This summer, Maison Taittinger is opening its doors! Completely redesigned for a better experience, you will discover the new face of its historic site on the hill of Saint-Nicaise in Reims. The true beating heart of the Maison’s activities, Saint-Nicaise is THE place to discover, visit and taste the Taittinger universe.

To support this reopening, we tell you here, in several episodes, its history and what connects it to the Taittinger family.

Crayères, the cradle of great champagnes

Taittinger is one of seven great historical houses still to own crayères or chalk quarries in the Saint-Nicaise hill in Reims, today listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the same way as the Great Pyramid of Giza and Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. A heritage all the more treasured as it plays an essential role in the quality of its champagnes.

Outside the Champagne area, stone quarries, as specialist Philippe Tourtebatte points out, are usually viewed more from the perspective of the risks they pose than in terms of ‘heritage’. However, when you lose yourself in the twists and turns of the crayères of Champagne, these veritable underground cathedrals, you are transported to another time, to a mysterious, almost dreamlike world. The fact that the general public knows about this subterranean universe is all thanks to the champagne houses which rescued them from abandonment and oblivion in the 19th century, when they decided to reuse them to age their wines.

So, how did they come about? Some 80 million years ago, the Champagne area was a warm, shallow sea. The sea was teeming with micro-organisms which built up, forming a thick sediment; once the waters receded, this sediment dried out to form chalk, a soft, porous and very pure limestone comprising more than 90% calcium carbonate. And it is chalk, especially in Grands Crus when it is on the surface, that gives champagne its finesse, lightness and minerality. It also acts as an excellent tool for regulating water. A highly efficient sponge, it quickly drains away excess water when it rains and, conversely, during heatwaves, it draws up water stored in the depths by capillary action, often making vines the only spots of green in the Champagne landscape in July and August.

From Gallo-Roman times, but especially in the Middle Ages, chalk was extracted from Saint-Nicaise hill to build the city of Reims. First of all, it was used to make stone blocks and ubiquitous chalk tiles, forming the walls of lots of houses in Reims. However, we should point out that they were rarely used for official buildings as chalk easily absorbs moisture and so is a poor construction material.  That is why Courville stone was used instead to build the cathedral. Another use involved burning chalk to produce lime which was used as mortar. It was the invention of Portland cement at the start of the 19th century which helped spell the end of chalk mining in these quarries. Finally, let’s not forget that lime was used in various treatments in the textile industry, the main economic activity in Reims until the start of the 20th century. All in all, there are no fewer than 2000 ventilation shafts dotted over 100 hectares, dug deep into Saint-Nicaise hill. These famous pyramid-shaped chimneys sometimes plunge to a depth of up to 40 metres to reach the most monolithic and uniform section of chalk, which on the surface is broken up more by erosion. The extraction galleries then run from these shafts. 

What made champagne houses use these crayères to age their wine? First of all, they have an ideal, stable temperature all year round, usually hovering about 11 degrees; this provides the perfect environment for a second, slow fermentation of the wine and then excellent storage conditions. At a time when more and more air-conditioned buildings are being built for the same purpose, the crayères have an unbeatable carbon footprint! We should also remember that champagne producers took a long time to master the formation of bubbles and that spoilage rates were often very high. And then, crayères provided the perfect way to remedy the situation. To understand this, we need to read the treatises written by Reims chemist Edme-Jules Maumené in the 19th century. When bottles exploded, the wine that was fermenting in the open air quickly increased the temperature of the cellar, further accelerating fermentation in the other bottles which were also at risk of exploding. Buckets of iced water were poured over the spilled wine to clear it away and to cool the bottles that were still in one piece. With the same goal in mind, the ventilation shafts were opened to create air currents. Using an aphrometer, invented by Maumené to determine the pressure inside bottles, producers could anticipate these situations by moving bottles that were reaching 8 atmospheres to deeper galleries where a temperature of under 9 degrees was likely to halt fermentation. Of course, these exploits belong to history, the people of Champagne having since mastered the way the devil’s wine behaves with science. The fact remains that crayères still provide an inspiring setting for those who make wine. There is no doubt that their beauty arouses the passion and desire to produce the very best!

Crayères Taittinger Saint-Nicaise
The crayères of Saint-Nicaise
Text : Yves Tesson / Terre de vins
Photos © Louis Terran