Updated: Nov 13
These articles are a collection of my experiences and the rich history of one week spent visiting the 16 Grandes Marques houses of Champagne. In this first part, I will take you on a journey to Champagne Taittinger, Champagne Bollinger, Ruinart, and Champagne Charles Heidsieck, sharing not only the historical background of each house but also my personal encounters and the wines that left a lasting impression.
Founded in 1734 as Forest-Fourneaux, Champagne Taittinger became a renowned name when Pierre Taittinger took ownership in the 1930s. Since 1942, the Grandes Marques house has been perched atop the Butte Saint-Nicaise in Reims, a spot rich in history as it's built over the ruins of the 13th-century Saint-Nicaise abbey. But the real wonder lies below, where you'll find a fascinating network of Gallo-Roman chalk pits known as "crayeres."
My journey with Taittinger commenced at the Demeure des Comtes de Champagne in the heart of Reims. This stunning medieval building, adorned with stone walls, turrets, and a tower, was once the residence of the counts of Champagne from the 9th to the 15th century. During my visit, even though the crayeres cellars were under renovation until 2024, I had a fantastic experience. I was lucky to enjoy a tasting of some of Taittinger's finest wines.
While exploring the Demeure des Comtes de Champagne, I recommend trying the Prelude, a refined blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sourced from Grand Cru villages in the Core des Blancs and Montagne de Reims, such as Avize, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Mailly-Champagne, and Ambonnay. For a truly exceptional treat, don't miss the Taittinger Cuvee Comtes de Champagne, a blanc des blancs sourced entirely from Grand Cru villages in the Cote des Blancs. This Champagne exudes style and sophistication, but remember, it requires some patience as it ages in the cellar to reveal its full character and complexity.
Champagne Bollinger, founded in 1829, proudly calls Aÿ home. Not only is it the most prominent producer in this charming town, but it's also one of the most renowned houses in all of Champagne. In 1865, Bollinger made a bold move by introducing low-dosage champagne to the British market when most champagnes were sweet. This spirit of innovation is deeply rooted in Bollinger's history, and they've maintained their traditional style through five fundamental rules: Most of the grapes come from their own vineyards, with 85% being Grand Cru and Premier Cru. The blends prominently feature Pinot Noir. They employ over 4,000 aged barrels for barrel fermentation to enhance micro-oxygenation. Reserve wines mature in magnums, and even the non-vintage Special Cuvée benefits from extended bottle aging, lasting 2 to 4 times longer than the AOC regulations specify.
During my visit to Bollinger's cellars, I was transported back in time. The sight of magnums storing reserve wines left a lasting impression, offering a direct connection to the house's heritage. The house's most exceptional vineyards, Chaudes Terres and Clos Saint-Jacques, are located near the winery and feature ungrafted Pinot Noir vines cultivated using the traditional provignage method. This technique, which has disappeared entirely from modern viticulture, is used to multiply a vine by burying shoots, thereby preserving the characteristics of the vine. These vines are responsible for the rarest of all Bollinger Champagnes: Vieilles Vignes Francaises. Walking into the walled Clos Saint-Jacques was a moment that underscored the rarity of these vines, making it a truly special experience.
For your daily indulgence, I recommend Bollinger Special Cuvee Brut. It's unique because it's fermented in oak casks, resulting in complex, creamy, and spicy flavours that set it apart in the world of champagne. If you're looking for a truly exceptional experience, treat yourself to Grand Annee, a prestigious cuvee crafted exclusively from Grand and Premier Cru grapes. It offers richness and depth, thanks to aging for a decade in Bollinger's chalky cellars.
Founded in 1729 by Nicolas Ruinart, a textile merchant, Ruinart has a deep-rooted history dating back to its establishment in Epernay. My journey with Ruinart was enriched by a cooking class at L’Atelier de Luca, where we were graced by the presence of Frederic Paniotis, Chef de Caves at Ruinart. The highlight of this experience was tasting the remarkable Blanc des Blancs and Dom Ruinart, both of which I highly recommend for their fabulous complexity and precision.
The emotional crescendo of our visit was the exploration of the Ruinart crayeres. These crayeres, formed from Cretaceous Chalk, are famous in the Champagne region for their role in creating wines of exceptional finesse.
Ruinart's crayeres are among the most remarkable, with their deep, pyramidal pits that were originally dug almost two thousand years ago for quarrying chalk. Ruinart was the pioneer in using these crayeres for wine storage in the late eighteenth century.
The crayeres extend for 8 kilometres beneath the Butte Saint-Nicaise. Our visit was an immersive experience, with an art exhibition titled "Retour aux sources." The exhibition was a sound-and-light show in the depths of the chalk cellars, bringing the region's history to life. These crayeres are unique to Champagne and offer a truly unforgettable experience.
To complement your journey, I recommend Ruinart Blanc des Blancs for your daily indulgence. It's intensely aromatic, fresh, and crafted from 100% Chardonnay. For those special moments, indulge in Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2010, made exclusively from Grand Cru chardonnays, and aged for at least nine years, representing the rich diversity of Champagne terroirs.
Founded in 1851 by the young Charles Heidsieck, this champagne house has a captivating history. Charles's travels to the United States earned him the endearing nickname "Champagne Charlie." During my visit to Charles Heidsieck, I had the privilege of being hosted by Elise Losfelt, the new Chef de Cave. Together with Ruinart's winemaker, Florence Boubee Legrand, they led a captivating class on Champagne winemaking and introduced us to the remarkable Charles Heidsieck range.
Elise's expertise and passion for Champagne were evident, and she presented the Charles Heidsieck range, which left us all in awe. I wholeheartedly recommend their Brut Reserve, an exquisite non-vintage champagne known for its complex and creamy flavours. For a truly special experience, savour Blanc des Millenaires, a blanc des blancs prestige cuvee aged for an exceptionally long time on its lees.
In this first part of our journey through Champagne's Grandes Marques houses, you've witnessed the fusion of history, art, and exquisite wines. Stay tuned for the next instalment as we continue our exploration of this captivating region.