My love affair with Champagne has spanned nearly 20 years. I first traveled to the region in 1996 as the inaugural Student winner of the Australian CIVC “Vin de Champagne Award”. My prize? 10 days exploring the Champagne region alongside a Professional and Non-Professional winner, each of whom were women 10+ years my senior. For two weeks, I ate, drank, listened, learned, scribbled and digested everything possible on all things Champagne, returning to Adelaide with notebooks crammed with notes and a mind stuffed with memories and a waistband irrevocably stretched.
While many memories were certainly fond, one of my top two favorite visits was to Champagne Charles Heidsieck. Founded in 1853 by entrepreneur Charles Camille Heidsieck, his namesake House is the smallest of the Grand Marques and one only five producers whose underground cellars include crayeres - chalk pits dug by slaves in the Roman times. The cavernous spaces were more than 30 meters deep, housing hundreds of thousands of bottles of champagne, and snaking their damp, dark way underneath kilometers of the Reims city center and beyond.
Venturing into these pits is still a 100+ step descent into the darkness, with hand carved stairs bearing the wear of teams of men, women and children who had taken the trek before me. The high humidity initially a refreshing respite from the 35+C tempeartres above, but a coldness that soon gets under your skin and chills your bones. Standing in these damp, dark pits, you could feel the silence of the chalk surrounds, and as your eyes adjust to the yellow light, you begin to decipher the gouge marks of the workers’ picks, many who must have died creating these majestic architectural marvels.
Throughout war times the pits were used as refuge, with some champenoise families calling them home as safety from the wars above. I was blown away by the silence, majesty and sheer scale of the pits. The stories they held, the history that had been survived and the lives that had lived below ground.
I returned to Charles in 2003 with a small group of fellow Australians to receive a “Dame Chevalier" medal for my services to the region, and again in 2014 with a larger group, also past winners, to celebrate 40 years of the uniquely Australian / CIVC Awards.
Returning last month I landed on Charles’ doorstep with my work colleagues, having signed a contract only a month earlier to be the official national importer for the House. I was excited to return and see how the House had changed over 19 year since my first visit, and the potential for great wine in the future…
The trip did not disappoint; so many familiar places and faces, it was like only months had passed. Our trip was only brief, but the memories of region remain as fresh today as they ever did.