During the harvest season, which runs from about Sept. 5 to Oct. 10, about 100,000 pickers come from all over France, including students from area colleges and universities, to pick grapes by hand. The juice from those grapes ends up in beautiful bottles nestled in chalk caves for a long, cool sleep.
The Romans started digging those caves, which can be visited during a stop by the grand champagne house of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. The “veuve” (widow) of this champagne house was Nicole-Barbe Ponsardin, who was married to Francois Clicquot for seven years until his death in 1805, after which, at age 27, she took over the business and became part of champagne history. At that time, it was unheard of for young widows to undertake such an enterprise.
It is a brisk 52 degrees down in the Veuve Clicquot cellar, reached by a walk down a very steep flight of stairs. Those who work there for 40 years receive a plaque with their name on it, which is hung in the caves. One man is remembered for working there for 60 years.
The Widow Clicquot’s desk and pictures of her are on display in the history center; her portrait also is on the metal disc that protects the top of the cork wired onto the neck of bottles of Veuve Clicquot.
This historic champagne house is a master of marketing. It even has copyrighted the distinctive orange-yellow color of its labels and used it everywhere: on bottles, curtains, walls, even the chic navy suit with orange piping worn by the receptionist.
Veuve Clicquot is constantly fighting copyright infringements and has a wall of shame showing some of the fraudulent products, including golf balls, bubble bath, different brands of fake champagne bottles and even water for dogs sold by a well-known London emporium. It has been serious about protecting its name for many years: in 1835, a convicted counterfeiter was branded with an “F” on his neck for “fraudulent.”
Frederic Panaiotis of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin drove his aubergine-colored Peugeot to the modern glass-and-stone headquarters in Reims to conduct a tasting of the house’s La Grande Dame champagnes.
With five tulip-shaped glasses in front of us, we started with a 1998 La Grande Dame. Swirling the wine in the tulip glass releases the aromas and allows them to express themselves. A 1996 La Grand Dame smelled like cheese, a creamy Camembert with hints of wild strawberries. The champagne house ought to make a perfume out of that one.
We went on to a 1990 bottle, which Mr. Panaiotis said “will become like a caress.” Finally, a white-gloved waiter poured a 1990 La Grand Dame rose. The pink version is chardonnay blended with 15 percent pinot noir and is very fresh on the palate. Mr. Panaiotis said the rose is like “liquid candy,” and it was. We were quickly lost in a swirl of tiny pink bubbles.
One of the joys of being in Champagne is visiting the famous houses and then also tasting the champagne of the lesser-known ones.
Mailly Grand Cru in the town of Mailly, is well-known in France and is served to first-class passengers on Air France, but it is seldom heard of in the United States. With a hearty “bonjour,” Patrig Morvezen, Mailly’s commercial director, greeted a busload of visitors.
One of 17 grand-cru vineyards in Champagne, Mailly Grand Cru, founded in 1929, sells only what it produces. In the bright glassed-in tasting rooms overlooking pickers harvesting pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, champagne bottles are displayed in glass cases like works of art.
In three acres of chalk caves 62 feet below ground, a young man in a T-shirt was oblivious to the cool air as he hacked off the cork of two label-less bottles of champagne.
Mr. Morvezen poured glasses under the light of a candelabra in the cave. When asked what his favorite bottle was, he replied, “Every bottle is a child for me; there are good children and bad children, but each one is no better.”
Upstairs, the grape pickers were sitting down to a harvest lunch of carrot salad, potato and sausage salad and stewed turkey in a sublime sauce, all washed down with — what else? — champagne.