Hautvillers: Rocking the Cradle of Champagne
Hautvillers, a beautiful French village founded in 658, overlooking the Marne and surrounded by vineyards, is called The Cradle of Champagne because it is here in the Abbey that Dom Perignon made the cloudy, effervescent regional wine of the time (we’re talking the mid-1600s) into something Louis XIV adored and something close to what we now know and covet as Champagne.
The Abbey itself is definitely worth a visit.
Go for the architecture – the inside of l’Abbaye de Hautvillers is spare and exquisite in its simplicity; for the relics – the best are the relics from Saint Helena, the mother of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine (time frame circa 247 to 328) and the person generally credited with discovering the remains of the True Cross; and to see the tomb of Dom Perignon, the Benedictine monk who was in charge of the Abbey’s wine cellars until his death.
Or go just to walk the cobbled streets of the town. When you look out from Hautvillers, you see the bountiful Champagne vineyards.
And when you look up, you see the whimsical house signs. There are 160 of them in the small village and almost all of them have something to do with Champagne.
While we were in Hautvillers, we were lucky enough to spend time with Catherine and Patrick Lopez, proprietors of Maison Lopez-Martin Champagne, a house that produces beautifully made Champagne in teensy-tiny quantities. (FYI: You can visit many of the Champagne produers by appointment. While some of the large houses have regularly scheduled tours during the busy tourist seasons, the majority of small houses are strictly by-appointment-only. Big or small, the best thing to do is to make arrangements ahead of time.)
As we walked through the Lopez-Martin cellars, we came to the riddling rack, the pulpit (as it’s called in French), where Champagne bottles, which have been topped with metal caps (the kind used on beer bottles), are inserted at a tilt, regularly turned and then gradually racked at ever steeper angles until whatever sediment was in the wine has lodged in the neck of the bottle.
In the days of Dom Perignon, bottles were pushed into sand piles so that the sediment could collect. It wasn’t until the 19 th century that the Veuve Clicquot invented the riddling table (a cruder version of today’s pulpit) and the process of turning and tilting the bottles became more efficient and less back-breaking.
I’d seen riddling stands before, but I’d never seen a pro riddle, so it was terrific to watch M. Lopez turn the bottles. He worked so quickly I had the feeling that if he ever decided to give up Champagne he could have a career in the circus doing sleight-of-hand tricks. Here’s a picture – I wish I had a video.
Actually, most riddling is done by machine these days. The bottles are packed in special crates and the crates are manipulated by crane-like machines controlled by computer. Hand riddling is done mostly in small Champagne houses or in the larger houses when they have special cuvees or Champagne in bottles that are not the standard size or shape. (For example, Veuve Clicquot’s Grande Dame must be riddled by hand.)
Once the sediment has collected in the top of the bottle, M. Lopez stores the bottles upside down until it’s time to disgorge them.
Just before the Champagne is corked, muzzled with wire and shipped, the neck of the bottle is frozen, the metal cap is popped and the plug of sediment shoots out, or disgorges. Then the wine is dosed, which means that a mixture of wine and sugar is added to the bottle, a process that both sweetens the Champagne and fills in the amount of liquid that went flying out with the sediment.
That morning, M. Lopez disgorged a bottle for us. (The plug and whatever liquid escaped went into this little white cage – very tidy.)
And then we drank it as is, sugar-free, or sans dosage. What a treat! You could really taste how good the wine was without the excitement of bubbles (Lopez-Martin is a premier cru Champagne made with equal parts chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes) and you could imagine how great it would have been had we had some oysters, which is what M. Lopez said he and his fellow champenois eat with this extra-brut brut Champagne.
And next time might be real soon. Now that there are several sleek, comfy TGVs (fast trains) zooming daily from Paris to nearby Reims (the trip is under an hour), sipping Champagne at the source is very doable.