Champagne: France’s Bottom’s Up Approach

Inside the atmospheric medieval cellars of Pannier House, an elite champagne maker in northern France.  
Photo by: Ray Massey/Getty Images
Photo by: Ray Massey/Getty Images

I check my smartphone for the time—11.40 a.m.—before my attention wheels back to the pressing matter at hand: drinking champagne. Six flutes of the finest white wine from Champagne Pannier, a prestigious house in the scenic Marne Valley of France, have been placed in a shapely cluster on a white tabletop. Standing on one side of that table, in an understated white-walled tasting corner in Pannier’s head office in Chateau-Thierry, Eve Masselaert, the brand’s guest relation manager, is setting the stage for the bubbly.

She tells my group of five travellers, all of us on a four-day visit to northern France, “This champagne is best had before breakfast… before you even eat anything.” Mildly surprised looks are exchanged. It is nearly time for brunch and I muse silently, “Champagne in the morning is my cup of tea indeed.”

The tasting is a coda to our 45-minute tour of Pannier House and its historic underground cellars, limestone quarries dating back to the 12th century that were built to facilitate local construction. In 1937, the son of Louise Eugene Pannier, to whom the Pannier line of champagne started in 1899 is originally credited, purchased these quarries and used them to store and age sparkling wine.

Pannier’s cellars hold around four million bottles in different stages of assembling and maturation. Photo courtesy: Northern France Tourism-HRB

Pannier’s cellars hold around four million bottles in different stages of assembling and maturation. Photo courtesy: Northern France Tourism-HRB

We had set out earlier in a minivan from the quaint tourist town of Chantilly to Chateau-Thierry, a community in the Champagne province, the drive more than agreeable with sun-kissed vineyards stretching on both sides of the road. Champagne (the wine-growing region in France spread over 34,000 hectares) is ground zero for sparkling wine producers, thanks to its high moisture-retaining terroir—a perfect storm of climate and topography necessary for a good yield. Houses of international repute (Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot among others) are based in the cities of Reims and Epernay, both less than an hour away from Chateau-Thierry.

Pannier, one of the suppliers to the French president’s residence—Élysée Palace, has built a niche reputation among connoisseurs, primarily because the house ages its cuvées (the technical term for a type of champagne blend) longer than big-named brands. I had expected Pannier house to be the epitome of ostentation, everything that champagne signifies, but my first impression of the reception area is that of a deliberately muted sophistication. White walls and white flooring, with an unfussy desk and an advertising standee in one corner—the place looked less like the gilded age, more like corporate minimalism.

Soon Masselaert arrives to take us through the cellars that lay beyond the main entrance in the lobby. Because the temperature in the caves is more champagne-friendly: 12°C, jackets have to stay on, she instructs. Wearing a black shawl, she leads the way. We fall behind her, first crossing a modest display area of bottles of Pannier in varying sizes, and then entering a labyrinthine underground passage.

The rock-walled cellars snake wildly, their jagged surfaces ravaged by time. Every few minutes we encounter racks of dark bottles, carrying wine of different varieties, neatly stacked next to each other. Pannier’s expansive cellars are spread over two kilometres but the tour only covers 300 metres of it.

Striding through the dimly lit caves, I reckon it could have served as an apt setting for a swashbuckling Indiana Jones-style adventure or a medieval drama full of intrigue. Real life has come close. “During WWI, the cellars provided refuge to French soldiers and local families from the German invasion,” says Laure Renaud, Pannier’s wine tourism and marketing manager, in an email exchange I have with her after my visit.

Chateau-Thierry’s vineyards are known for a high concentration of Pinot Meunier grapes. Photo Courtesy: Northern France Tourism-Vincent Colin

Chateau-Thierry’s vineyards are known for a high concentration of Pinot Meunier grapes. Photo Courtesy: Northern France Tourism-Vincent Colin

There is no drama in the process of creating champagne though, a drink that can propel the wildest, most hedonistic celebratory instincts in the best of us. Quite the opposite, it is a precise and serious art. Masselaert’s words at the tour’s start indicate as much. “There are three main conditions for the ageing and storage of champagne—humidity, darkness and temperature,” she says.

Controlling all three generates optimum conditions for the wines to blend. To those uninitiated in oenology, champagne-making can seem complex and long drawn. Our tour includes two different video presentations—one detailing the region’s history with champagne and the other breaking down the steps of making champagne. Broadly, the latter involves blending permutations of three wine varietals—Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. After the initial fermentation, a cuvée of different wines undergoes a second fermentation in a sealed bottle, with yeast and sugar added incrementally. This produces the crucial carbon dioxide needed for the bubbles.

Half-way through our visit, Masselaert acquaints us with jargon like “reserve wine”—high-quality wine that is stored for several years and used to blend with wines of younger vintage—and “riddling”—wherein the corked bottles are arranged upside down on A-frames (wooden racks shaped like the alphabet). The inverted bottles are rotated intermittently and aged for a minimum of three years.

The venue also hosts dinners and celebrations for special occasions. Photo courtesy: Northern France Tourism-HRB

The venue also hosts dinners and celebrations for special occasions. Photo courtesy: Northern France Tourism-HRB

Masselaert’s crash course in champagne production lasts around 30 minutes. At the tasting, she uncorks a white wine champagne from the brand’s prized brut selection. The first hit of the chardonnay packs in a sublime and elegant acidity.There are no performative “oohs” and “aahs” from the group; instead everyone appears to be taking a moment to fully grasp its aftertaste. Needless to say, the drink is top-notch. Masselaert then unveils a rosé with a more fruity, wholesome effect. The white is more to my taste; so after a sip or two of the pink, I reach for it again.

In her matter-of-fact mien, Masselaert offers a word to the wise, the next time any of us find ourselves in a room with champagne. “Watch where the bubbles come from,” she says. “If it’s from the bottom of the glass, it’s excellent champagne. If it’s not, then… it’s not good champagne.” And I, for one, am grateful to her for that “bubbly” truth.

Essentials

Visitors can take direct flights to Paris from Indian metro cities. Champagne Pannier’s cellars are located in Chateau-Thierry, which is about 96 km/75 min from Paris. A visit along with a tasting costs €12/Rs915. You can also taste two different champagnes (€18/Rs1,381) or three (€24/Rs1,841). The tours are conducted in French and English. At the end of it, visitors are free to make a purchase from their house selection.

  • Lakshmi Sankaran fantasizes about a bucket-list journey to witness the aurora borealis someday. Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India, she will also gladly follow a captivating tune to the end of this world.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?