

Our guide explained that during World War 1, all of the Champagne cellars linked up their tunnels and schools and hospitals relocated underground. After the war, they walled them back up, so each works in isolation now.

Toward the end of the tour, we were gathered in a gigantic chalk cathedral where a light sculpture stood in the center. To the sound of music, the light bulbs flashed and throbbed different colors, with different bulbs ascending and descending. Later, she explained that the installation is meant to reflect climate change and its impact on the vines.

The installation runs on data about temperatures over the past several decades. So the day we stood in the cellars, it was colder than the average temperature for April 6. This was reflected by the lightbulbs flashing bluer colors alongside white.

“Last week, it was hotter than on record,” she told us, “so the bulbs were red and orange.”

“So it’s different every day?” I asked her. She nodded.

“Ruinart is committed to sustainability,” she explained, and talked about how they’re taking different measures to ensure responsible growing practices and a lower carbon footprint. On their website, it mentions that their goods are not transported by air, rather by sea and land. Ruinart is also among a number of Champagne houses that have earned a Sustainable Viticulture in Champagne certificate. She mentioned the insect houses out by the vines, and how reintroducing insects and not using pesticides has brought back rabbits and even foxes to the land.

What was cool about all of this is that Ruinart claims itself as the oldest Champagne house in France, dating all the way back to 1729. But it was the only Champagne tour to mention sustainability, impact on the planet, or the future.

I had also never seen a bottle of Ruinart anywhere in my life, which was explained by our guide: apparently, at one point, Ruinart aimed to be the most popular Champagne and included business trips to the US and abroad to market the Champagne, resulting in the majority of business being done completely outside of France.

This wasn’t what they wanted – they’re proud of their French heritage – so they pulled back with the marketing and had a French artist design posters to advertise Ruinart to France, and now they have something like a 50-50 rate: 50% of their Champagne is sold in France, with the other 50% elsewhere. And their biggest customers outside of France were surprising, too. I can’t completely remember the top 3 countries, but I believe two of them were Belgium and Italy.

The tour ended where it began, and we sampled two glasses of absolutely crisp and delicious Champagne.

“This is dangerous,” Dan told me. “It’s so easy to drink.”

Ruinart prides themselves on their Chardonnay grapes, whereas other Champagne houses might specialize in a different grape (Veuve Clicquot, for example, is Pinot Noir). They all use all the grapes, but I guess they also have their favorites.

Champagne House: Ruinart Founded: 1729 Cost/Tour: 75 euros per person, including a tasting of 2 glasses Chill/Posh: Posh Parking on Premises: No What makes it cool: Oldest Champagne house, cool artwork and collaboration with local artists, an eye on sustainability and the future.

We left Ruinart feeling glad we’d gotten on the tour. Having done three cellar tours, it’s true that a lot of information is the same – about the Champagne-making process – but each tour provides something a little different and a little unique or special to the Champagne house and its history.

Some folks on the tour recommended we try out Pommery, which was just next door, so we drove over and entered Pommery, paying 15 euros each for a glass of Champagne.

Pommery was definitely different than Ruinart and the others. Walking through the door, you are greeted with a ticket counter and a price list. I think there are guided tours, but they mostly offer self-guided, and you head down to their cellars yourself.

Inside, it felt like a vast warehouse, with eye-catching art – a taxidermied elephant balancing on its trunk, for one – and an interesting room lit with blue lights. Dan and I had two glasses of the Grand Cru and walked around, but decided we’d gotten the most out of art and Champagne with Ruinart and it was time to hit the road.

Champagne House: Pommery Founded: 1858 Cost/Tour: 26 euros per person for self-guided, including a tasting of 1 glass Chill/Posh: Sort of chill-artsy Parking on Premises: Yes What makes it cool: Self-guided tours, the freedom to wander around with a glass of Champagne in hand

We drove through a forest and then through fields of Champagne grapes to find our little oasis of a hotel (Loisium) perched just on the edge of the Champagne fields. It was the perfect spot to end our trip, with its idyllic views of nature, tasty wine, and a good dinner.

The gorgeous mansions of Ruinart
And their delicious Champagnes!
A lovely view from the hotel balcony

Categories: France

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