On October 3rd 1963, I embarked on one of the most memorable events of my life. I was invited by the London Press Exchange to go with some thirty others to Rheims in France to visit the House of Taittinger, famous producers of Champagne.
Most of the rest of the party were journalists and included a number of wine correspondents one of which was also a British supporting film actor, named John Chandos.
We made for Gatwick where we boarded a Dan Air Elizabethan aircraft to fly over the Channel to Rheims. The pilot was a mad Australian, probably a former crop-duster pilot, who, on approaching Rheims, started to fly the airliner as if it was a fighter plane, banking heavily as he passed over the airport. At that time the airport, really an airfield, was seldom used during week days, so when we landed, we were met by a team of Customs Officers who had been brought in from Paris for the day.
There were also passport officers to vet our entry. It was all very tedious, but, at that time expected.
We got on board a coach which took us to the Hotel Lion D’Or, of course owned by the Taittinger family. Soon after we checked in at the hotel, we were taken to the town house of Monsieur Claude Taittinger, where we were served coffee on the lawns. It was a magnificent old chateau type house. Claude was the Director General of the House of Taittinger, at 34, he was the youngest head of a champagne house. He had previously been a journalist and had covered the Indo-Chinese war.
We went back to the hotel for lunch. The only wine on offer was champagne, there was not a sign of Red, White or Rose wine, however we were offered several champagnes, all Taittinger, of course.
After lunch, we were conducted on a tour of the Taittinger cellars which are located on the site of the ancient Saint-Nicaise Abbey that was virtually destroyed during the French Revolution.
Below the Abbey lies almost 7 kilometres of cellars that were excavated during the time of the Gauls. You know the ones I mean, Gallia est divisa in tres partes and all that.
The Romans had a dig as well. The House of Taittinger got 150,000 visitors each year. In the cellars are stored over 5 million bottles.
The wine goes into the bottle directly, there is no waiting time in barrels or kegs. The bottles lay at an angle, top down, in racks and they have to be moved, that is to say, rotated from time to time. The accomplish this in some sort of regular form, each bottle has a chalk mark which goes from the centre of the bottom of the bottle to the edge. All the bottles in a given rack will have these marks pointing in the same direction.
We witnessed the cellar staff rotating the bottles. Two at a time, a bottle in each hand, they would hold the bottom of the bottle, shake it in a rotational movement and then leave the bottle with the chalk mark facing a different direction. By this means, they, or anyone else, could tell that the bottle had been moved. What was incredible was the speed with which this manoeuvre took place. Their hands were a blur as if they were only touching the bottle. The skilled members of the staff could “move” ten thousand bottles a day.
We met the chef de caves of the House of Taittinger at Rheims. Monsieur Roger Lenique was in his seventies and, we were told, he drank no more than two bottles of champagne a day. This was to be seen in his face where, above his Marshal Foch moustache was a big red nose. He was celebrating his fiftieth year in the service of champagne. Only a few weeks before, he had repeated the feat of the celebrated taster of champagne, the Marquis de St. Evremond, who in 1656 recognised wine from the principal vine districts of Champagne at a masked tasting.
Eight glasses, identified only by numbers containing examples of wine from the eight principal wine districts from which champagne is blended, were placed before M. Lenique and in three minutes he tasted and named them in correct order. At the time, we were told that he also nominated the year of each one.
The grand old man had been chef de caves since 1941 and had been entirely responsible for the blending of their international class champagnes.
We were then led off to the corking plant where we were to find out some of the secrets of the presentation of the champagne.
There was a great machine which consisted of a sort of carousel on which full bottles of wine were placed. At this stage there was a requirement to remove the original cork and the residue that had built up while the bottles of wine were fermenting. This residue was settled below the cork because, all during the fermentation period, the bottles are kept with their tops facing downwards. In olden days, they were obliged to literally pour them off, thus losing some of the wine as well.
Now, by the time the bottles reach this machine, the top of the neck of the bottle is frozen so that the residue is held within an ice plug. In the centre of the machine there is a full bottle of champagne, from the same batch as those on the carousel, upside down with a pipe connecting it to the machine. As the bottles go round, the cork is removed and a spike grabs the ice plug and pulls it out and, at the same time, the bottle becomes topped up from the centre bottle. Now the bottles can get their final cork, the one that goes pop.
Now we had an explanation for the gold wrapping that traditionally covers the top of a champagne bottle. It used to cover the level of champagne in the bottle so that people could not see what had been lost by the ancient method of residue removal and rre-corking.
It was all fascinating.
In the evening was the main event. We were invited to dinner at the Maison des Comtes de Champagne (owned by the House of Taittinger) which is in the centre of Rheims. It is the ancient hall of the Comptes de Champagne built in the thirteenth century. The hall was built by Thibault IV, Compte de Champagne, King of Navarre, and has been classified as an ancient monument by the French Government since 1905. The exterior might pass as a church and upon entry, one could believe it was once a church. It was not.
Standing just inside the door, we could see the layout of the great hall. There was an open space which ran the full length of the building. About ten feet in from the outer walls, and placed every eight feet, were giant braziers burning. These were to provide the heating for the upstairs. At the far end of the hall were the stairs and we all climbed up to see the site of our famous dinner.
There were no tables. We were to sit round a huge tun which had a large flange which surrounded the tun like a Saturn ring. It was set just above the centre and it was large enough for a place setting. The top of the tun was used to store the flow of bottles to come. The top was level with my chin so that I could see the people on the other side.
This was no ordinary dinner, we had been invited to a ceremony. Seven Englishmen in our party had been selected to become Comptes de Champagne. They had earned this accolade because, a bit like Monsieur Roger Lenique, they were able to identify champagne by vintage and chateau . They had to identify five different wines, blindfolded, of course.
Here was our menu:
We had five Champagne wine glasses on the “table”, while the Champagne on offer were Taittinger Brut 1959 Reserve, Taittinger Brut 1959, Taittinger Rose Brut 1959. There was also a bottle of Monsieur Taittinger’s Special Cuve and a Blanc de Blanc . They would never use one glass for two wines, indeed, when a new wine was introduced to the table, the old glass was removed.
Talk about Epicurean service. The dinner was fantastic, the evening most entertaining.
The following morning we set off in the coach to visit the Taittinger vineyards, or at least some of them. Hautvillers was in the Epernay region with Rilly and Mailly closer to Rheims on the north bank of the river Marne.
We were driven into the vineyards and given a short lecture on the benefits of each region. What was most interesting was when the guide stood midway between two vineyards and said “To my right are white grapes, to my left are black grapes. The white grapes will not grow well in the ground to my left and the black grapes will not grow well in the ground to my right”. Picky !
The grapes were about ready for harvesting and, at that time, they were still picking by hand. A team of pickers had been rounded up, we thought, for our benefit. It was October 4th, so the date was about right for the “Vintage”. It was interesting to note that the pickers did not touch the grapes, they cut the bunch from the vine and, holding the stem, dropped it into the basket. We were taken to a vineyard that was close by a pressing plant where we saw the first baskets of grapes go into the press and the first liquid drained off..
Had we come a year earlier, we would have seen one of the great vintages in champagne history. 1964 was the big year, probably the best since 1928.
On the road back, all one could see were vineyards on both sides of the road and up on the hills and down in the valleys. That’s a lot of Champers.
We were to lunch at the home of Claude Taittinger and his wife. It is called “La Marquetterie”, a gracious old chateau built at the exact meeting point of three great regions, Vallee de la Marne, Montagne de Rheims and Cote des Blancs. The house is surrounded by the Taittinger vineyards at Pierry situated in “les grand crus”.
This chateau is in sight of the river Marne and, we were told, the chateau was occupied by the French Army during the First World War and, from its balcony, Marshal Foch made his famous declaration: “They shall not pass”, in French of course. The Germans did not pass that point.
We all sat down in the great dining hall. My neighbour was a curious little fellow from “The Washington Post”. He had been given the ticket by his American employers, who obviously didn’t know what they were missing. I think the little man was the office runner.
As so often happens at Epicurean events, the waiters, kitted out in blue and white striped shirts with navy blue denims and jacket, topped off with a navy blue beret, led a short column into the dining room, preceding two waiters holding aloft a great tray with the main course displayed on it. Behind the tray came the Chef, arms folded looking down on his master’s guests, he lapped up the applause.
Of course, we were plied with another lot of champagne, but the main course was Guinea Fowl. What a treat !
We were presented with a Champagne glass each. The top was in the shape of a trumpet, a flute, a shape said to preserve the bubbles, while the bottom was a knob of glass. This meant that once full of champagne, one could not put it down until it was empty. Sneaky!. Also supplied with the glass was a saucer on which the upturned glass could rest.
Years later, the glass broke, but I still have the saucer.
When we finished, Washington Post turned to me and said “That chicken wasn’t bad was it ?” Well, indeed, it wasn’t bad. What a couple of days. After that we flew back home in the Elizabethan of Dan Air.
I had had the opportunity to buy some champagne in Rheims, but at 29/- a bottle, I neither felt flush enough nor keen enough. It would be a long time before I drank any more champagne.
Next chapter: Chapter 47: On Location in Germany