Monday, July 21, 2008

Chalk one up for the Romans

Reims, FR—This busy city, 90 miles east of Paris, has a deep sense of history. Its much-acclaimed gothic cathedral was the coronation site for French kings. But this town’s history reaches even further back to antiquity. It was the Romans who dug out the chalky limestone to build a city on this site. The French word for chalk is craie, and in Reims you won’t hear talk about wine caves, but you will be directed to the crayères if you want to see where the city’s coveted Champagne is aged.
On a wonderful tour at Veuve Clicquot, we viewed a tiny portion of their crayères, warren-like tunnels that extend 24 kilometers! Unlike the moldy, low-ceiling cellars we found in Epernay, the tunnels here are airy because the Romans included vents that reach open air, keeping the walls clean. It’s fascinating that the conditions in these chalk tunnels are perfect for wine storage, possessing both the correct temperature (about 55 degrees F) and the right humidity. Pushing my finger to a wall, I discovered that it released small beads of water and it gave a little--you can scrape a bit of Reims off if you like. My souvenir, however, was far more delectable: a bottle of 1991 vintage Veuve Clicquot. That bottle safely made it to my thoroughly modern NJ home, where it awaits a suitably spectacular occasion for opening.

Bacchus and the Goddess of Wine Carved in the Wall at the Veuve Clicquot Crayères

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